By Sarrah Peters, News Editor
Last year, two volunteers at the Etowah Historical Society started cleaning out an old storage room to turn into a library. While cleaning, a trove of old historical Etowah County pictures were found. The two volunteers, Sherry Butler Clayton and Artie Morgan, started a new project identifying the people and places in the old photographs.
The family of Elbert Bynum, a popular Etowah County photographer, donated the pictures that were from misplaced orders, unpicked up orders, bad shots and extra copies that he had.
“He [Bynum] was the photographer,” said Morgan. “He worked at the steel plant, but photography was his passion. He had a little studio behind his house in Alabama City. And at every school, he took the band pictures, the football pictures, the dance pictures, the senior pictures, parade pictures.”
Bynum was very nice, Clayton added, and often took these pictures for little to no profit.
“It was eight banker boxes full, and I mean full, of pictures from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s,” said Clayton. “But there were no names.”
To identify the people in the photographs Clayton and Morgan started a Facebook page in August of last year called “Faces From Our Past Etowah County, Alabama.” The response was good, but there was not a large response from the local African-American community. This problem was fixed after an Emma Samson graduate began speading the word about the group to her friends and classmates.
“I think she told everyone in the world, because after I talked to her, that night I could not keep up with people wanting to join the page,” said Clayton.
The facebook group now has over 7,000 members of all ethnicities and ages.
Of the 19,000 pictures, over half have now been identified.
“According to what I post, some days we are getting 100 percent of the pictures identified,” said Clayton.
She said that school pictures and pictures of adults are more easily identified. Baby pictures and the older pictures are more difficult to identify.
Clayton said that the Facebook page is a community page, not a gossip page, and there is a rule to keep everything civil. Occasionally, photos are shared that conjure unhappy memories for family members, for example, marriage photographs after a divorce. Clayton says that if this happens, all the family needs to do is contact her on the page and ask that it be taken down, and she will oblige.
Clayton spends any where from two to 12 hours every day maintaining the Facebook page. Once the photograghs have been identified, Morgan archives them in a database. The end result should allow people to search a name and be able to locate the pictures, which would be a useful tool for geneology research.
The most uplifting part of the Facebook page is when community members share memories of their loved ones and friends.
“The stories are unbelievable,” said Morgan. “It’s stuff we can’t make up.”
Often, after identification, old friends start a kind of reunion and catch up on what each other are up to now. Other stories are touching
One picture was posted of a man at the steel plant, and that day was the anniversary of his marriage to his wife. As the man had passed on, the wife took it as a message from her late husband that he was okay.
One posted picture of a couple at prom had been lost for 50 years. It was the only picture of the couple while they were dating before they got married. The woman’s father had taken the photo to Bynum to be enlarged, but it had gotten lost.
Another tale of lost photos was when a woman said she had been searching for the photo of her father taken while he was at Pearl Harbor.
One woman messaged Clayton about how all her childhood photos had been lost in a fire, but thanks to the Facebook page, she could now show her children what she looked like.
Some stories that emerged were amusing, like a photo of one of two twins, both of whom worked as police officers. There was much debate in the comments about whether it was Teddy or Eddie Cox, and no conclusion was reached.
There are photographs of local political figures from their childhood, including Mayor Sherman Guyton, and historical landmarks around Etowah County, like schools, downtown Gadsden and the steel plant.
“That’s just a drop in the bucket of stories there are,” said Morgan. “I’m sure every photo has a story behind it.”
After the picture prints have all been posted, the project will not be over. Also donated were old negatives. Clayton and Morgan applied for a Community Development Grant for a scanner that could scan negatives. They received the grant, and identifying the people and places in the negatives is phase two of the project.
For more information or to join the group, go to the Faces From Our Past Etowah County Facebook page.