Sepia Serendipity: First Look at a Great Grandfather

Today for Sepia Saturday I offer the only known photos of a man I believe is my father's grandfather, John J. Bentley.  However, since the theme for the week involves bicycles, I'll open with this one of my father Nelson with his father George and sister Dorothy, circa 1920.  There - that's out of the way!  Now:

The memory of my mother, 90, has been getting worse for a couple of years now. About a year ago when we went to the bank to see what was in her safety deposit box, because she couldn't remember, we realized that she had misplaced the key. Rather than having them expensively drill out the lock, we decided opening it wasn't a priority.

Last weekend, as we moved her into an assisted living apartment, I by chance decided to pack one of her jewelry display cases. This necessitated removing and wrapping the knick-knacks within it; I happened to open one of these, a silver box I remember being fascinated by as a child. Inside the box along with some special edition quarters and foreign coins was the missing key. The following day we returned to the bank.

In the safety deposit box, along with various legal and financial papers, was a motley collection of memorabilia only a mother could love: my sister's and my own baby hair in tiny envelopes; everyone's birth certificates; my grandfather's death certificate; my parents' high school and college diplomas... and (jackpot!) several envelopes of old photos of my mother's and father's families - most of which I had never seen.

I am astounded that even though I have been rabidly researching our family for nearly ten years, my mother never mentioned that these photos existed. And at this point neither she nor I know where she got them or how long they were in her possession.

I place this photo also at 1919-1920; the nipper gripping the steering wheel is my father, the girl his sister Dorothy, who would have been about 8, and despite the dubious quality of the photo I think I can make out the features of my grandmother Jessie Bentley.  The vehicle may well have been the delivery truck for the Bentley General Store; note the roll-down sides and what look like oval isinglass wing-windows.
I don't know much about John Bentley. He was born in 1850, and it's not unlikely he was born in the same house we see here in Elm, Michigan, a very rural suburb of Detroit. His father, George Nelson Bentley, from Saratoga, New York, had settled in the area in 1835.
A fat, happy baby Nelson enjoying the view from the front porch.
In 1869 John married Margaret Bredin, whose family had arrived in 1864 from the Londonderry area of Ireland. (I have a separate Sepia Saturday post about her and the fairies that accompanied her on the voyage.)
This shot, alas with no captions, demands a few guesses... first, that this was taken a few years earlier than the others (say 1913) because the young child (age 3-4?) looks more like Dorothy than baby Nelson, who was born when Dorothy was seven. Secondly, I'm not sure who the middle couple is: my guess is Aunt Gladys and Uncle Clyde, older brother to my grandfather George, on the left behind his wife Jessie, who's wearing a peculiar smirk. Thirdly, I'm assuming that that's Grandma Margaret Bredin. Everyone's all dolled up for this shot; Gladys (if it's Gladys) looks poised to take the next one, with her accordion-style camera.

And here's John with Nelson again, this time on what looks like the back stoop. I can't tell what's up with the back door...it looks like a rug is sticking out the bottom (keeping out the sand?)...

Here Grampa John hoes, with my father (age 2-3?) apparently helping to weed.  Were it not fore the caption "Nelson," I might have thought this was his sister because of the fetching sundress and hat. This does not look like my father's house, so must be John's.  This may have been the last time my dad did any gardening.
John Bentley died in 1922 when my father was about four, not long after this photo was taken.


  1. Isn't it funny how many people fail to appreciate how important photographs are to family history. I think they are sometimes they are the only key to figuring out the myriad of complex relationships between people who weren't necessarily blood relatives. Thanks for sharing your exciting find.

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  3. The problem of fading memories sounds familiar to me. Glad you found the key! And as you know now, treasures are not always made of gold...

  4. Wonderful photographs. And Brett is quite right, such photographs stand at the centre of family history.

  5. As we get older it's hard sometimes to remember where things are - especially keys. What a find you have had in these photographs. Now how will my children get access to my digital photos? I can see problems for future generations in tracking them down in a virtual world.

  6. The manner in which you came across these photos sounds like an old-fashioned treasure hunt! How exciting to find all the the things that you mother found so precious that she put them into the safe-deposit box. Thanks for this this wonderful post, Sean.

    Kathy M.

  7. X marks to spot.....Oh Buried Treasure!A bitter-sweet discovery.Thank You for sharing them here.

  8. Nelson as a child already had the look of Nelson the poet--good to have a look at him again.

  9. Had to laugh at your comment about your father not being a gardener :)

    Lovely collection of photos.

  10. How excited you must have been when you discovered these missing photographs.