What do you do when a relative dies and leaves you a stack of old photographs, unlabeled and unknown? Rather than discard them, Donna Sherrill and her sister, Kathy McDonald, tried to get them home by bringing them back to Cataloochee.
At the reunion last Sunday, the time when natives and descendants of those from Big and Little Cataloochee return to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Sherill spread the photographs, some more than a century old, upon a table and asked folks to take any home that they recognized. The photos originally belonged to their grandmother, Ora Hannah Caldwell, who lived in Little Cataloochee until creation of the park, when her family moved to Franklin.
In one sense, it was not the best year to bring the photographs. Because of a surge in COVID-19 cases, attendance was down, particularly among the elderly who attend each year and best know the history of the valley. On the other hand, it was a labor of love that could not wait — each year, more natives and descendants of the valley pass on, carrying with them the memories that would allow them to identify the old black-and-white or sepia-toned images.
A multitude of people found photographs, including some Caldwell descendants. Wayne Conard of Jamestown, Tennessee, found a photograph of a cousin, Noah Conard. Perhaps the most delighted was Oscar McCarter of Waynesville, who found three photographs of his mother, Sarah Nelson McCarter, that he had never seen. In one, she is holding a small child; McCarter suspects he is that toddler. After finding the pictures, McCarter showed them to a number of friends, then sat under a tree near Palmer’s Chapel, gazing at them periodically and smiling continually. Terrie Conard found a photograph of her great-great grandfather.
The photographs led their finders to showing off the images, tracing relations and telling stories, injecting adrenaline into the waning hours of a reunion that thrives on such activity and has drawn people back almost every year since 1937, the year the reunion was officially organized. (Less formally organized reunions were held beginning in 1929.)
Sherill and McDonald have scanned the photographs and posted them to a private Facebook page dedicated to Caldwell descendants with Cataloochee ties, where many other people have also identified family members. One woman, she said, found a photo of her father that she had never before seen.
“I am thrilled that people are getting pictures of their families rather than our kids getting them someday and not knowing who they are,” she said.
Sherill and McDonald estimate most of the photos date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sherill is asking anyone who can identify a photo on the Cataloochee website to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org so she can label the photo on her scanned copies. She plans to donate the original copies that are not claimed to the Haywood County Historical Society.