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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published April 12 2012

Northwood man discovers memories in Depression-era photo

NORTHWOOD, N.D. - The boy in the wagon on a Michigan, N.D., sidewalk in 1940 was Charles Thompson. The prominent left ear helped to settle his identity.

Maybe you remember the picture and the unfinished story that went with it.

More than 70 years ago, toward the end of the Great Depression and just before America entered World War II, famed American photographer John Vachon traveled through North Dakota, looking for images of what the country and its people were like at that great transitional time.

On a sidewalk in a little Nelson County railroad town, he found a boy in a wagon. In Vachon’s photo, the boy is wearing his Sunday best clothes, including a tie and a jaunty cap. He sits in the wagon with his legs astraddle, his hands gripping the wagon handle as he would the reins of a horse. He appears to study a message scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk.

Joe Manning, a Massachusetts author and historian, had researched the stories behind many of Vachon’s Depression-era subjects, and he asked for help identifying this boy.

Solving the mystery

The Grand Forks Herald published the old black-and-white photo in December and asked readers, “Is the boy you? Or might he be your father, an uncle, an old friend?”

It took four months and several cross-country queries, but now Dean Thompson, 77, of Northwood, reports that the boy is his brother, Charles. It was, he says, the unanimous finding of a family gathered around the Thompsons’ kitchen table on Easter Sunday.

“My daughter recognized him by his ears,” Dean said. “He had good-sized ears.”

Charles was between 8 and 9 years old, two years older than Dean, when the photo was taken. He died three years ago in Michigan – the state, not the town of his birth – but his brother said it’s been a pleasant exercise, thinking and talking about Charles and remembering when they were young.

“We fought like cats and dogs, as brothers do,” he said. “But we played baseball a lot. We lived right next to a big slough, so we went rafting a lot, too, and we rode bikes.

“We always had a real close family. And it was a good place to grow up.”

Much of the credit for resolving the photograph mystery goes to Maria Vasichek, who lives in Michigan and contributes articles to The Nelson County Arena and the Lakota American. The newspapers republished the Herald story and Vachon’s photo.

Vasichek’s next step was to enlarge the original picture from the Library of Congress and mail copies with the Herald article to people in the right age group who still live in the area.

Stella Shirek of Lankin said the boy could be Lyle Gilbertson, living now in South Carolina.

“It was not him,” Vasichek said. “But Lyle was a big help as he lived on that street where the picture was taken.”

Lyle’s information led to a tip from a woman in Montana, who pointed to a man now in California.

“It wasn’t him,” Vasichek said. But he offered two other possibilities, another Californian and a man now in Florida.

“It wasn’t either of them,” she reported. “But they both said, ‘I think it’s Charles Thompson.’ ”

Vasichek consulted a number of sources, including the 1983 Michigan Centennial book, and learned that Charles had a brother, Dean, in Northwood. She sent him a copy of the photo.

Good memories

On Easter Sunday, Dean and his family studied the photo.

“I have a picture of him when he was in the service,” he said. “I held that up and looked at it, and you could see a lot of similarity there.”

The ears, for example.

“I’m just about 100 percent sure it’s him.”

He said he doesn’t remember Vachon’s 1940 visit or ever seeing the wagon photograph, but he remembers the street where it was taken.

“The two buildings were the Larsons’ house and the telephone office on the corner,” he said. “There was a church on the other corner, which was my mother’s church.

“The clothes threw me a little bit. Those years, there was not too much in the way of dress-up clothes, and if you had them you didn’t run around in your dress-up clothes, especially playing.”

Charles was tall, “fairly big for his age,” Dean said, and the size of the boy in the old photo fits.

Charles left town in about 1949 to join the Air Force. He came home for the occasional visit but eventually settled in Detroit, where an uncle helped him get work in the steel industry, including a stint as a union representative.

Dean left Michigan to serve in the Army, but he returned to the area after his discharge, working in McVille, N.D., and later in Northwood, where he has lived the past 11 years.

He is the last of his generation. Besides Charles, he had a twin brother, Dick, who died a year ago. Three older sisters “are all gone now, too,” he said.

“It was tough times back then, but it was the same for just about everybody. I don’t think we ever realized times were tough, especially kids. But it had to have been hard times for our parents. My twin and I were born in 1934, and I’m sure my dad was just tickled to death to have two more mouths to feed.”

There is no bitterness or resentment in his voice when he talks about his parents. And when he talks about his big brother, there is affection and pride.

“He had been poorly for some time, so when he died, we were sort of expecting it,” he said. “He must have been pretty well liked by his fellow workers, because a bunch of them did his job for him when he got sick so he could still get paid.”

He reached with a weathered hand for the enlarged copy of an image that is almost as old as he is, of a boy in a wagon on a sidewalk in small-town America.

“Sometimes I’d think about some thing we did when we were boys,” he said. “Those memories are good to have.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.


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