KANKAKEE — Gary and Linda Gerretse are strengthening the roots of local history by tracing old photographs back to the relatives of those pictured.
The retired Kankakee residents have inherited photos, newspaper clippings, letters and more from relatives. Linda, a self-described “photo freak,” enjoys researching photos and passing them on to people who would find them meaningful.
“I can’t stand to throw away a picture because there’s somebody out there who would love to have it,” Linda said.
The Gerretses have been working for about a year on identifying students in a set of photos from 1947 and 1948 at Bircham School, a one-room grade school in Bourbonnais.
“This happened to be the grade school that I went to,” Gary said. “It was about a mile and a half from my house.”
The photos range from school pictures for students and teachers to students sitting at desks in the classroom to students posed in groups outside.
Since Gary remembered some of his classmates and contacted them to correctly ID the images, they have identified all 10 students in one scanned image. They gave some photos to a woman who did not have any pictures of her father, a classmate of Gary’s who had passed away.
Bircham School housed around 25 kids who walked to it from farms nearby, according to Gary. He remembers it having a big classroom, two indoor bathrooms that emptied into a tank in the basement, a furnace and two shelves of books for a library.
“We had a playground, we had a swing set, we had a slide, we had an outside well pump,” Gary said. “There was a garage the teacher could put her car in.”
When they came across an old plot map in their research, the Gerretses realized the school was named “Bircham” after the man who owned the property.
This is the latest of the couple’s photo projects, some of which have led to connections in far-flung places.
Linda uses Ancestry.com to research names attached to photos or newspaper clippings, finding obituaries that list relatives.
“I then go on the internet and chances are I can find an address, something,” Linda said. “If not, I go back to Ancestry and look up somebody that’s got a tree with [the] names in it and then contact them.”
They found children of an animal control worker pictured in a newspaper wire photo Gary saved and contacted them in Oregon. When they inherited 1930s letters from Gary’s family mentioning relatives in Australia, they ran them in a newspaper in Sydney and found current relatives.
The couple also donated an old photo of Kankakee school musicians who appeared in the Chicago World’s Fair that was labeled with student names to the Kankakee County Museum.
And when this project is done, the Gerretses say they will continue to find homes for other photos in the future.
“It’s fun. I learn more this way than I ever learned in school about history and you get to meet people,” Linda said.