Picture this: Man connects families to ancestors

Posted at 11:16 AM, Dec 14, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-14 13:16:21-05
By Colette Bennett

(CNN) — While most photos are digital these days, there was a time when sepia-toned hard copies of pictures were regarded as precious relics — and families would be thrilled to get their hands on any from times past.

Some lucky families were recently able to do just that, thanks to the effort of one St. Louis County, Minnesota, man.

When Matt Seppo, facilities supervisor for the Chris Jensen Nursing Home, came across bags of old photographs at the center while cleaning up in 2005, he could have just thrown them out with the rest of the trash. But he didn’t. A self-described history buff and amateur genealogist, Seppo was already hooked on working with old images.

“I am a collector,” he told HLN. “I collected a lot of old military things for years. My interest in genealogy started when my grandmother passed down a photo album from the 1860s.”

Seppo traced his own family tree and learned that his family came to the United States from Finland in the mid-1800s.

So when he discovered the photos at the nursing home, Seppo decided to take on the challenge of getting the photos back to their owners — or at least their owners’ living relatives. But how do you trace photos that are from so long ago?

“I started by turning them face-down, feeling thickness of paper to separate the batches. I also used stamps to discern time taken and where they were developed,” Seppo said. He also used phone books, newspaper archives, Census information and the genealogy site of the Church of Latter-day Saints to aid his research.

Seppo had the photos for eight years before he finally found a lead that connected him to what he was looking for in November.

“The big breakthrough was that finally I found some of the people they should belong to,” he said. “I did it on my own. I used Google for some of the research, but I’m the last person to get a cell phone and a computer,” he laughed.

The bags contained roughly 150 photos, some of them dating as far back as 1890. One man — Seppo describes him as “very distinctive” — appeared in many of the photos, from baby pictures to older shots. Seppo discovered his name was La Verne Swenson (which was also written on one of the bags the photos were in), but that there was no link between him and the nursing home.

“I found La Verne’s brother and sister after doing some research in Wisconsin,” Seppo said. “I found a newspaper clipping that led me to believe that a woman named Julie Swenson was married to a man that was related to La Verne. And it turned out that La Verne’s sister, Lillian, and her brother, Olaf, had a baby — and that was Eugene, Julie Swenson’s husband.”

The Swensons weren’t the only family Seppo was able to track down. He also managed to track down the Hunter family in Cloquet, Minnesota, and give Mickey Hunter photos of his great-great-grandfather he had never seen before.

“You know more about my family than I do,” Seppo said Hunter told him when they met for the first time. He was right, too — Seppo had managed to find Hunter’s relative by tracing a World War I draft registration and then finding descendants of the name.

Seppo discovered a third connection in mid-December, thanks to an obituary that gave him a lead.

“A friend sent the obit to me because she thought the person could be connected to the Westerlund family, who I have a whole album for,” Seppo told HLN. “I called the Temple Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, where the funeral took place to find out if, by any chance, the woman who died had the maiden name of Westerlund, and they confirmed she did.”

Seppo mailed off that album to the church so it could be returned to the surviving family members.

While Seppo has many more photos to go through, he said he feels happy that he has finally met with some success.

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