Welcome to THE COMMONS — News and Views from Windham County, Vermont

BRATTLEBORO—It all started with a post in the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group by Greenfield, Mass. resident Erin Bohannon, who attached scans of portraits of locals and said she was looking to return them to families.

If you’ve lived in the area for a bit, the names in the 5{x}7 black and white photographs will be familiar to you: Barb Covey, Marion Gassett, Tucky Houghton, Stuart Anderson, Eugene Lane and many more.

Bohannon didn’t ask for money and she was willing to pay postage to return the photos to her family members.

Those who responded to the message were skeptical. What was the catch, they asked.

There were none.

“It happens all the time,” Bohannon says. “Even the people at the post office wondered why I was always there with envelopes to send all over the country.”

The value of a family photo

Bohannon, a permanent resident of Massachusetts, hasn’t had an easy life.

“I grew up with a single mother who had three children. Money was tight. We had no phone, no pictures from school,” she says. “My father left when I had 4 years, and he left without giving my mother any money.They divorced shortly after.

One of six children, one of whom died in infancy, Bohannon’s mother also grew up very poor and was one of six children born to her grandmother. Bohannon says her grandparents abused her mother.

“My mother got pregnant at 17 with my older sister, left her family and rarely came back,” Bohannon recalls. “His sister – my aunt – left the family in 1953 and my mother left in 1965. His brother Roger was placed at Wrentham State School, a school for the mentally handicapped.”

“After my mother left, there were three children left who were taken away by social services, and my mother never saw them again,” she continues. “My grandfather was told he couldn’t live in the house anymore.”

Her mother didn’t communicate much with her own family, but Bohannon remembers visiting her grandparents a few times during her childhood.

And then, in 2013, Bohannon’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“Mom grew up all those years, never knowing what happened to her siblings,” she says. “I wanted to find her family members for her before she died. It was all I could think of to do for her to bring him some comfort.

Bohannon began scouring the internet, trying to find information about her mother’s family.

“Before mum went to the hospital, I found out her mum and dad – my grandparents – had died,” she says. “We went for a little excursion and found his father’s grave. We did not know where his mother was buried.

Eventually, Bohannon discovered that her grandmother had been cremated and buried with her parents.

“It brought him some comfort,” she says.

Her mother got sicker and sicker and eventually went to the hospital. Bohannon continued to search the internet. His skills were becoming more advanced.

Just before his mother’s death, Bohannon found his uncle Roger, thanks to a newspaper article. Eventually, this lead allowed him and his family to find him.

“A few minutes after confirming that I had found his brother Roger, the house sent me a current photo of him. I showed it to my mom, and she was so happy she was screaming with her eyes,” Bohannon said. She describes this photo as “a last gift”.

“She died a few days later and never heard her brother’s voice,” she said.

‘in hone of the photos that I will never see’

Bohannon’s mother had always told her daughter that there was a large cedar chest that had belonged to her great-grandmother. It was full of family photos and a diamond wedding ring. Bohannon tried to locate the chest and discovered that it was long gone.

“I always wished I could look at these photos and learn more about my own family history,” she said.

About four years ago, Bohannon began finding old photos and reuniting them with their families, a hobby – or perhaps a calling – that she pursues as Erin’s Cedar Chest, “in the honor of the photos that I will never see”.

“I’ll probably never find my own family photos, so I spend my free time providing them to others,” she says. “I can’t tell you the joy it brings.”

“I hear so many interesting family stories!” she says. “It’s my reward.”

Bohannon received negatives that people find; she scans glass plates of 1800s photos and entire photo albums, all of which she publishes on her site.

To date, she has collected approximately 700 photos, wedding and christening announcements, and artifacts from her family members.

Fifty photos for $5

The Brattleboro photos, she says, are from a real estate auction at BK Auctions on Old Ferry Road.

The photos bear inscriptions addressed to “Bob”, believed to be Robert “Bob” Bolster of Dummerston, who for many years was the owner of Bolster’s Warehouse at the Estey Organ complex on Birge Street in Brattleboro.

“All the people in the photos were born between 1930 and 1938,” Bohannon explains. “A lot of them are high school graduation photos.”

Bolster died in 2007, and it’s unclear, even from some of his relatives, exactly how the treasure of photos ended up at auction.

“Nobody else bid on them, and I got about 50 photos for $5,” Bohannon says.

The Brattleboro Facebook group took up the challenge for her, according to Bohannon.

Regardless of the source of the unidentified photos, Bohannon’s reaction is consistent and straightforward.

“I see a photo and I know how much they would mean to me, so my goal is to get the photos back to people who will appreciate them,” she says.

At a bookstore in Greenfield, Bohannon found a photo of a couple – their engagement photo from the early 1980s. She bought it and brought it home.

In less than three minutes, she identified and phoned the subjects of the photo.

“They are still together and celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and they were so happy to have him back!” she remembers.

Another time, a son was cleaning his mother’s house when she died and an important box of family photos belonging to his father was put aside. Somehow, during the cleaning process, the box disappeared.

Bohannon, who had bought the box at auction, appeared with the photos and returned them to the son, who was delighted to find them.

At another auction, Bohannan bought a glass paperweight bearing the names of a couple who married in 1897.

William Warren, the groom, was a glassblower by profession. The paperweight was his wedding gift to his wife.

Bohannan went to work.

“I found out that they never had children, but I managed to find one of their dead alive,” she said. “She was thrilled to have the clipboard back in the family.”

“It’s especially nice to have an artifact that people can touch and hold and to know that those family members have touched and held it as well,” Bohannon says.

“It would mean so much to me if I could do this with an object from my own family,” she observes. “It was such a pleasure to bring happiness to this family and bring a piece of their history back to life.”

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