As caretakers of history, it is understandable that curators, collections staff, and other museum professionals come to regard their collections personally. Through spending time with artifacts and photographs and learning about the stories of a community, a family, or an individual, we feel a connection to these objects. We are tasked with their interpretation through exhibition and even here on this blog. When we make meaning for the public, we must keep our personal feelings out of it. Is this always easy? Unfortunately, it’s not.
I began my training here by cataloging new donations. This means giving each new item, whether it is a photograph, jacket, book, or chair, a tracking number. Then details about each item are recorded by hand. In addition to the description of each individual item, we record its history. Did it come from Rockford? How old is it? What is its story?
Think about it this way: on display in our gallery is a black top hat. It seems like nothing too special, besides looking very old, until you learn that it was worn by Germanicus Kent, an early Rockford settler. This kind of provenance – its history, its background – is what makes these objects distinctive to Rockford.
The first large collection that I cataloged unfortunately came in with little information attached to it. In the box of photographs and newspaper clippings were some pictures of a young boy named Raymond Sheets. One of the photos was on thick matboard cut into an oval shape.
The next photographs were of Raymond as a husband and father, Raymond in his WWI uniform, and suddenly he is a gray-haired senior, standing with his three sons. I looked through the photos for the missing years and finally found the young family. There were several images of their home at 113 Lawn Place, which is located on the Rock River off of Harlem Boulevard.
From these, I gleaned that Raymond and his wife had three sons: Roger, Brice, and Jerome (Jerry). Jerry appears in many of the photos, like this one where he is dawdling on the lawn with the family puppy.
Then I hit a chunk of photographs that were much older. Many were of a young girl, and the pencil on the back identified her simply as “Aileen.” Who is she? It became clear that I was entering a new story, as the photos included images of her father, C.F. Henry, a wealthy clothier. He owned the Henry block at Mulberry and North Main Streets. In the photo below, Aileen is holding a lit candle and standing on a table.
The family lived in a grand home at 112 Glenn Road on the Rock River. The house was designed by architect Lawrence Buck, a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright. There were several photos of the home, and I recorded the details for each – the living room, the dining room – until I came to a photo of a bedroom. I recognized a tiny, oval picture that was framed and sitting on top of the desk.
Grasping a magnifying glass in my hand, I hovered over the picture and recognized the young man. I pulled out the oval photo of Raymond. They were one and the same! Flipping over the bedroom photo, the words “N.E. bedroom (Mine)” confirmed that this bedroom was indeed Aileen’s. Were the two married? Was the little girl in these other photographs the same wife of Raymond Sheets and the mother of his three sons?
Using Ancestry, I was able to find out so much more about these two families who became one when Raymond Sheets married Charlotte Aileen Henry in 1912. Finally, these two big puzzle pieces came together. I then ruthlessly searched Ancestry for everything I could find about the family. The two oldest Sheets boys married and had children. Raymond purchased Rockford Silver Plate Co. in 1925 and was also president of the Rockford Paper Box Co. Both Raymond and Aileen attended Rockford High School. In the 1905 yearbook, Raymond’s senior year, I found this gem:
I felt swept away with romantic notions of these apparent high school sweethearts – the girl who cherishes the picture of her young beau on her desk, and the boy whose past, present, and future is filled with her.
Pressing onward through the box of photographs, I noticed that there were scarcely any from the 1930s because little Jerry suddenly appeared as a man in uniform. Seen above with his puppy, Jerry was 22 years old in this photo with his parents, taken November 1, 1943. Jerry had enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and served as a Second Lieutenant.
One Rockford newspaper article gushed about Jerry, who attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, majored in economics, and was a member of the senior honorary society as well as senior track manager of the track team, not to mention the treasurer and house manager of Theta Delta Chi. His photo smiled serenely at me, this young soldier in uniform, hair pristinely parted and slicked back, and I thought of the toddler in the sailor suit in the yard at 113 Lawn Place. I felt a strange connection to this family, one that began with just of box of unsorted pictures. Another article boasts that Jerry was the youngest officer on an American destroyer during the invasion of Normandy. With this clipping is a note from Raymond to his brother Harold, saying “thought you would like to see clipping on Jerry. The kid sure did a swell job.”
I picked up the next article and felt my stomach drop as I read the title: “Presidential Citation Discloses How Lt. Sheets Died on Destroyer.”
Jerry was serving as assistant damage control officer on the U.S.S. Laffey off the coast of Okinawa. On April 16, 1945, the ship was hit by a kamikaze attack that started raging fires and trigged the explosion of ammunition onboard the ship. Jerry organized volunteer parties of firefighters to bring the blaze under control. When the ship was hit again by suicide bombers, Jerry was killed. He was one of 31 crewmembers killed or missing in action. Because of his efforts to control the fires, he helped to save the Laffey, which limped back to Seattle, Washington “a tangled mass of steel” that was “unbelievably afloat.” He was awarded the bronze star for his heroic efforts posthumous. He was only 24 years old.
Unfortunately, this is where most of the story ends. Records tell us that Fannie Henry, Aileen’s mother, died in 1925 of a stroke. C.F. Henry, Aileen’s father, died in 1942, and Aileen died in 1957. Raymond Sheets died in 1986 as did his second youngest son, Brice. Roger died four years later.
I admittedly know very little about this family, about what the people were really like. Their personal lives are hidden, and photographs tell us little. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it would take many more to describe each of us. It is easy to fall in love with adorable or striking or thought-provoking photographs and their subjects; however, as historians, we need to be somewhat skeptical with our admiration. It is easy to let our bias guide our interpretation of facts and events because we want to focus on virtue rather than vice. I can only speculate that Raymond’s yearbook suggested his whole world revolved around Aileen because they were madly in love. But it is only one theory and we cannot take this for fact. In any case, it is usually more fun to present what we know and then let others speculate themselves on the hows and whys. It adds to the conversation and debate, and opens up new worlds of possibilities.
Upcoming Event: WWII Days 2014
Sat September 20: 11am-5pm
Sun September 21: 11am-4pm
$14 Adult, $7 Child (3-17)
Members are always free!
World War II Days includes elaborate and realistic battles complete with tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and exciting pyrotechnic displays. Saturday the battle shows are featured at 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm. Sunday the battle time is 2:30 pm.
The largest World War II Days in the Midwest boasts more than 1,000 re-enactors representing the soldiers of the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Italy and Japan. Authentic military vehicles, wood encampments, and the ambiance of the beautiful venue add to the quality experience for the visitors.
For more information, click here: WWII Days Event