Christmas came early for me this year in the form of a long-lost antique photograph – thanks to the efforts of a state historical society and a random act of kindness by a fellow genealogist. It was early on a Saturday morning when I sleepily picked up my phone to check the time, only to see a notification that someone had sent me a message via this blog. The first line read, “I thought you might be interested to know that there is a photograph in the online archives of the Kansas Historical Society that I believe shows members of your Fenton family.”1
Interested? INTERESTED? I was up in an instant. The message included a link to a photograph digitized and made available online courtesy of Kansas Memory and the Kansas Historical Society, and while the description has since been updated, on that Saturday morning it was simply titled “Family in Gypsum, Kansas.”
Well, I did have family in Gypsum, Kansas, a small community in rural Saline County. Pioneers George W. Fenton and his wife Sarah Ellen Hall married there in 1873 and had three daughters – Minnie Belle, Alpha Doretta, and Anna Leota – before George was accidentally shot and killed by his brother-in-law in 1880.2 Sarah later had a son, Charles Alfred, with her second husband, John Hoffman, whom she married in 1883.3 According to the original caption, based on a handwritten notation on the back of the photograph, the individuals were identified as Charlie, Belle, Alpha, and Ota, but their last name was unknown. Could it be…?
It was. Pictured circa 1890-92, half-siblings Belle, Alpha, and Ota Fenton and Charlie Hoffman posed for this cabinet card photograph at Kassebaum’s in Gypsum City, Kansas. I have found little information about the photographer, but local newspapers place him in the county at the appropriate time. A J.A. Kassebaum was a resident of Saline County, Kansas as early as 1890 when a newspaper announced his marriage; in 1893, it was reported in the column “Gypsum City News” that “Kassebaum is kept busy taking pictures of our citizens and residences.”4
Apparently, these four siblings were some of the very citizens he photographed. Minnie Belle Fenton, likely between sixteen and eighteen at the time, is dressed fashionably, and, as the eldest, is the central subject of the photograph. The bodice of her dress is very finely detailed, featuring a high collar and a double row of large, decorative buttons. Her sleeves, as commonly seen between 1890-92, are fitted, but looser at the upper arm and with a modest puff at the top of the shoulder, and she wears a bracelet on her right wrist.5 There are two decorative velvet bands at the cuffs of her sleeves and three at the bottom of her skirt. Belle would marry Joseph Anthony Hoffman, the younger brother of her stepfather, in 1893, at the age of eighteen.6
Alpha Doretta Fenton, reclining against her older sister, was likely between fourteen and sixteen in this photograph. The dark-eyed teenager wears a fitted dress of a much more simple design than Belle, but it is still flattering with attention to detail. There is a bunch of ruffled lace pinned at the bodice and a brooch at her throat, adorning the folded collar. Her hands are curled in her lap, and like Belle she appears to hide her fingertips; perhaps these country girls did not want to call attention to unmanicured nails. Alpha would marry Clare Eugene Gibson in 1895, at the age of nineteen.7
Anna Leota Fenton, standing behind her sisters, was perhaps ten or twelve at the oldest when this photograph was taken, and she stands straight with a direct gaze. Small and slim, she was not yet corseted like her older sisters, although like them her bangs were frizzled in the latest fashion.8 Her dark dress – which features a row of buttons and a lace collar – is almost surely a hand-me-down, perhaps made over to be suitable for her. Ota would marry George Hiram Thoma in 1902 at the age of twenty-two.9
Charles Alfred Hoffman, the little blond half-brother of the Fenton sisters, was likely around six or eight in this photograph. His resigned expression seems to bear evidence of the burden of having three older sisters; his mouth is clamped shut, his eyes fixed purposefully on the photographer, and his small hand is a blur as he was unable to keep completely still. He wears a jacket and his buttoned shoes are polished to shine. Charlie would marry late in life, and unlike his sisters, had no children of his own.10
All of the children bear a strong resemblance to photographs in my collection that picture them as adults, but this is by far the oldest photograph I have seen of any member of this family. In fact, I had previously seen no photographs whatsoever from their years in Kansas, so this window into their lives is priceless. Gypsum was a rural community of just over 500 residents in 1890; for a photographer to be numbered among its businessmen must have been somewhat significant.11 Kassebaum’s studio featured a somewhat amateur painted backdrop of a parlor setting, a carpeted floor, and animal skin rugs, which created a rather rustic yet elegant setting for the Fenton and Hoffman siblings. It seems possible that this might have been the first studio the children had ever visited.
I am grateful to Kansas Memory and the Kansas Historical Society for preserving and sharing this image in their digital repository and for generously allowing me to display it here. If you have Kansas ancestors, this database is well worth a thorough look. Beyond numerous photographs of people and places, I spotted transcribed nineteenth-century journals (how fun would it be to find a mention of your ancestor?), correspondence, advertisements, and a host of other primary source material fascinating to the historian and genealogist. And if an unidentified photograph happens to pique your interest, consider running a search on the information available as a fellow genealogist did for me – you never know when you might run into a descendant seeking those very ancestors!
Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.