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This Unidentified Photo (a research story)

Yates Past - April 2005

I like old houses. The one I owned in Oneida Castle for 23 years was built in 1878. The house I live in now on Keuka Lake was built in the late 1890s. Old houses have character and challenge my somewhat limited handyman skills. I also enjoy researching the history of my house. Who built it? How did it change hands over the years? What major changes have been made in the building and the grounds? What did the neighborhood look like years ago? I also love to find photos of my house from the past.

When I bought my house on the lake in 1997, my neighbors (who had lived next door since the 1960s) told me that it once had one of the great Victorian porches on the lake. It was long since enclosed and made part of the interior of the house and I wondered what the old porch looked like. That took me to the Oliver House to find out about their old photo collection. The photo archives were nicely divided into categories.....”People”, Businesses”, “Organizations”, “Churches”, etc. One category was ”Keuka Lake”. I looked through it and there were photos of several old homes on the lake. I spotted the one that accompanies this article. It had “Unidentified” written on the back, but there was something about the relative position of the house to the water and the bank on the right side of the photo that made me wonder if that could be the house I bought. I had a photocopy of the photo made so I could study it further. Later I noticed that our Curator, Chuck Mitchell, used that photo in his book on Penn Yan and Keuka Lake. I wondered if it was my house....but I couldn’t be sure.

A few years later, I was in the old research room at the Oliver House working on a family history project. Across the table from me were three people who were involved in researching something or other. It turned out to be a couple from Vestal and a woman from Arizona. We had been separately engrossed in our different research for maybe an hour when Idelle Dillon (who was then a fairly new Executive Director of the YCGHS) came into the room and said to the three people across the table from me.....”You know that house on the lake that you’re researching? Well, HE owns it”. And she pointed at ME.

It turned out that the woman from Arizona’s grandfather had owned back in the 1950s what later became my house. As a little girl, she visited with her grandparents and relatives during summers on the lake. She had fond memories of those days and hoped to find out what she could about her grandfather’s house. Talk about coincidence! She had been visiting with the couple from Vestal for a few days and had driven to Penn Yan for just that morning. I hadn’t been in the Oliver House for months and happened to be there at that same time. I invited the three of them to come out to the house and go through it with me. She told me how the rooms had been laid out in the 1950s and how different rooms were used, as well as other changes that had been made over the years. I asked her if she had any old photos of the place, especially any that might show the porch. She thought that she did and promised to mail me copies when she got home to Tempe, Arizona. When the photos arrived later, there were nice clear shots taken on the porch. I was able to see that the ornamentation (gingerbread trim) on the porch in her photos matched exactly with the “Unidentified” photo I had discovered in the archives a few years earlier. I had the Photographic Center copy the original for me, enlarge it, “tweak” it to restore contrast, and frame it. It now hangs in the room that was once part of that great porch.

There are approximately 15,000 photographic images in the archives of the YCGHS. Photos, negatives, tintypes, etc. of people, places, buildings, and events which contributed to the history of Yates County and show how it has changed over the years. They are available to researchers. We depend upon the people who are interested in local history to build our collection even more. If you have photos that are in any way relevant to our county’s history, please consider contributing them to the YCGHS. If you’d like to keep them in your personal collection, bring them in and we can scan them, print out a copy for our collection, and return the original(s) to you. It is important that we have as much information as possible about the photo(s). Too many photos in the collection are “Unidentified”. Under the direction of our Curator, Chuck Mitchell, we are in the process of improving the organization of the photo archives, making sure that all photos are protected in archival envelopes and boxes, and creating a searchable database of all images. They will be available to researchers for many years to come.

A follow-up to this article: A YCGHS member who lives in the state of Washington saw the photo and read the article in Yates Past. He contacted me through the historical society and told me that his great grandfather and his family used to rent that place back around 1910. He had an old album with photos taken by the family which showed more of the outside of the house as well as the interior. I got lucky on this research project!

by Rich MacAlpine


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