In Corsicana, long-lost photos become a show about small-town Texas – and a mystery to be solved

More than 2000 unclaimed photos and negatives were found that covered the ’40s through the early ’60s. They provide a personal, ground-level view of Texas life – pre-disco, pre-cellphones, pre-cable TV.

By Jerome Weeks, KERA NewsNovember 3, 2023 10:00 am, ,

From KERA News:

Imagine discovering an old photo album you’ve never seen before. What would you learn? Who would you even recognize?

Now imagine an entire town making such a discovery.

Thousands of personal photos and negatives were found in 2019 in Corsicana. The photos had been shot, developed — and never claimed. They sat in boxes, unopened for more than half a century.

Chuck Miller manages the CTWP Copy Center, an office supply store in downtown Corsicana. Four years ago, Miller’s company bought the two-story brick building, and he went up to the second floor to clear it out.

The building opened in 1914, and the second floor is essentially an old, dark, wood-beamed, wood-floored warehouse — with shiplap walls and no elevator. Aside from all the stuff crammed into it, it had not changed much since World War I.

“It was basically filled to the rafters,” Miller said. “The two previous owners didn’t throw anything away. It was all old inventory. Old paper, old pens.”

Excavating all of that, Miller and his crew even had to carry out a full-size, laminate credenza — from 1971. Still in its case.

“It was just crazy.”

Chuck Miller, manager of CTWP Copy Center, talks about discovering the forgotten cache of old photos and negatives upstairs in the office supply store in Corsicana.
Jerome Weeks / KERA News

Amid all this, Miller uncovered two boxes with some 400 envelopes full of prints and negatives. These were old school photos: You’d snap the pictures and then, to have them developed, you’d drop off the negatives at a drugstore. Or an office supply store.

“And as I’m flipping through this,” Miller said, “I’m going, ‘These are people’s lives. These are people’s memories. These are important.'”

The photos span 1948 to 1966. The first miracle is that they’d never been picked up and they’d never been thrown out. Miller said standard practice for film processing holds that after three weeks, unclaimed photos get tossed.

The second miracle: The photos spent more than half-a-century in an un-insulated, un-heated, un-air-conditioned attic — in Texas. Yet they’re mostly undamaged. The negatives haven’t disintegrated, the prints haven’t faded or browned-out.

“We opened them up,” Michael Thomas said of the envelopes, and the photos “are falling out with rotted rubber bands and all kinds of debris.”

Thomas is editor and publisher of 1814 Magazine. It’s a Dallas publication specializing in photography (1814 is the year the first photograph was made).

When faced with what to do with all this history, Chuck Miller contacted the Corsicana Artist and Writer Residency. It’s a nearby non-profit that provides work spaces and support for artists. He was put in touch with Thomas, who’d been a resident there and who has extensive experience with photography.

Thomas was asked to look through the accidental archive, organize it, see what could be done with it.

“I opened the first envelope,” Thomas said, “and I remember clearly the image that came out is a family standing in front of a ‘Welcome to Arizona’ sign.”

It was a Corsicana family on vacation – in 1961.

Three unidentified Black workers cross the tracks near the railroad depot in Corsicana, 1951. Rodney Gappelberg’s father ran a rag and wastepaper business across the street. DUST, no. 83.
Michael Thomas / Full Frame Foundation

Having sorted through all 2,526 images, Thomas said, the America in these pictures — the way we Americans saw ourselves through a camera lens back then — was different. The technology was slower, and celebrity culture hadn’t conquered everything. There are no TikTok challenges here, no glamor selfies, no photoshopped memes.

“It’s not about being insta-famous,” Thomas said. “It’s really a celebration of hard work, the dignity of achieving goals. These are all their most proud moments. This is post-war America. It’s people getting their first cars. There are a lot of cars. It’s people working and achieving their goals. It’s a fanfare for the common man. And woman, for sure.”

But it’s not all nostalgic and homespun-simple. Corsicana was deeply segregated.

“Segregation was everywhere in America at the time,” Thomas said. “It was no different in Corsicana or in Texas. It was a fact of life.”

But because it was such an accepted fact, “you have to pick up on clues,” he said. “For example, it’s rare in the photos that we ever see blacks and whites together.”

The Jackson Bears — Corsicana’s Black high school football team — was a powerhouse in Texas throughout the ’50s. When they won the state championship (three times that decade), there was a parade down Main Street.

In those photos, Thomas said, there isn’t a white face in the crowds.

Thomas and his associate, author-photographer Allison V. Smith, have worked to identify anyone they can in the photos. Rheann Ivie’s grandfather was one of the few. Wesley Green was a shoe cobbler who eventually owned a popular western wear store. There’s a statue of him on Main Street.

An unidentified young woman stands on an early ’50s Studebaker Champion. In the thousands of photos found in Corsicana, “there are a lot of cars,” said Michael Thomas, who curated the photos. This is DUST, no. 223, ‘Mahoney,’ 1953.
Full Frame Foundation

Ivie said that in one photo from around 1958, it’s inside her father’s store. There’s her mother, around ten years old at the time, and two well-dressed, official-looking men. They’re presenting Green with some award or recognition.

“Hard work is revered in my family,” Ivie said. “I think the photo speaks volumes that my grandfather didn’t even stop to take his apron off.”

Another person who was relatively easy to locate was Dallas attorney Rodney Gappelberg, 69. When Miller saw the name “Gappelberg” on the envelope, he recognized the family name of Gus Gappelberg, who was Corsicana’s mayor — its first Jewish mayor — in the early 1990s.

Rodney, the mayor’s son (Gus died in 2003), said that learning about the photo “was surprising, I’ll put it that way. It was unclaimed, so I’m not sure of its provenance.”

The photo is something of an amusing puzzle. Young Rodney — he thinks he may be seven years old in the photo — is wearing a paper crown and smiling. Meanwhile, another young figure who’s wearing a paper bag and a plastic, bearded mask, is holding a cardboard knife to Gappelberg’s throat.

Gappelberg does not remember the occasion but said it might either be a costume birthday party or, more likely, a Purim celebration. During the Jewish holiday, the Book of Esther is often re-enacted, with its tale of the Jews escaping the annihilation planned by a Persian king’s evil minister.

A smiling Rodney Gappelberg (left) being threatened with a cardboard knife by a mysterious, masked assailant — possibly during a Purim celebration. The Jewish holiday typically features a re-enactment of a Biblical tale in which the Jewish people are saved from annihilation. DUST, no. 215
Full Frame Foundation

Identifying Green and Gappelberg was easy compared with the task facing Thomas and Smith with the great majority of people who appear in the photos. Typically, they’ve had only two clues to follow: The photos may have the year printed on them, and the majority of envelopes also have a family name listed, Johnson or Mahoney. And that’s all.

So Smith and Thomas have turned to other avenues of research.

“Allison,” Thomas said, “is a big believer in as a resource tool — and she’s made me a believer as well.”

They’ve been using it to trace the hundreds of possible living relatives.

Currently, Thomas said, the photos and negatives reside in a climate-controlled storage unit. And he has hopes of creating a coffee-table book with them.

More immediately, there is the exhibition, called “Dust,” which opens Friday in a former warehouse in downtown Corsicana. “Dust” will display some 400 of the re-discovered images. That may seem like a large number for a typical gallery show, but most of these prints are from old box cameras.

Each one is just 4 inches square. They’re little bits of time — little, fleeting bits that, together, form an epic mosaic of Corsicana.

As we once saw it.

“Dust,” presented by 1814 Magazine, at 200 4th Avenue, Corsicana, runs Nov. 3-19.

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