Self-described packrat reunites family with long-lost junk shop photo album

·5 min read

May 9—BRUNSWICK, Maine — Wes Babula can't recall the exact year he found the elegant, leather-bound family photo album in a Waterville junk store, but he's pretty sure it was the mid 1990's.

Babula does remember how sad it looked.

"I thought: This is a shame. This is someone's family history," he said.

Babula didn't know a soul in the old, black-and-white photos but the leather-bound album was extraordinary. Each one of the hundreds of crisp images was documented with exact names, dates and places, written on the back in dignified, cursive script. It was clear that someone had spent decades putting the collection together.

He couldn't bear to leave the monochrome family behind, uncared for and homeless. Babula bought the album for $5 and took it home, tucking it amongst his own family pictures and negatives.

Now, a quarter-century later, Babula's compassionate act of preservation — combined with some modern internet sleuthing — has produced a happy ending. The album is back with its rightful family and some members are coming face-to-face with their ancestors for the first time.

"This is Facebook before Facebook was Facebook," said Kim Burns of South Portland, looking over the photos and detailed captions at her brother Dan Chase's house in Brunswick on Friday. Third sibling Mark Chase was also there.

The album chronicles their grandparents' family life in Maine and New York. Their names were Evelyn and Carroll Chase of Waterville. There are pictures of the big city, far-flung parts of Maine and New Hampshire, as well as close friends — and lots of dogs.

It starts with their grandparents' Montreal honeymoon in 1931 and continues through their first child's toddler years in the 1940s.

That toddler was the siblings' father, Francis Chase, who died in 2012.

None of the three ever met their grandfather, Carroll, a civil engineer who helped build Colby College, LaGuardia Airport and Acadia National Park's famed carriage roads. He died young in 1954.

"I never knew who he was or what he looked like," Mark said.

The album's journey back to them almost didn't happen.

Babula's house burned down in 2019 but, somehow, all his photographs survived, stored in a plastic tote bin.

He'd forgotten about the old picture collection but when he pulled it out after the fire, he knew just what to do with it. Babula gave it to his friend, Mike Burd, an old photo collector, technology teacher and internet whiz, asking him if he might know how to find the family.

"He and I are both such random packrats," Babula said.

Burd immediately agreed to start the search, in April.

"I love puzzles and challenges, things that cause me to look under rocks and behind curtains," Burd said. "And I love stories."

It didn't take him long. An old obituary, a list of survivors and Facebook did the trick.

"Within two-and-a-half weeks, he had found the family," Babula said. "My hat's off to Mike. He's awesome."

Burd and Babula met a few Chase family members at a McDonalds in Farmington last month and handed the collection over.

"They were stunned," Burd said. "They didn't know this album even existed."

Family members confirm that. At first, they thought Burd's internet message might be part of an elaborate scam. But when he sent a few photos, they knew it was legitimate.

One of the photos showed young Francis in 1944, holding a stuffed bunny on Easter. He's all dressed up and his hair hangs in curls.

"That baby picture looks just like my daughter," Dan Chase said.

Other photos immediately brought back memories for the siblings.

One shows their young father with an old-fashioned, runner sled in the snow. Both Dan and Mark Chase remember using it as kids in Waterville when Mark broke his arm.

"I was supposed to be watching him," Dan Chase said. "I forgot all about it until I saw that picture and it all flowed back."

Another shows the happy grandparents in their early days together. Carroll is in a handsome suit and Evelyn sports a warm coat and fur stole. Kim Burns remembers it well.

"I used to run around wearing that [stole] when I was little," she said. "I never knew where it came from."

It was Evelyn who put the album together and — as far as anyone can tell — it somehow ended up with an antiques dealer when she moved to assisted living in 1989.

Also on hand Friday in Brunswick was Mark Chase's 19-year-old son, Will Chase, who was all smiles, leafing through the family heirloom.

"It's really great to see these pictures," Will Chase said. "They tell stories that I wouldn't be able to know or understand without them."

Looking over his son's shoulder, Mark Chase waxed philosophical about the old-school album's meetup with modern social media.

"There's two kinds of technologies working together here. One wouldn't work without the other," he said. "It's amazing how this has all travelled through time. Sometimes, things know how to make their way home."

Burd and Babula couldn't be happier.

"Such a good feeling," Babula said.

"I feel like I've been air-dropped into an extraordinary family story," Burd said.

The family plans to have both sides of each photo digitized so they can share them with all their relatives.

On the same day he found the Chase family pictures, back in the 90s, Babula also bought another album. It contains 1920's photos of men working in a brickyard, as well as people enjoying beer at a party.

Burd is already hard at work tracking down its rightful owners.

"I've identified the general area in southern New Hampshire," Burd said. "If I can't find them, I'll make some stuff up."

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