Monday, October 25, 2010

Somebody's Ancestor

Slowly, but surely, I'm making my way back to the blog.  I write posts in my head often, especially whenever I have new finding or aha moment in my research (which I also haven't been doing a ton of, lately).  I just wanted to "creep" back in tonight to share something that I ran across while having brunch with my daughter yesterday.  We were in a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Richmond, VA, and we just happen to be seated at a table just under this portrait:

From the second I sat down, this young woman had my attention.  (And, given the fact that it took the waitress ten minutes to even come and greet me while I was sitting alone waiting for my daughter to arrive, I can say that I was definitely feeling like she and I were making a connection!)  No matter how hard I tried to look away from her, and busy myself with something else, like checking my email on my phone, or just doing some people-watching, I couldn't stray away from her gaze.  She had me. 

So much was going through my mind, most of which, I'm sure needs no explanation for most who are reading this.  Who was this woman?  When was the picture/portrait made?  Had she been a slave?  A free Black?  Who made this picture of her?  Was this the original frame?  How did Cracker Barrel get this?  WHO IS HER FAMILY?

Yep, that was the big one.  Who is her family?  Would they even know who she was if they were the ones sitting under her portrait?  Could she even be an ancestor of mine?

Finally, I averted my eyes away from the portrait and began to look around the restaurant.  I hadn't been into a Cracker Barrel in years - not since before 2004 when the infamous mouse-in-the-soup fiasco occured in my area.  My family and I used to eat in CB when the kids were young, but I'd never paid much attention to the decor in any of the restaurants back then.  But now, as I glanced all around me, I noticed that, in amongst the many antiquities that graced the walls of the eatery, there were scattered portraits of many ancestors - men, women, and children of all ages, all appearing to be in 19th century (or earlier) garb!  WHO WERE THESE PEOPLE?  WHO DO THEY BELONG TO?

I turned my attention back to my lady, who seemed to be begging me with her eyes to do s-o-m-e-t-h-i-n-g, but what?  Just about this time, my waitress finall made an appearance.  I ordered coffee and a manager. (I'll bet she was skeeered!)  The gentleman appeared promptly, and my inquisition began.

As it turns out, the manager didn't know exactly where the portraits came from, but he did point out to me that each one is tagged with a number and other identifying information, and that if I was interested in knowing more, I could contact their corporate office to find out where each one came from, and if there is a name or any other identifier associated with a particular portrait.  I asserted my suspicion that the pictures may have been acquired from thrift shops and/or estate sales, and Mr. Manager agreed that this was a possibility.  He also offered that he has been told that an effort has been made to see that the decor for each restaurant is reflective of the area in which it is located, and he suggested that perhaps the portraits had been acquired locally.  Hmmmm....

So now, I have yet another item added to my "to-do" list.  I don't know when I'll get around to it, but I certainly will contact the CB Corporate Offices to find out more about this, and I urge anyone reading this to pay close attention to the wall hangings on your next vist to Cracker Barrel!

Addendum: (November 3, 2010)
I did send a communication to Cracker Barrel's Corporate Office (Customer Relations) to inquire about the portrait.  Here's the disappointing (and less than helpful response I got:

Thank you for taking the time to share your comments with all of us here at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. We're always pleased to hear from our guests.
The tag numbers are inhouse inventory numbers for tax purposes so that we can identify which store has what decor items. However, the decor peices have been purchased throughout the years at estate sales and auctions.
We look forward to seeing you in one of our locations again soon.

Jason Hill
Guest Relations Representative
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.

Well, of course I sent a reply, clarifying my original questions, but I haven't heard anything back yet.  It seems my mystery lady might remain just that... a mystery.



Carol said...

So glad to see you posting!

Your mystery lady sure is a lovely gal.

I hope you can find out her story.

I am always pained when I go to an antique store when I see large portrait, sometimes two, obviously husband and wife, sitting on the floor, dejected and forgotten.

I do see a lot of these types of photos in restaurants, not just CB.

So, sad.

Welcome back!

Heather Rojo said...

We have several restaurants that have antique photos of our town and local people, however they are all labeled with where they came from (usually the Londonderry Historical Society or such). There are not too many chains here, but there IS a Cracker Barrel on the exit by the highway. I haven't ever been (lived here 25 years!) but now I'm curious! I don't think anyone local ever goes there, we usually frequent the places owned by our neighbors instead. I think its the only one in NH/VT/ME. It's nice that the CB corporation keeps track of where the artifacts come from.

Greta Koehl said...

Hi, Renate! Glad to see (read?) you again! We do the same thing when we eat at Cracker Barrels (i.e., when we are traveling) - we look at all the photos and wonder who they are. We also look at the tools, utensils, etc., most of which are similar but a few are unusual, and I love the ads they have as well.

Renate said...

Thanks, Carol, Heather, and Greta. A couple of things that I neglected mention in the post were that the manager also told me that, as a policy, if someone inquires about one of the portraits or photos, and can "prove" that they are family members, Cracker Barrel will give them the item. I thought that was good.
Also, part of the reason for my fascination is/was that this was the first time I'd seen an African-American "lost" portrait on display anywhere. I thought that was quite unusual, especially with the size and framing. Have either of you ever run across any other portraits of African-Americans in your journeys?


Kristin said...

So good to see you back Renata! I have seen those old photos in CB too. I can't remember seeing any black faces in the frames but I also feel like there might have been one of a man. love the post and good luck with finding out more!

Renate said...

Thanks, Kristin, and thanks to all of you for the warm welcome (almost) back! :)


Mavis said...

Nice to see you posting, again.

Renate said...

Thanks, Mav. I've been following the wonderful work that you're doing. Keep it up!


Betty said...

Welcome back, Renate!

What an interesting post! We have stopped at Cracker Barrel Restaurants while traveling, mostly west of the Rockies, and have never noticed portraits or amongst the curios & antiques on the walls.

I hope you are able to find a name & family for the beautiful lady in the portrait. Would love to know her story!

Kathleen Brandt, Professional Genealogist said...

Good to see you. I'm imaging school is keeping you busy. We must catch up.

About your pic. The clothing suggest after the Civil War probably between 1870-1900 (but before the Edwardian Years). This woman is showing her prosperity and place (or awareness) of social prosperity. And the pic based on lighting was taken in an "advantaged" location.

I would love to see this pic up close, because the shadows are deceiving, but it is a beauty.

Thanks for sharing.

Greta Koehl said...

Hi Renate - To answer the question you asked - yes, we have. Our recent travels to Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina involved a lot of Cracker Barrels, and although we didn't look on the walls in all the rooms, I would say that at least half of the ones we visited had photographs of African-Americans.

Renate said...

Wow, Greta. That's surprising to me! Well, that's a lot of descendants who aren't seeing the faces of their ancestors - and I'm one of them!

Kathleen, thanks for your professional assessment of the portrait. It validated much of my own, but I don't have your expertise or experience, so I'm proud of myself! I took one other shot of the picture. If it's any better, I'll email it to you.


Professor Dru said...

Great Story, Renate,

I do look at the decor when I got to Cracker Barrell, but I don't recall any particular photos. I'll be more observant next time.

Amy Coffin, MLIS said...

It's good to have you back. I look forward to learning what you find out about the photo.

Darlene said...

It's so good to see you!
You had me with the waitress being skeeered. I had to lol.

I'm anxious to hear the rest of the story.

Renate said...

Thanks for your comments, Druscilla, Darlene, and Amy. Everyone is so wonderful for welcoming me back! There'll be more to come! :)


Kristin said...

about what i expected i would have been amazed if they knew who was in any of their portraits!

Renate said...

Hey Kristin,
Yeah, I wasn't so much expecting them to know who was in the picture. However, the manager indicated that they did keep records of where the pieces were purchased, and whether or not there was any identifying information. For instance, they might have recorded the name of the previous ower, or address, if it was an estate sale. But, anyway, I gave it the old school-girl try! We'll see if they respond to my second inquiry. :)