Photo Detective: Searching for a Mother
9/27/2009

A while ago, Kelly Foster wrote with a very personal request. Her 96-year-old grandfather wanted to know if a particular photograph was of his mother. He never knew her; she died when he was a baby. Now Kelly says her family is "consumed" with trying to find a picture of her great-grandmother before her grandfather dies.

Genealogy is about solving family mysteries of all types. Sometimes a single photograph can be the missing link. When Kelly read earlier columns, she wondered if there were enough clues in this picture to determine whether this young woman was her great-grandmother.

Kelly's grandfather doesn't know anything about his mother. After her death, no one talked about her. In fact, no one had even described her to him. Her grandfather had occasional contact with his mother's half-brother, who supposedly had pictures of her. Recently, the man's widow contacted Kelly's family and gave them a photograph she had just found. She didn't know who it was, but since it was in with her husband's family photographs she thought it might be important. The family was ecstatic—perhaps now they could show their grandfather a picture of his mother.

In this basic portrait of a mother and child are very few clues to help with the identification. Embossed in the lower right hand corner of the picture is the photographer's imprint: Anson Trail of McMinnville, Tennessee. McMinnville is in Warren County, between Nashville and Chattanooga. According to The Cambridge Gazetteer of the United States and Canada: A Dictionary of Places edited by Archie Hobson (Cambridge University Press), there was a photography school in the town from 1906 to 1929 called the Lively School of Photography. The Magness Memorial Library (118 W. Main St., McMinnville TN 37110, 931-473-2428) has a local history collection. One of the librarians found a listing for an Anson Trail in the 1910 US census. At that time, he was 31 years old and a merchant. This verifies that Anson Trail lived in McMinnville in 1910, but there are no city directories for the town from that time period to help establish when he was in business.

Generally, clothing clues provide additional evidence, and in this photograph that is also true. The baby's clothing is typical for a boy or girl who is either crawling or walking. Younger babies wore long dresses, while babies in motion wore shorter dresses to encourage movement. The mother wears a simple dark colored dress with wide white collar and matching cuffs. The presence of a flat broad collar and cuffs suggests the photograph was taken circa 1920.

Kelly's great-grandmother, Clarria Scott, had several children with William Wimberly before she died in 1908 at 26: Clyde (1898), Bell (1900), Grace (1903) and Kelly's grandfather born in 1906. Clarria was the second of William's three wives. Altogether, he had 10 children with these three women. The last living child is Kelly's grandfather.

Since Clarria died before the date of the dress in this picture and according to the family is not an image of her grandfather's stepmother, this photograph is still unidentified. I checked and double-checked costume encyclopedias looking for evidence that this woman was Clarria Scott, but clothing styles before 1910 looked very different (high collars and full bodices).

If anyone knows of a picture of Clarria Scott, please contact me at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com. It would be a wonderful conclusion to a lifelong search for one man's mother.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com.