By Chuck Woodbury
The man in the photo is named Ham Stuart. Actually, his name WAS Ham Stuart. Ham is no longer with us.
I bought the photo about 25 years ago in an antique shop in eastern Oregon. My idea of a good purchase is an old postcard or a photo, like the one of Ham. I enjoy the photos of people because they provide me with hours of entertainment — staring at the photo and trying to imagine who the person was. In Ham’s case, he looks very distinguished. The more I studied him, the more I thought he was a banker or someone else important. But the only clues I had were on the photo. On the back, handwritten, were the words “Ham Stuart, Cousin.” And on the front was the name of the photo studio, Erichson, and its location, Moscow, Idaho.
I became obsessed with learning Ham’s identity. This was back when I was roaming the West, gathering stories for my quarterly newspaper Out West. The more I looked at Ham, the more I wanted to know. I published Ham’s photo in several issues of Out West, asking readers if they could help. But nobody had ever heard of him.
Years passed. Finally, I decided to go to Moscow to “find Ham.” So I packed up my motorhome and headed off. After a couple of days of research with help from local historians, I came up empty. Ham had all but vanished from history.
THEN A STROKE OF GOOD LUCK. The newspaper in nearby Lewiston, Idaho, learned of my quest to find Ham, and wrote a story. It was on page one with a picture of my motorhome and me, and the photo of Ham. I had already returned home to Seattle when the story appeared. That afternoon a man named Everett Hagen called. “I have some information about Ham,” he said in a voicemail message. I called him back.
He told me Ham had five boys — Gerald, Basil, Barney, Eldon and Rex. He thought they were all dead. Of Ham, he said, “He was a good-looking old guy, but he didn’t have many teeth left.” Everett told me his brother Wendell would know more. So I called Wendell. “I cut some wood for Ham when I was 17,” he said. He recalled that Ham was trying to buy 80 acres of land on Moscow Mountain from a guy named Harvey, “but I don’t think he ever got it.” Actually, Wendell had some bad feelings about Ham. “I never got my share of that wood.”
He said that “Ham was a teamster who plowed gardens and hauled anything he could with a team.” Wendell described Ham as tall, lean and bald. Everett recalled him as happy-go-lucky, but Wendell disagreed. But they both agreed he was an ordinary man who likely struggled to get by. “He must have had a tough time supporting that family,” said Wendell.
Neither Everett nor Wendell could tell me how Ham died or where he was buried.
So, in the end, I did learn that Ham was not a banker or someone important in his community. He was just a regular person like most of us. I still keep his photo handy to look at once in awhile. Someday I will go back to Moscow and find his grave.
I hope someday, say 100 years from now, someone finds a picture of me in an antique store and tries to learn who I was.
This essay originally appeared in the RV Travel Newsletter on October 13, 2013.