In 1983 a rather non-descript black photo album was donated to the Marion County Historical Society. Only a third of the pages were filled with small photographs, 2 x 3 inches in size, rather haphazardly placed. None were labeled. The album appears to chronicle a portion of the life of a dark-haired, dark-eyed young lady at the cusp of World War I. Photos document a stop at Waconda on the Oregon Electric Railway line, a visit to Mt. Hood Ice Cream with a friend, trips to the Portland area, Seaside, and the Columbia River Gorge. Joyful photographs of this young lady with what I assume are family and friends. And somber shots of soldiers dressed for war including an ominous photograph of a memorial wall listing the names of soldiers that did not return from the battlefront.
Slipped inside the album’s pages were a few notes, possibly from the donor, who perhaps recognized a few of the background scenes and buildings. I was intrigued. Nothing tugs at a researcher’s heart strings more than poignant photographs without labels. Were there enough clues and familial resemblances to perhaps identify her?
Based on clothing and events referenced in the photographs I estimated my research years at 1915-1920, casting a slightly broader net than the war years themselves. I began with the most promising clue, “Fletcher House, 4th and Hood, Salem”. By cross-referencing city directories for those years with a map of Salem I discovered four distinct Fletcher families living in the city, three of which had addresses on 4th street, north of downtown. Belle Fletcher, widow of Simon was listed first, then married couples Henry and Zella, and finally Lewis and Katie Fletcher. After pinpointing the locations on the map, it became clear that the note from the album was correct. The residence of Belle Fletcher at 1415 N. 4th Street lies at the corner of 4th and Hood. And a quick visit to the Marion County Assessor’s website verified that the home is still standing, though its profile and square footage have changed since it was built.
On the possibility that these Fletcher families are connected and could be in the photo album I decided to do a little further digging using historic newspapers online, genealogy data sites, and other online reference tools. An obituary for Silas, Belle’s deceased husband turns out to be a gold mine of information. Silas Fletcher is a descendant of Samuel Metcalf Fletcher who immigrated to Oregon in 1864 along with his brother Benjamin Franklin Fletcher. The Fletcher families listed in the city directories trace their lineage back to these two pioneers. Upon arriving in Marion County, Samuel Fletcher took up the land donation of Alfred Stanton near Middle Grove, four miles northeast of Salem. Benjamin Fletcher settled on Howell Prairie near Silverton.
In 1902, according to Silas’ obituary, he retired from the family farm and dairy interests to take up residence at 1415 N. 4th St. in Salem, opening a grocery at 1406 N. Liberty. He died March 3, 1913 leaving behind his second-wife Belle, step-daughter Eunice age 22 and a student at Willamette University, as well as two school age children, Rita age 16 and Silas, age 12. My heart skipped a beat at the name and age of his second daughter. Could this be the dark-haired, dark-eyed young lady, the subject of the photo album?
Let’s delve a little deeper into Rita’s story and look for commonalities with the photo album. She graduated from Salem High School in 1916 and went on to attend Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis. It was here that she met her future husband Gurnsey Harlan Abbott, a farmer’s son from Parma, Idaho. Gurnsey’s college days were interrupted by service in World War I. After his safe return and their graduation, the couple married on August 15, 1920 in a small, simple ceremony performed in the backyard of her mother’s home in Salem. According to a wedding announcement in the local paper, the newlyweds left immediately for Parma, to make their home on the bridegroom’s farm. The couple would go on to have 8 children, two daughters and four sons.
Rita Fletcher and Gurnsey Abbott, a photo comparison. WHC 83.8.2, OSU digital yearbook collection, and FamilySearch images (shared with permission)
Time to compare photographs. Utilizing Rita’s yearbook photos from Salem High School and Oregon Agricultural College as well as those shared by her family on Family Search, I began a comparison with those in the photo album. While the young lady and Rita share a familial resemblance it quickly becomes clear that they are not one and the same. I also compared photographs of Gurnsey with the soldiers in the album, again, not a match. However, there are two photographs in the album that do bear a striking resemblance to our married couple Rita and Gurnsey and in one they are standing with our dark-haired, dark-eyed young lady.
Very interesting. Out of the eight children the couple would have, only two were female and their oldest daughter would not be born in Parma until 1924. The dates don’t match with our working theory of 1915-1920, another strike to our working hypothesis that the dark-haired young lady is Rita. Could our mystery girl be a niece or cousin from the Fletcher side? Clearly this photo album deserves further examination and research. And perhaps a bit of luck if one of our readers recognizes her.
Click here to view the album in its entirety.
This article was written by Kaylyn F. Mabey for the Statesman Journal where it was published Sunday, March 17, 2019.