Long ago it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you.

— Simon and Garfunkel


Attention, Forest Lake folks: Brent Peterson and the Washington County Historical Society need your help connecting photographs with families.

The historical society recently received hundreds of photographs apparently taken in the Forest Lake area around the end of the 19th century, and Peterson and his team of historians hope area residents can identify the people and places in the photos as well as hundreds of moments captured in the lives of what appear to be pioneer families.

From funerals and hunting trips, baby pictures to first communion portraits, many of the photos include members of the Simmons, Johnson and Marsh families, and several others whom Peterson cannot identify.

Somehow, this treasure trove of historic Forest Lake-area photos ended up with a farmer in North Dakota, then another farmer and then a historical society curator in Valley City, N.D.

Now they’re back, and area residents are invited to help sleuth the lives they chronicle at the Hardwood Creek Library, off Hwy. 61 at Headwaters Parkway in Forest Lake, from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

“They’re wonderful photos,” said Peterson, executive director of the Stillwater-based county historical society. “They’ll be even more useful if they’re identified.”

That the photos found their way back to Minnesota at all is due to Wes Anderson, curator of the Barnes County Historical Museum in Valley City, N.D. The photos followed “a long, strange winding path to get to me,” he said.

A while back, a retired farmer called Anderson asking if he might be interested in a bunch of photos he had stored in a Rubbermaid garbage bin and a wheat sprayer box.

“He said that if I didn’t want them, he was going to throw them away,” Anderson said. “He just called me on a whim.”

It seems the farmer, from Eckelson, N.D., got the photos from a neighbor, also a retired farmer, who got them from another man who’d bought them at an auction.

When Anderson started going through the photos, he said, “I could see Forest Lake on them.” So he scanned a couple of them and, through the power of Google, found Peterson.

Anderson, who recently finished some genealogy research about his own family that included identifying a box of family photographs, was happy to find a willing recipient of other families’ memories.

“It is just a good reminder that families need to take the time to write on the backs of photos with the names of the people,” he said. “Find an older family member to help. It’s got to be done.”

Several of the Forest Lake photos appear to have been taken by Otto Johnson and were developed in St. Paul. Johnson, who ran a general store with his brothers for years in Forest Lake, may have taken the photos west to Eckelson in the early 1900s, Peterson said. But he can’t be sure; he has been unable to find out where Johnson died.

Peterson said he’s been able to identify several people in the pictures, including sisters Frances and Dorothy Simmons; Peter Simmons, who ran a piano store and worked as an undertaker; and a man he believes is Michael Marsh, Forest Lake’s first postmaster. There is a picture of several people outside the Marsh Hotel, which used to stand on the shore of Forest Lake.

Peterson is holding out hope that those who come to the library next weekend may be able to fill in a few more of the gaps, perhaps by making a connection between the recovered photos and pictures they may have in their own family albums. It’s worth a shot, he said, adding that he has no plans to give up the effort to attach names to the pictures.

“There’s just all sorts of photos,” Peterson said. “If this was my family, I would be thrilled to death.”