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Finding Homes for Two Orphan Photographs

On a recent visit to western South Dakota, I flipped through a stack of nineteenth century photographs at an antique shop in scenic Hill City. I had my eye out for any with names inscribed on the backs so that I might have a chance to reunite them with their families of origin, but unfortunately, only two in a stack of a dozen or more were fortunate enough to have been labeled.

“May Durkee” read a photograph of a young woman pictured by heaping bouquets of flowers, while the other inscription on a photograph of a young girl caused me to do a double-take: “Emily J. Frick.” Frick is my married name and not terribly common—and although my husband is the immigrant in his family and we know of no Frick relations in the United States, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to research Emily. Young May made it out of the shop with me as well.

Emily J. Frick, Brookings, Dakota Territory, ca. 1889-90; privately held by K.F., 2018.

The photograph of Emily J. Frick held several clues to assist with determining its date. While cabinet cards such as this were popular throughout the late nineteenth century, the location of the studio was stamped “Brookings, Dak.” As South Dakota achieved statehood on 02 November 1889, the reference to Dakota Territory suggests that the photograph was likely taken no later than 1890, should the photographer have held onto any outdated stock.1 The name of the photographer, O.G. Oyloe, is also revealing, as They Captured the Moment: Dakota’s Photographers 1853-1920 indicates that Oyloe began practicing his trade in Brookings in 1889.2

Emily appears to be in her early teens in this photograph, with fashionably frizzled bangs and her hair pulled back into a braid. Her dress features a high, pleated neckline and sleeves that puff above the shoulders, a popular look in 1890 fashion plates.3

Ultimately, it did not take long to identify Emily J. Frick thanks to online records. Young Emily was, as it turned out, Emily Josephine Frick (1876-1918), the daughter of Thomas and Barbara (Fisher) Frick.4 Born in Pennsylvania, Emily spent spent a number of years in Brookings, Dakota Territory when she was a child.5 Emily studied to become a teacher—records show that she taught a kindergarten class at Chicago’s Calhoun School as of 1899—and in 1909 she married Clarence Estes.6 Emily died of Spanish influenza at the age of forty-two, a victim of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.7 She left no children.8

Emily did, however, have a number of nieces and nephews, and I was able to connect with one of these descendants via a Public Member Tree on Ancestry.com.9 Then, her photograph made its way into an envelope and was sent to its new home in Minnesota.

Mary “May” Durkee, Alexandria, South Dakota, ca. 1892-93; privately held by S.B., 2018.

May Durkee’s photograph held a number of clues as to its origins as well. Stamped with the location Alexandria, South Dakota, this photograph was most definitely taken after 1889, once Dakota Territory was no more. According to the Collector’s Guide to 19th Century Traveling  Photographers, the photographer, M.B. Barton, was believed to have operated in Alexandria circa 1887-94.10 A record search soon turned up Mary “May” Durkee (1877-1972) of Alexandria, the daughter of Franklin and Mary (Wakeman) Durkee, as the most likely candidate for this photograph.11

Although at first glance it seemed to me as though May was posing by a memorial of some kind, the words on the apparent certificate propped among the flowers at her feet read “To Whom It May Concern,” with the header labeled “City of Alexandria,” which does not give the feeling of a tribute. Could this have been an educational certificate?

According to a biography held in the South Dakota State Archive’s Pioneer Daughters files, May, who was born in Wisconsin and came to Dakota Territory at the age of two, completed the one-year high school course offered at Alexandria’s brick schoolhouse in 1892 when she was fifteen years old.12 She had to wait until her sixteenth birthday before she was eligible to begin teaching in the local country schools.13 This photograph might have been taken in honor of one of these occasions. May, a young woman with a fair complexion, wears what was likely a white dress with puffed sleeves that rise above the shoulder and are gathered above the elbow. A corsage is at the center of her chest and what appears to be a small book dangles along the side of her skirt, held in place by a sash affixed at her waist.

May taught school for five years until her marriage to John H. Dobson in 1898.14 The couple remained in Alexandria and had four children: Burdette James, Merrial Bertha, who died as an infant, Henry Bird, and Florence Louise Dobson.15 They enjoyed seventy years of marriage; John died in 1968, and May in 1972.16 A number of years before her death, she was celebrated as Alexandria’s longest continuous resident and was even crowned “queen” during a local anniversary event.17

After tracing May’s descendants through obituaries, I contacted a surviving granddaughter who remembered her well and was glad to have May’s photograph mailed to her home in Oregon.18 Thus, happy endings were found for both orphan photographs of these young Dakota pioneers.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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