A Box Full of Surprises

This was the box that was full of surprises.


All that it cost me was twenty dollars. For those twenty dollars, I received hours of fun and entertainment. So as far as I am concerned I obtained more than my money’s worth. All this was found in a box of pictures and documents at an estate sale. When I started looking through the box, the dealer informed me that that I would not find anything local since she brought the box up from Florida (I live in New York State) from the estate sales she did while living down there. The box contained well over a hundred pictures and documents, so I started to group items that had names in common. Eventually, I had four groups that drew my interest. After a little negotiation, the dealer and I settled on the price. Now all I had to do was to research the people staring at me from those photographs. I needed to see if I could find them a home to which they belong

John F Rollins


The above picture is of John F Rollins who was born in Springfield, N.H. in the year 1835. The Rollins family was easy to find as they have several family trees on ancestry.com. I did discover that John Rollins had moved to Florida by the time of the 1880 census where his occupation was listed as receiving U.S. money. That sounds like a job I would like. He was still in Florida for the 1900 census where his occupation is simply listed as a Capitalist. He must have moved back up to N.H. after 1900 because death records show that he died there. However, his time in Florida may explain how these pictures ended up there. I have five pictures from this family, John in the picture above, Gertrude Rollins, John H Rollins, Nora Rollins, and one which is written on the back as Great Grandmother Rollins. I received two quick responses to my inquiries regarding the pictures. One person only wanted digital copies but the second person wanted the photographs. I was pleased to send the photographs and not have to destroy them as I have a limited amount of room.


The family of Oscar A Rexer Sr.

The picture above is of the Rexer family. On the back of the picture is written Aunt Erma, Grandpa Rexer, Uncle Bill, Dad, Grandma Rexer, and Aunt Gertie. With a little research, I was able to put complete names to these people. They are left to right Erma Rexer, Oscar A Rexer Sr., William O Rexer, Oscar A Rexer Jr., Frieda Spiehs Rexer, and Gertrude M Rexer. I also have a picture of Oscar Rexer Jr. taken for his high school graduation and a picture of his wife to be Helene Nietmann. However, they also had many documents and such mixed in with the photographs. Someone had taken great care to keep these items together as a group as many were placed in Sheet protectors of the type that would be placed in a three-ring binder. Some of the items were a death certificate, a letter written in German, a map highlighting a city in Germany, and among other things, a statement of personal history filled out by Oscar Rexer Jr.

This is one of the many paper documents that I have for the Rexer Family.

From these papers, I was able to start putting some of the facts needed to research this family. Also, I was able to get some records from ancestry that was of great help. The Rexer family immigrated to America in December of 1910 from Germany. Oscar Rexer Jr. was about six years of age. They arrived at a difficult time since hostilities were soon to break out between Germany and the U.S. World War One broke out in Europe in 1914, and the American public became apprehensive toward people of German heritage. Then with Germany, increasing submarine warfare life for German immigrants became much harder. When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917 the lives of all German-Americans were to become very difficult. Most German-language publication ceased to exist; German music was no longer played, streets, buildings, and even some cities were renamed. German language instruction in schools was stopped. Many German immigrants and German-Americans were subject to mistreatment, and some were killed by mobs that got out of hand. Many were jailed without charges and released after a day or so. On an application that Oscar Rexer Jr. filled out is an interesting tidbit. To the question “Have you ever been arrested” Oscar gave the following answer. “May 1924 Port Arthur Texas. While on a weekend trip to Texas was picked up on suspicion, held overnight on open charge. Released without charges being preferred.” While this was after World War One it was during a period in our history of negative reaction against immigration, and also perhaps there were some ill feelings toward people of German heritage.

One of the many articles found by looking at online newspapers.

I also was able to make good use of digital newspapers on the internet. I found many news articles like the obituary shown above that allowed me to learn more about the family but also to locate living relatives that may be interested in having these items returned to the family. This was very useful since the Rexer family had very little in the way of family trees on ancestry. I was able to reach out with social media and by phone to well over six family members. Only one was to return my messages. However, she is currently living outside the country and said she would have me mail the papers and photographs to her when she comes back for a visit. She should be back in the country now per the dates she has given me, but so far I have not heard from her or anyone else from the Rexer family. I will keep these items for a little while longer.

J. Silver Hill

The happy smiling man shown above is a sad story. It is the only item I have for him, and his smiling picture was what drew me toward keeping it and seeing what I could learn. On the back of the picture was written J. Silver Hill, Nov.1905 Dixon, Calif. I did some checking on ancestry and soon found what I believed to be the right family. Also once again online newspapers proved to be very valuable in the search for Mr. Hill. I was to learn that his full name was Joseph Silver Hill and that his father was James Hill. However, it seems that everyone called Joseph by his father’s name of James and sometimes even put a Jr. after his name. This was a little confusing when I first started to do my research on Joseph. As you can read in the newspaper article below Mr. Hill committed suicide as he perceived that he had not won the love of his new wife.

One of the many news articles I found regarding the Hill family.

This took place in 1915 just ten years after the picture was taken. Mr. Hill was well off finically leaving his new bride $35,000 which would be in today’s value about $861,000. I was able to very quickly contact Susan, a relative of Mr. Hill who very much wanted the photograph. I had asked her about Lillian, the young bride and she was able to tell me some more of her story. This is what she wrote. “You inquired about Silver’s wife, Lillian. I did a bit of checking and found she did not remarry. She was a librarian prior to her marriage in 1914. She returned to her profession, wrote a number of children’s books, became “chief” of the California State Department of Education in the 1930’s & 40’s. She died in Los Angeles in 1973. She’s buried just south of San Francisco in Colma.” I was also able to find some of Lillian’s children’s books for sale online. I cannot guess as to the reason she did not remarry, but it seems she was able to carry on and have a full and very meaningful life. I find it very sad the Joseph Hill was not able to do the same.

The pictures below I believe are all from the same family. This last group proved to be too difficult for me to gather any information on. The people have the following names, Haynes, Sue, Kate, Jimmy and not shown in the pictures below Evelyn. Several pictures are stamped Florida, and I believe that is where they were taken.

On the back of this picture is written “Kate”

Some pictures of Kate, Sue, and Haynes.

On the back of this picture is written “Auntie Sue, Jimmie used your $5 on monthly payments on his scooter. This was taken Sunday August 19, 56.”

I will keep these photographs for a while in the slim hope that a family member may come across my blog and would want them. This was a pleasant diversion from working on my family lines and helps to keep my research skills sharp. Also, I think that this is something that all of us that work on genealogy should do. Just imagine if each of us did this just once a year the number of family heirlooms that could be returned. Besides, it is fun to do, and when it all works out; it gives you a nice feeling of accomplishment.




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55 Responses to A Box Full of Surprises

  1. dlpedit says:

    Charles, you’re a bona fide historian, never able to resist a possible story to track down, even if it doesn’t relate to your direct ancestral studies! (If you ever tire of history, I know you could create a lot of fictional tales based on photos like that!) Kudos for having that attitude and interest. The newspaper article that mention Pottersville reminds me of the Jimmy Stuart movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 🙂

  2. Peter Klopp says:

    While you consider your altruistic action on a collection of pictures a diversion from your own family research, the reward was that you made quite a few people happy with your discoveries. The last picture with the young man and his scooter reminded of the time when I bought a used moped with my pocket money in 1962 and rode it half across Germany.

    • chmjr2 says:

      This time the people I contacted all seem happy to get the pictures. When that happens it is a great feeling, and I get a sense of a job well done.

      • Barbara says:

        I was overjoyed to get the pictures and so was my daughter who see them and wants copies for her wall! I am amazed that you do what you do and track people down. I do help others on genealogy when I can and am always so happy when I find a “piece” for them. Doesn’t matter if it’s for me or someone else…I love finding things!

  3. I am like you. Things like this can actually make me cry. I have to find out who they belong to. I have put up a family trees of people I do not know, just to track down their relatives. If you check out my blog, currently I am trying to find the family of Reginald Brown. I have two wonderful pieces of writing(scans) he wrote as a child in the 1920s. I have no photos of my father as a child. I can’t help thinking that somewhere there are photos of him tucked away in somebody’s collection.

    • chmjr2 says:

      You and I are in the same boat as I have no pictures of my parents as children or young adults. Perhaps someday the will appear. Best of luck as you try to track down Reginald Brown’s family and all the others you will work on.

  4. Well done, Charles! There are so many of these discarded family photos & documents, and it is wonderful that you are attempting to unite them with their families.

  5. KerryCan says:

    This is such an interesting niche you’ve made for yourself, Charlie! I wish everyone you contacted was more appreciative of the work you’re doing–I’m sad when I hear that some families don’t seem to care much.

    • chmjr2 says:

      It looks like a happy ending for the first three groups, as they are all going to family. Now if only I can find the right family for that last group.

  6. loobiloo5 says:

    Ahh, I love what you’re doing and hope you can reunite the final batch of photos with an interested family member. I’m always surprised at the number of unclaimed photos being sold and resold, and it’s for people like us to discover who they are and not just see them as unnamed faces :). I find I’m doing this sort of research more and more myself… as you say, it provides a nice feeling of accomplishment!

    • chmjr2 says:

      I looked over your blog and I found it very interesting. You should tag your postings as “family history” so more people will see it. I thank you for your comments and the chance to read your blog.

  7. Amy says:

    I find it so admirable that you undertake these challenges and work so hard to find the family members. Bravo! And that story about J. Hill is just heartbreaking. His wife must have been guilt ridden for the rest of her life.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Yes the Hill story is a sad one. While his wife had what I would call a full life I am sure thoughts of what happen cheated her of much happiness.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I love when people go to the effort to get these treasures back to the people they are related to. There is such generosity often in the genealogical community, whether it is like your efforts or the volunteers who photograph graves for us. Thanks.

  9. Barbara says:

    Thank you so much Charles for the Rolllins pictures! That was such an unexpected surprise that not only made my day, but my daughter was so excited too. She doesn’t do genealogy but she collects and mounts old family pictures. It is wonderful that someone would take their time to track down the relatives of the pictures. That is a task in itself! Again, my sincere thanks!

  10. Pat Shaul says:

    I wish I would allow myself to take the time to do a project like this! It really looks to be a lot of fun.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Just try it a few times and I bet you will keep it up. It is fun to do and if you can get the items back to the right person it will give you a great feeling also.

  11. I can’t think of anything more fun than finding family for lost photo’s. What a wonderful post. I am going to forward/share this with my 15 year old granddaughter. I truly think these are the type of non fiction/true life stories kids/teens should be reading. Living history, as well as cultivating a caring and meaningful spirit out side of themselves! I too pick up photo’s with identification and try to find their people….love, love, loved this post!

  12. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Reblogged this on Our Ancestors and commented:
    I think reblogging this search for descendants is worth a try.

  13. Averyl says:

    Estate sale box lots are one of my favorite things!!! It is so much fun to spend hours looking through them, then looking things up, holding them up and enjoying all the new things you’ve learned from them.

  14. Hi. I just wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Your stories on your blog have touched me, and I wanted you to know that your writings do touch others. Keep blogging!

  15. Jenny says:

    Have thoroughly enjoyed just reading your stories. After scrolling through some of your recent posts, I feel I just may have to think how best to include family stories that have a NZ interest. Interesting you list two names, Dakin and Ladd, Both names appear in our NZ family history.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. I find it interesting the you have Ladd and Dakin in your family lines. These family lines were early settlers in America from England.

  16. Great work! It was fun reading about.
    My cynicism surfaces when I consider that the young bride may have married for money and drove her husband to his death, or may have even been responsible for it.
    I’ve only had the opportunity to do research with digital pictures of ancestors in my tree, hoping to share them with descendants. The sleuthing was fun but the response was less than I had hoped for. Interestingly, what has been more rewarding is sharing historic pictures of buildings and parks with organizations…an old school building, a postcard of an old train station, a store that many remember fondly and has a “following”. I had an uncle who worked for the Conservation Corps and the local government in that state was very happy to get them. Less satisfying was a call I made about 20 or so pictures of a dam being built, but the state employee didn’t want them because I didn’t know which dam it was – it wouldn’t have taken very long for him to figure it out, but you can’t make people care. Responses are varied, but one happy reaction keeps it fun.

    • chmjr2 says:

      We can only look in on the story of Mr. and Mrs. Hill from a very long distance. I have in my mind thought about many different story lines. I also agree the sleuthing is fun and that alone for me is enough. However the response is at times very disappointing. But as you said “you can’t make people care,” just don’t let that ruin your fun.

  17. Luanne says:

    Charles, thanks so much for doing this for people. I knew of a John Rollins in Kalamazoo, Michigan, years ago. He owned an independent and amazing bookstore by the same name. Do you think it’s a very common name?

    • Barbara says:

      Rollins is very common here In NH.

      • Luanne says:

        So I expect “John Rollins” is, too ;).

      • Barbara says:

        Yes, many are John, William and Thomas. My mother is a Rollins so I have gathered lots of info on them here. But sadly, I am at a loss on one of the ones I want the most to find info on.

      • Luanne says:

        It is so hard when there are many with the same names. I am finding that now that I am searching for my husband’s Jewish Russian ancestors–same names over and over. My Dutch ones use the same names, but there aren’t the same quantity of people with the same names.

  18. Michael says:

    I agree! A very worthwhile investment. I love that people like you identify descendants of these lost photographs and help retell their stories. Important work!

  19. Omaeagle says:

    Awesome, Love it – from a kindred spirit 🙂

  20. Great job! The tourist picture of the people posing on the walls is definitely in St. Augustine Florida at Castillo de San Marcos. https://www.visitstaugustine.com/thing-to-do/castillo-de-san-marcos Of course that doesn’t help pinpoint it. I have some ancestors who had their picture taken in Florida during jaunts in the early 1900s. They came from New York and Ohio, so finding their picture marked Florida wouldn’t shed any light on who they are.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. I have not been able to come close to finding out who these people are. I still have to hope that someone will see my blog and have the information I need.

  21. Very interesting! I can’t imagine a family choosing not to keep those pictures. Great research! Thanks Charles!

    • chmjr2 says:

      I find that many people will toss old pictures without a second thought. I have in the past found photographs and researched and found family only to be told they have no interest and to throw them away. However it is all worth it when people not only want what you have found but are very thankful.

  22. higginsmj says:

    Certainly a wonderful box full of surprises! You’ve done a marvellous job of tracking down the stories and the families belonging to the artefacts! I can understand your feeling of accomplishment! Well done!

  23. atreeclimber says:

    What a wonderful find! I have a similar box here but unfortunately, though they all belong to the same family, I have no idea who the people in the photos are. Good luck in finding the families x

  24. karenlee says:

    What a fabulous idea to post this here in hopes of finding family. This is such a great service, if you will, since many people would never know otherwise. We are blessed here with piles and tubs and albums full of information and it is overwhelming, but I would never dream of throwing out photos of people I can’t identify. I hope your efforts won’t go unnoticed by those who would benefit. Great post!

  25. zekesway says:

    Very cool! You do a good thing. I have no photos from my dad’s side of the family. I wish someone like you would find a box of my family in an attic. 🙂

  26. Karma says:

    This is so incredibly cool of you to do this. What a priceless gift you’re giving people!

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