Lost in time: Stories behind some of The Star’s weekly Time Travels photos
by Lisa Davis
Jun 08, 2013 | 1759 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This photo ran in the Anniston Star in 2004 and was identified as Eva Mae Tolbert by Dee Bass, who remembered that Tolbert loved to talk — so much so that, one time, a boy stuck a firecracker in her ear and lit it because she wouldn’t stop talking. Photo: Courtesy of the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County
This photo ran in the Anniston Star in 2004 and was identified as Eva Mae Tolbert by Dee Bass, who remembered that Tolbert loved to talk — so much so that, one time, a boy stuck a firecracker in her ear and lit it because she wouldn’t stop talking. Photo: Courtesy of the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County
They are faces from the past, captured and frozen by a photographer’s lens. A boy wearing a clown suit, posing for a portrait. A bride holding a bouquet from the garden, reclining on a couch on her wedding day. A shirtless man, showing off a tattoo of a sailing ship.

There are thousands of such faces in the historic photo archives of the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County — but most of the names have been lost to time.

The archives include the collections of the Russell Brothers, the first commercial photographers in Anniston, who worked from 1880 until the 1940s, as well as Mayor Exum D. Banks, who in the late 1940s hired a photographer to document city life.

“If there was anything going on in town — a parade, a store opening, a swimming pool opening — he had it photographed,” said Tom Mullins of the library’s Alabama Room.

These photographs and more have been digitized and can be viewed online at the library’s website. But many of them remain unidentified.

Back in the early 1990s, Mullins said, somebody had the idea to run photos in The Anniston Star, to see if the public could help with identification. And so every Sunday, on page 2 of the Life & Arts section, you’ll find a black-and-white photo from the library archives, ID unknown.

The phone calls, when they come, start on Sunday morning, Mullins said. One Sunday, he walked into church only to be collared by a fellow church member, who said, “Hey, you put my picture in the paper!”

That was Marshall Brown, and he was one of four men in uniform in a photo taken decades ago at Fort McClellan. Brown identified the other three men in the photo, and the library updated its records.

The man at the mic

More often, it is descendants who call with identifications. In a photo taken at Zinn Park in the 1940s-50s, four boys are lined up alongside a man at a microphone.

The man was recognized by his son — it was Lester Paul Jackson, better known at “Prof.” Jackson, who started the band at Anniston High School in 1936. He would go on to teach band and choir at AHS for 37 years. He also started bands in Heflin and Lineville.

Prof. Jackson died in 1977. His son, Robert L. Jackson, still lives in Anniston.

“When I was young, I would ride on the bus with them,” Robert Jackson remembered recently. “The band traveled all over. They had a big band at that time — had three buses. And there was a bulldog that marched with the band.”

Jackson remembered one trip in particular, to Dothan. “Some of the boys got a little rambunctious at night after the game, and started throwing balloons out of the hotel window,” he said. “They got kicked out of Dothan.”

Jackson has no idea what his father was doing at Zinn Park in that photograph. “It’s too long ago for me to remember.”

The bluegrass strangers

Other musicians have been harder to identify. A few years back, The Star ran a photograph from 1954-56 of four skinny, good-looking men making music — one on steel guitar, one on fiddle, one on guitar and one on string bass.

Ruth Miller was the first to call in and identify the band members. She said the man on steel guitar was her father, Charles Denson “Dent” Messer. The fiddler was Louis P. Flick, the guitarist was Junior Ingram and the bassist was Ralph Meeker.

But then Frances Gravitt called in with a slightly different view of things. Yes, that was Dent Messer on the steel guitar and Ralph Meeker on the bass. But Robert Tarwater was the one on the guitar. Librarian Tom Mullins tried to settle the question when he bumped into Tarwater’s daughter one day. He gave her the photo to show to her father. “He didn’t even know if that was him.”

And the fiddler, according to Gravitt? That was her daddy, Ross “Buddy” Chandler, who passed away in 1977.

“He played mandolin and fiddle — anything he picked up, he could play. He was talented that way,” Gravitt remembered recently.

The band was called The Dixie Boys, she said, and they played for the soldiers out at the club at Fort McClellan, down at Oxford Lake, at the VFW dances in Heflin — “anywhere they could get a gig.” Once, she said, they backed up Country Music Hall of Famer Tex Ritter when he came to town to play at McClellan.

Her father and Junior Ingram used to do most of the singing, Gravitt thinks, “to the best of my knowledge.”

Her father spent his days working at a cotton mill in Anniston. “I was a teenager back then, and I didn’t care anything about bluegrass music.”

“We would go to sleep, sometimes there would be 15-20 people in the house, playing music. Us kids would go to bed because we’d have to get up to go to school the next morning. They’d be sitting in there playing music.

“I went to sleep to bluegrass music many a night in my life. I just wish I could hear them again.”

The mysterious models

There is a similar dispute over a photograph taken around 1951, in which four women appear to be modeling for some event. One holds a tennis racket. Two are wearing swimsuits.

As Mullins tells the story, the first person to call in was Vesta Martin, who said that the woman with the tennis racket was his wife, Martus Elizabeth Grant. He had shown her the photograph, and she had said that yes, that was her. She couldn’t remember the other three ladies, although the lady in the dark swimsuit holding the purse might have been named McCall.

But then, Mullins said, another call came in, this one from Betty Shaddix, who said that she was the woman with the tennis racket.

In situations like that, “all we can do is take down both names, and hope somebody else will call in the future,” Mullins said.

If you have old family photos stashed away, Mullins’ advice is to make sure they’re identified now, before memory fades any further.

“When we help people with genealogical research and they have photos, a lot of times they don’t know who’s in the photos.

“When you have photos, hope that they’re identified. If not, we tell people to find the older members of their families and interview them.” Ask them, “Who are those people in the photograph?”

The little girl

The girl in this portrait, taken in 1940-41, was identified as Mozelle Chatman of Hobson City. She was recognized by her daughter, Tia Ford, when the photo appeared in the paper on Oct. 7, 2012 — the anniversary of her mother’s burial. Ford was 15 years old when her mother passed away in 1996. “I’ve gotten into arguments with family members who say, ‘How do you know that’s your mother?’ But people’s eyes and face don’t change. And the picture favored my little boy a bit,” Ford said recently. Her mother would have been the right age when the photo was taken, and her grandmother absolutely doted on her little girl. “She took photos of her all the time.”

Contact Lisa Davis at ldavis@annistonstar.com .

Identifying historic photos

There are many, many photos left to be identified in the historic collections at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County — baby portraits, family portraits, wedding portraits, graduation portraits. There are photographs of costumed players in long-ago theatrical productions, and members of the Anniston Rams semi-pro baseball team.

To browse the thousands of photos online — be prepared to waste at least an afternoon — go to the library’s website, anniston.lib.al.us, click on “Library Catalog,” then search within “Digital Photos.” There is also a video tutorial available called “Searching Digital Photos.”

If you see someone you know, contact the Alabama Room, 256-237-8501 or P.O Box 308, Anniston AL 36202.

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