By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
CARTHAGE, Mo. —
Every picture has its story. This one begins in 1904, when Sylvester Clarence Couch, an early day Joplin barber, posed for his picture. He was 20 years old.
Among his eventual descendants were three granddaughters, all sisters: Beth Lansaw and Imogene Brady, of Seneca, and Sharon Howard, of Wyandotte, Okla.
Decades later, it would be Lansaw who became the guardian of her grandfather’s framed, oval keepsake. She carefully wrapped it in a pillowcase and put it in a drawer.
When it came time for her to sell her home and move, she gave the photo to her son, Don Lansaw, for safekeeping during her transition.
He lived at 2020 S. Mississippi Ave. in Joplin — a home directly in the path of the tornado on May 22, 2011. Lansaw, 31, died shielding his 26-year-old wife, Bethany, from the storm as it leveled their home.
The twister picked up the couple’s wedding photos, graduation photos and other memories, mixed them with debris and tens of thousands of other photos from more than 7,000 buildings, and deposited them in parking lots, farm fields, roadways and lawns for miles in every direction.
Some of the photos, including the image of Couch, eventually were found by relief workers, farmers, homeowners and passers-by. For more than a year, a steady stream of them — about 35,000 in total — were deposited at Southwest Missouri Bank locations in Joplin and beyond.
Couriers transported them weekly to the official repository at the First Baptist Church in Carthage. There, volunteers with the Lost Photos of Joplin project have worked for nearly 18 months to clean, sort, label and archive them and find their owners.
On Wednesday, they had a success story: The picture of Couch was going home. Thanks to his name, age and the date having been written on the back of the photo, they were able to track down the family.
“We did some detective work on Ancestry.com and were able to connect with his granddaughter in Texas, who then connected us with the other two granddaughters,” said Donna Turner, an organizer with the Lost Photos of Joplin project.
Brady and Howard were only too happy to drive to Carthage to retrieve it, and to fill in a bit of what they knew of Couch: He lived at 218 N. Washington Ave., in a home that still stands, and was a jack-of-all-trades — most recently, a barber.
“I have his shaving mug,” Brady said.
Couch died in 1949, and he and his wife, Edith Elizabeth Little, are buried in Osborne Memorial Cemetery. Brady, who is 65, has no memory of her grandfather.
“This is neat to get this back in the family,” Brady said of the picture, which remains largely intact except for a portion of the frame that was broken.
It is the second oldest photo to have come into the possession of Lost Photos of Joplin, Turner said. The oldest was dated 1896, and it, too, was returned to its owner.
Slightly more than 12,000 of the storm’s displaced photos have been returned. But 75 boxes containing about 23,000 photos remain in storage at the First Baptist Church, each carefully labeled and archived.
“Eighteen months after the tornado, it’s really slowing down,” Turner said. “Sometimes we have a good day because we give a lot back at one time, like 198 this morning, which was great. Other times, it’s just one or two.”
Photos also continue to be turned in; the project received a new box of found photos last week.
“I have no idea why they’re just now getting turned in,” Turner said, adding that they immediately were uploaded to the project’s website for viewing.
Each month, the project holds two claim days, sometimes at a public venue like Northpark Mall or a community center, and other times at the First Baptist Church. On Saturday, one is slated at the Joplin Public Library.
“We’ll just keep at it until we get them back,” Turner said. “These all belong to someone. We just have to figure out who.”