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Time travel made possible

Elkins youth discovered on journey to 1910s

November 13, 2010
By CARRA HIGGINS, Staff Writer

Popular culture and literature have led us to think meeting people from a the past is only possible with a contraption, machine or 1980s sports cart modified by an eccentric genius. Time travel may not be the work of fiction after all; and, instead a frame of mind that requires a sense of wonder, patience and some photos from days long gone.

One Idaho woman's chance visit to an antique store in her hometown with a population of around 369 people has transported her across three time zones and back 100 years to discover some of Elkins' long-gone residents enjoying their youth. The faces between the pages of an old photo album filled with pictures that were taken circa 1910 piqued the curiosity of the album's new owner, Virginia McConnell of Troy, Idaho, who's trying to learn more about the people she's found and share experience with 21st Century Elkins residents.

In August, McConnell took an out-of-state guest to the antique store in Kendrick, Idaho, to find items for a project. While wandering around the store waiting for her friend, McConnell found the album that she purchased for "the best $8 I ever spent."

Article Photos

Before the War – Future U.S. Lt. Gen. Richard “Dick” Sutherland during his years in Elkins. Sutherland served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s chief of staff during World War II.

"When I saw that it was filled with young men and women from the turn-of-the-century, I wanted to check it out and maybe return it to the owner's family, if I could find it," McConnell said. "I love a challenge like that."

As a writing and research instructor and author of historical true crime books, McConnell took some of clues provided in the album and utilized the "tricks" she's learned over the years to find out exactly who looked back at her from the photos. Her first hint was written in blue ink beside a large building that resembled an educational institution. The scrawled "old D&E" prompted a Google search, which yielded the result of Davis & Elkins College. With that information, she concluded that the names written on the pictures must have those of people who lived or attended school in Elkins.

"The more I went through the album looking for clues, the more intrigued I became with those people and wanted to know more about what they were like and what became of them," McConnell said. "The years of the album were before the World War, before the Great Depression and before these kids had any responsibilities of jobs or marriages or children or mortgages - a magical time for them. They seemed to be saying to me, 'Find us!'"

After searching U.S. Census data between 1910 and 1930, McConnell was able to discover the identities of those in the photos; and, using more public records, including a death certificate, track down some of their descendants, who have confirmed her research.

Among those who McConnell has correctly identified are former U.S. Sen. Howard Sutherland and his children Dick and Natalie, former D&E President Fredrick Barron, Jeanne Marstiller, Martha Winifred Gross, D&E instructor of dance and expression Bertha May Johns, Bell Holt, Don Talbott, Bob Irons, Ruthe Clarke, Gladys Zerbe, Isabelle Bray and Cecil Stonecipher. Some of the people were identified on the pictures with their nicknames and their achieved titles later in life, including Lt. Gen. Dick Sutherland.

"From the descendants I have talked to, two recurring themes emerge: First, that these kids were like the A team of Elkins, a group of young people of whom much was expected and who did, indeed, accomplish much in their successful careers and marriages," McConnell said. "Second, these family members have an intense pride in Elkins, although none of them live there now. They brag about it as a special place."

During World War II, Dick Sutherland served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur's chief of staff in the southwest Pacific area. The man labeled as Bob Irons is thought to be the same Bob Irons who was the first person to receive a diploma from D&E. Irons eventually became a U.S. Attorney. Sen. Howard Sutherland resided in Elkins during the time McConnell dated the photos - between 1910 and 1914 - and was involved with the then booming coal, railroad and timber industries.

McConnell was able to track down family members of the album's original owner, Winifred Gross, because she knew her husband and children's names. Through the process, McConnell found Gross' grandson and oldest child, who's 90. Jeanne Marstiller's granddaughter was found in Florida, where she had moved after leaving Elkins.

Everyone to whom McConnell has spoken is "very familiar" with those in the photos, which has led McConnell to conclude that some friends in the group stayed in touch over the years. From family members, McConnell has discovered Winifred Gross studied opera in Philadelphia and attended Wilson College, in Pennsylvania, the location of several other pictures in the album.

The family members have been "glad" to see the old pictures and Winifred Gross's grandson told McConnell, "You have brought my sisters, aunt and me so much joy with those pictures."

Winifred Gross' 90-year-old daughter was surprised to hear the names McConnell communicated to her in a letter.

"It brought back wonderful memories for her," McConnell says. "So I'm hoping the pictures will do the same for some of the other people in Elkins who may have known these young people or for those who just want to experience Elkins at the turn of the century."

Because McConnell has spent so much time researching the people in the pictures, she now considers them part of her own family. She has also begun a Facebook group, which can be found by typing "The Elkins Time Machine" into the website's search bar.

Recently, McConnell paid another visit to the Kendrick, Idaho, antique store where she found the album. She learned from the shop owner that it had been purchased at an auction near Walla Walla, Washington and before McConnell took it home, the album had remained in the store for "ages."

"Here's a mystery I have not yet been able to solve: How did a photo album from Elkins, West Virginia, end up in Kendrick, Idaho?" McConnell asked. "So far, there hasn't been any connection."

After months of research, McConnell said she currently doesn't have specific plans for the information she's uncovered.

"I undertook the search for my own pleasure and out of curiosity as to what happened to these people and how their lives turned out," she said. "However, there is a series of paperbacks that this might fit into - Images of America. I'm not sure if the Elkins photo album would fit into that, but I will check it out."

Even though McConnell had never heard of Elkins before her journey back in time, she says she hopes to visit the city in the "not-too-distant future." McConnell says Marstiller's granddaughter has promised to be her guide around town.

Anyone who has information, preferably personal and not genealogical, about the individuals they would like to share may contact McConnell by e-mailing McConnell is also willing to transfer the of the pictures to a flash drive and send them to anyone interested at no charge.

Pictures can be obtained by contacting McConnell at her e-mail address.



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