Our reference staff can sometimes seem like historical detectives, searching for clues to figure out mysteries that the public needs help with. This is one of those times.
A single, unlabeled photograph provides an example of history’s detective work. Former History Nebraska staff member John Carter acquired this unidentified photograph, which then appeared on the inside back cover of the Summer 2009 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.
Before printing the photo, Editor David Bristow wanted to see if we could learn more about it through the car’s license plate. I’ve been collecting material about Nebraska license plates since 1994, when I took my family’s collection of old license plates from an old shed on the family farm.
From my research, I knew that this license plate number should be listed in an old volume of the Secretary of State’s Records from 1911-12. I contacted curator Gayla Koerting at our K Street Government Records Facility, and soon learned that the car was registered July 8, 1911, to H. D. Wolf of Chappell, Nebraska. The car is a thirty horsepower Mitchell, and its registration was renewed annually at least through 1914.
This is consistent with other clues: Lewis Miller and Noel Adams, members of the Mitchell Car Club, identified the car as a 1911 model; also, the license plate doesn’t show the year, which indicates a pre-1915 date. Nebraska motorists used to make their own license plates (or hire a blacksmith to do it), and didn’t have to include the year. In 1915, the State of Nebraska began distributing its own plates stamped with the year of registration.
But who was H. D. Wolf? And who was the girl in the photo?
Normally, I would have started with the Deuel County histories from our Reference Room library collection, but due to current construction, it was easier to begin with census records. In the 1930 census, I found Henry C. and Mary Wolf of Chappell, ages eighty-one and seventy-two at the time. From there I traced them back through the census years to 1880, when they were living in Big Springs, Cheyenne County, where Henry’s occupation was listed as “Section Boss.” In the process, I learned he and his wife emigrated from Germany in 1870 and that they had six children.
Other sources added details: the Wolfs’ granddaughter Marie McGrale Smith compiled a biography of them for the 1984 Deuel County History, including photos of Henry and his wife. Our library has cemetery transcriptions for the cemetery where they were buried; with their death dates I could have checked for obituaries, but at the time our newspaper collection was inaccessible due to a renovation.
Even so, the biography provided names of at least six granddaughters of Henry Wolf who were living in 1984. Might one of them be the girl in the photo? It was unlikely that any were still living, but perhaps family photos had been given to descendants. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Chappell Register and soon heard from Marie McGrale Smith’s son. Though his mother is deceased, he offered to look at the photo, but so far has been unable to identify the girl. I heard from Doris McHatton Townsend, the last surviving granddaughter, who thought the girl might be one of her older cousins, but she could not positively identify her.
Townsend did, however, write that her grandfather came to America at age twenty-one, worked on the Union Pacific Railroad, and—according to family lore—hunted bison with “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He later acquired his own farm (probably a homestead), built a house and farm buildings, planted many trees, and learned English until he could speak it without an accent. Other sources confirm that Wolf became a well-known, prosperous farmer in Deuel County.
This research is just one example of the types of material available for doing genealogical or historical research in the Library/Archives of History Nebraska. Our staff are available to advise you on a wide range of topics and the types of records available.
— Cindy Drake, Librarian-Nebraska History Library