Closets, attics and basements across the region house holiday decorations and clutter. And buried in some of those boxes there is a good chance that there are some family photos that haven’t seen the light of day for years. Now, imagine 100 years from now and someone, somehow has found these now discarded photos and is looking to identify members of your family.
Don Howell of Carlisle County is that man.
With a slightly furrowed brow and face that show's years of attention to detail, Howell thumbs through faded, yellow and bruised old photographs at the Austin Auction House in Benton. The photos are dotted with people Howell wants you to meet, like the lone portrait hanging on the auction house wall.
"People look at these and think, "Aww it's a pretty picture. but what they don't realize is like, this little girl. It's certain she's gone now, and what's her name, who was she?" Howell said. "Everybody makes a difference in life, but these people are forgotten, or gone."
For nearly two decades Howell has been returning these forgotten photos to their rightful owners. It all started with an 1820’s Bible that was thrown into the trash at an estate sale. Howell leapt to save it.
"It just made my hair stand up. When I picked it up and seen how old it was, seen the information that was written in it. How in the world can anybody throw something… to me that was worth gold. I mean, if it had been my family, I'd have given everything I had for the thing," he said.
That Bible was bursting with photos and stories and sparked something in Howell that has driven him to countless antique stores, flea markets, auctions and websites. It moved him to answer an old question.
"I grew up always liked history in high school. But I got tired of hearing about Abraham Lincoln, I got tired of hearing about Washington," said Howell. "People were here 200 years ago, what were they doing?"
Well, now he's finding out. In 2003, he created West Kentucky Genealogy which has grown into a blog and Facebook account where he posts photos in hopes that someone will recognize a person in the picture. And it’s working. Lisa Mitchell - who is one of Howell’s nearly three thousand Facebook followers found photos of her church, and contacted him for more information.
"But when I got that email and opened up those ten or twelve images it gave me chills," Mitchell said. "It was just amazing to see some of my father's ancestors from Germany that came directly to Paducah, in I believe 1858."
The thought of reuniting others with distant relatives through forgotten photos, as she was, inspired Mitchell who works at Paducah Public Schools. She helps share the images Howell finds of Paducah schools by putting them on display and publishing them. Normally, Howell asks to be reimbursed for what he paid for the picture. He says, Sure - he could have sold some of his better finds on Ebay for a thousand or so. But, he'd rather see the faces of folks reunited with their ancestors.
And as for Howell’s ancestors.
"I keep hoping I'll find my stuff, my family. Not happened yet, but I keep hunting," he said. "If I inspire enough people to do it, all of us will find what we're looking for. It won't be hidden anymore."
Howell says to limit the loss of photos and help future hunters like him take a few minutes and simply record names of those photographed on the back of the picture.