SAN ANTONIO — Knees in the dirt, Mike Rodriguez dug through a plastic bin at the Mission Open Air Market on San Antonio’s South Side and pulled out an unexpected treasure.
The San Antonio Express-News reports it was July 2018 and the X-ray technologist had just unearthed a nearly pristine photo album packed with dozens of black-and-white portraits of stern-faced aunts, uncles and cousins dating back to the 1800s.
At least that’s how they were listed in the album, such as in a photo marked 1896 that featured an Illinois farmhouse with a horse-drawn buggy and small row of darkly clad family members ranging in age from a towheaded “Cousin Albert (5 yrs old)” to a “Grandmother Andine Sommerfeldt” in a headscarf.
Rodriguez marveled at the album’s good condition and especially at its attention to detail. Clear handwritten names accompanied every vintage photograph, most of those images so well-preserved behind their protective page coverings that they looked as though they could be behind glass in a museum.
Who would lose or part with such a carefully curated archive? The album didn’t designate any owner or contact information, and Rodriguez refused to remove any of its photos for fear of damaging them, so clues scribbled on the backs of those images also were a mystery. All the album’s vendor could offer was a shrug.
But Rodriguez could tell someone had put heart and hard work into the photo album. And such a rich heirloom deserved to be in the hands of a rightful heir, so he paid the $8 asking price.
“It’s not just a photo album. It’s someone’s family history,” Rodriguez said. “And I knew right away the right thing to do was to try to get it back to the original owners. That became my mission.”
When Rodriguez brought the album home, he combed every page and jotted down every name. One surname rose above the rest: Sommerfeldt. It especially graced the album’s first pages, which Rodriguez figured bore the most importance to its original owner and therefore the best clues for any potential family contacts.
The album opened with an old wedding photo of a veiled bride named Augusta Schutz and her debonair groom named Albert Sommerfeldt. Subsequent pages featured photos of a slightly younger Albert. One had him standing at attention in a military uniform, while another showed him outdoors contemplating a big, black dog climbing a ladder.
Then came a few photos of what was listed as the Sommerfeldt farm between Marine and Highland in Madison County, Illinois. One was the image dated 1896, and others showed the farmhouse more than a century later, now a sagging husk with fallen beams and missing patches of roof.
Rodriguez spent the next three weeks plugging all the album’s names into Facebook and Google searches, but came up empty. Flustered, he set the album aside and eventually forgot about it.
“It did get put on the back burner,” Rodriguez said.
It would be a little more than a year later when a random newscast rekindled his interest.
In late August, Rodriguez and his wife, Angela, caught an evening news report about a purse that had been stolen in downtown Detroit in 1957. It recently had been found in an abandoned building and returned to its now elderly owner Margaret Cohen.
More than 60 years later, the purse still housed Cohen’s old photos, compact mirror and even her Social Security card, which was used to track down her son so he could return the purse to his mom for a surprise teary reunion.
“My wife and I just kind of looked at each other,” Rodriguez said, “and we’re like, ‘You know, we need to really get back on it.’”
This time, Rodriguez shot a video of himself going page by page through the photo album and shared it on YouTube and Facebook, recruiting family in Dallas, Corpus Christi and California to spread the word. Then he reached out to media outlets and historical preservation groups in San Antonio as well as in Chicago and East St. Louis, Illinois, the two closest major metropolitan areas to the Sommerfeldt farm.
Again, no luck. Then Rodriguez opened an account on the popular genealogical website, Ancestry.com .
When he entered album names into a search field, his search started to bear fruit, or in this case shaky leaves called “hints,” which Ancestry uses to match entered data with its many records and family trees.
The more album names Rodriguez entered into Ancestry, the more hints he got for a family tree from an Ancestry user named “JulieSommerfeldtW.” Most of that content was private, though the account listed Edwardsville, Illinois, in Madison County. There was the Sommerfeldt name and Illinois connection right down to the county.
Rodriguez messaged JulieSommerfeldtW with news of an old photo album that may belong to her family. Then he sent a link to his video.
Julie Worthen knew it was her family’s album from the first page.
“It was my grandpa and grandma’s wedding picture,” she said.
The album’s opening wedding photo of Albert Sommerfeldt and Augusta Schutz was taken in 1919 in Edwardsville. Albert Sommerfeldt died in Edwardsville in 1957 at age 66. Worthen’s father, Arnold Sommerfeldt, 84, still lives in Edwardsville and is the sole surviving child of her grandparents.
“He’s all about family,” Worthen said of her dad. “This has just lifted his spirits so much.”
Worthen moved from Edwardsville to Prior Lake, Minnesota, a year ago and now is a coordinator for a senior travel club. She first joined Ancestry around six years ago, working side-by-side with her mother, Kathleen Sommerfeldt, to scan family photos and enter family names from the family tree her mother compiled on her own laptop.
Worthen continued that work after her mother’s death in 2015.
As Worthen awaited the delivery of the album _ Rodriguez shipped it to her Sept. 6 _ she anxiously hoped it would provide more information about her paternal grandfather and more inspiration to keep building out the family tree.
Then the album arrived.
The photo album was delivered around noon Sept. 11, and the first person Worthen called was her dad. Her sons _ Garrison, 13, and Jonathan, 16_ were still in school, so Worthen took her first hands-on voyage through the album’s contents with her father there on the phone, a good 550 miles away.
“We went picture by picture,” she said, “and I was telling him every single detail.”
The experience was emotional, reminding her about the significance of the place each person holds, because they are special to their family. Each new family member she discovered had their own talents and contributions that helped future generations.
“All these people are gone, but not forgotten. And I hope that I can give respect to their contributions by preserving and protecting and sharing these photos,” she said.
One of those more notable details was Worthen’s connection to a German immigrant whose lineage literally spans the album’s pages.
Worthen is the great-great-granddaughter of Andine Sommerfeldt, Albert’s grandmother. The album’s 1896 image shows her just before her death the following year. The album’s final page holds a record of her arrival at a New Orleans port on Jan. 5, 1835, when she was 12-year-old Andine Jandt, fresh off the ship Orion, traveling from Hungary.
Worthen still had a catch in her throat three hours after receiving the long-awaited album.
“I love it,” she said. “I mean, it’s amazing. It is truly amazing.”
Worthen said that for her sons, the album transformed their granddad’s tales into real history with real people, and they marveled at the facial features and especially the clothes of those distant relatives.
Worthen noted most of the Sommerfeldt photos in the album were ones she never knew existed, such as those of her grandfather’s older brother, John Sommerfeldt. And when she saw the photo of her grandfather Albert as a young man contemplating a ladder-climbing dog, she also saw a striking resemblance to her youngest son.
Worthen set up a Facebook page to keep her two older sisters and other family members apprised of the album’s contents as she scans more images into her computer. Just like she did with her mom.
“It is so fun filling in my tree,” Worthen said.
As for how such a meticulously crafted photo album centered around a family in Illinois ended up in a South Texas flea market, Worthen has a theory.
Catherine Grace Schaefer was a distant cousin of Worthen’s who was born a Sommerfeldt and appears in a photo in front of the farmhouse. Worthen heard Schaefer may have lived with a daughter in San Antonio before she died in 2017. Worthen thinks the daughter may have moved and the album got misplaced in an estate sale.
“We’re surprised that it got away from the family,” Worthen said.
Worthen intends to give the album to her father in Illinois. In the meantime, she’ll upload every photo to Ancestry and share them with other family members on social media.
“And then we’re going to do something for Mike Rodriguez,” Worthen said.
Rodriguez demurred at the mention of any reward or restitution, stressing that he simply did what was right. In this case, finding the right home for a treasure trove of lost memories.