It’s a sad day when I don’t learn something new related to local history. Fortunately, last Thursday was NOT one of those days.
The back story first: In 2012, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library announced, with pretty great fanfare, that they’d acquired an original print of the only known photograph of a black Illinois veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment. An anonymous donor had donated the funds to purchase the photograph, which, they announced was a portrait of a former soldier named Nathan Hughes and his wife.
My friend Glenn had come across the story on-line and, recognizing the name because he’d seen the photograph in our collection, he stopped down at the museum to ask me why we hadn’t told him he’d held a genuine historical treasure in his own two hands.
And, indeed, when I checked with the Lincoln Library, I found they had indeed acquired another copy of the same photo in our collection.
The photograph had been taken by Sigmund Benensohn at his Yorkville studio. Our research showed that Benensohn had purchased the Sabin photographic gallery in Yorkville in late April 1893, and had continued in business there until he sold it to Charles Jessup in August 1901. So we knew the photograph had been taken sometime during those years, but really didn’t have any indication what the exact date might have been.
I supplied to the Lincoln Library folks what biographical information we had on Nathan Hughes, which was a fair amount, since he’d been a well-known farmer as well as active in the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic. In fact, he was the only black member of the GAR in Kendall County, and was an officer in the Yorkville post. He was well thought of by his neighbors, and a considerable crowd attended his funeral, after which he was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, one of at least five black Civil War veterans buried there.
Even with all the information we had, though, it still would have been nice to have figured out exactly when the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was taken, but there was no information available.
Until last Thursday.
I was looking through microfilm of the back issues of the Kendall County Record, searching for some biographical information on a person I was researching, when I struck historical gold.
In the July 19, 1893 was the following item in the Yorkville news column: “Artist Benensohn is making some extra fine pictures of Fox river scenery with his new view camera—an instrument that cost nearly $150. His river and street views are wonderfully fine and make us more proud than ever of our picturesque village. Take a look at his show-case in front of the Hobbs block. His portraits of Comrade and Mrs. Nathan Hughes are true to the life, and shows how excellent is Benensohn’s work in every line of photography.”
So, purely by accident, another one of history’s local mysteries was solved. I contacted the Lincoln Library folks, and they were happy to get the additional information about their treasure. And we were pretty happy, too. I was finally able to go through our collection of scanned photos and add “1893” to the title of our copies of the Hughes photo and to add the information on provenance to the museum’s collections database.
The thing you’ve got to keep in mind about local history: it’s not for wimps nor is it for the complacent. You’ve got to keep your wits about you at all times.