From Havana to Pownal, a Mystery.

by Brandi McElhatten


January in Cleveland, with its frigid weather, snow crunching underneath each step, conjures up thoughts of warmer weather, past memories of vacations and yearning for distant shores. The seemingly endless, cold days make most people who live here tired. They made me tired. This is the month that found me thinking about and revisiting some photos I had bought on a trip to California. They had been sitting on the bookshelf in my craft room for months.


When I visited California with my husband for the first time as an adult this past summer. I thought I was going to hate it, for a myriad of reasons. Instead, I fell in love with it. Venice Beach and its strange houses and murals inspired me. It’s vibrant and active streets, the warm sun . . . I thought for sure everyone I would meet would be standoffish, and in place of that quick judgment. I found everyone I met was so incredibly kind and welcoming. I was able to gaze upon the Pacific Ocean. I hadn’t seen it since I was little, having been born in Hawaii, but raised in Ohio. I saw sea snails on Venice Beach and even touched an anemone in one of the shallow tide pools.


After Venice Beach, we went up to San Diego to stay with friends there. They took us to Kobey’s Swap Meet to introduce it in all its wonderful, authentic, dusty, and strange glory. This was the swap meet I had yearned for in my own hometown. Kobey’s was started in the late 70’s by Monte Kobey. Vendors come from all over – some are antique dealers, some are clothing retailers selling off overstock, many come in from Mexico selling out of the back of pick-up trucks. You can get everything from random kitchen supplies, trinkets, collectibles, to some seriously amazing, vintage pieces. This is where I found the photos, in sunny San Diego, 2014.

I was looking for skeleton keys – – by now a lot of vendors who deal in vintage goods know that people who make a certain type of jewelry covet skeleton keys, so they are in high demand and usually overpriced. I know a lot of times to find good pieces you have to employ a good eye and an attention to detail. I was doing a terrible job. A lot of times I lack patience to actually keep looking for things. My friend Corinne found two for me, in a box I had already rifled through. I moved on through the market, picking up a few things I really loved. We were wrapping up our visit and I spotted a table of random odds and ends and I headed over to look for old jeweler’s tools. The vendor had pretty much just pulled his van up and dumped everything out on some folding tables. I guess sometimes that’s the best way? I saw lots of tools, but none I needed.


I came upon a box of old photos. I love looking at old photographs. I started rummaging through this old, dusty cardboard box. There was no order; they were  all randomly piled in. I pulled out an album – the really old kind with where the photos are attached to black construction paper pages and held together by rope or ribbon. It was surprisingly in good condition – – – I started paging through the album. A family’s vacation photos from the early 1900’s. Seriously old photos. The one postcard mixed in had a postmark of 1904. I grabbed a few more loose photos and began looking through them – dazzled by them. I asked the seller how much and the original price was too much. I continued to look at them and this one particular photo, of a silhouette of a woman in Cuba, I was in love with it, I felt like she was looking at me. I could almost imagine the sounds from the moment the photo was taken. I think I stood there so long, the seller finally lowered the price for me and I walked away with the photos. My friend Corinne remarked as I giddily showed her my find – “so you are going to buy someone else’s photos?” All I could say was “I am going to take care of them and keep them safe. It’s someone’s memories – better than being in a dusty old box.” I had no further plan for them then that at that moment. I tucked them away in my luggage and back to Ohio with me they went.

I can see how some people would probably think it is very odd that people collect other people’s old photos. For me, as someone who doesn’t have any extended family to speak of, (I can count my immediate family on both hands and my dad was adopted) . . .let alone any old family photos – -it seemed like a horribly sad thing to have someone’s amazing family history, these stories, just sitting in a box where the dealer clearly did not give a shit about them.

I walked away with so many lovely treasures from the swap meet, these photos being my most treasured.

So you can get what I am talking about . .

This family went on a trip to South America sometime early in the 1900’s. This post card was mailed in 1904 to New Mexico from Pownal, VT.


The photos have sat on the top shelf of my bookcase for a number of months. I kept coming back to them, unsure what exactly I was doing with them. Until one day in March, it dawned on me what I wanted to do with them – – maybe it was because I had just finished listening to Serial, or maybe it was because I read too many Nancy Drew novels when I was younger, whatever it was – I decided that I really wanted to see if I could figure out who the photos belonged to. That brings us to today. If you really want to know – – these photos are the catalyst that caused me to start this blog. But, more on that later.

Over the next few installments, I want to take you with me on a journey to getting these photos to where they need to go. Have any tips or suggestions? Let me hear them!

Next time . . .Calling Pownal

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