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Texas Tales

published: October 16th 2020

Faded Photographs
    “Adopt a Family” says the hand-lettered sign on the box in the antique store. “Put ‘em on your mantle. $3 each.”
    Inside the box lay a collection of old photographic portraits mounted on cardboard, their once black-and-white images faded to sepia. Babies had been shushed long enough to be posed in elaborate studio settings, stern-looking wo-men sat stiffly in dark dresses buttoned to their neck, mustachioed men in suits and high-collars stood next to their wives before a fake studio background.
    Vintage photographs seem to be an increasingly popular inventory item in antique stores or malls. The going rate is only a few bucks per image, though like most collectibles, prices vary from less than that to a lot more.
    Collectors are particularly interested in photographs mounted on ornately decorated cardboard bearing the name of the photography studio. They also like vintage clothing, interesting studio backgrounds, work by a particular photographer, Civil War and Old West images, disaster photographs, early town and city scenes and interesting shots of interesting people doing interesting things.
    While the people and subject matter vary, most of the faded images you see in shops have something very sad in common: No one ever bothered to write the name of the person or place on the back of the photograph.
    The people in these images could be your ancestors. Or mine. One thing is sure: They are long dead, and so, too, is anyone who could identify them.
    Caches of photographs usually come from estate sales. Often they are displayed in the same trunk or box they had been kept in by the last survivor of their family. At least the last survivor who cared enough to keep them.
    Over the years, I’ve acquired dozens of unidentified photographs, fascinated by the stories they hint at.
    For example, there’s the older woman in the black dress with white polka dots, standing in front of a car holding a photograph of a man in uniform. The only clue is the date, “May 29, 1944.” Is he her son? Grandson? Had the family just received news of his death? The questions go on and on, the answers likely unattainable at this late date.
     Just as frustrating is finding a particularly interesting shot of an early-day community or scene that would be far more useful, not to say valuable, if a location had been given. Sometimes, happily, an image will contain enough clues for an identification to be made, but not always.
    But it’s the unidentified photos of people that particularly haunt me. I feel sorry for these folks and their families, but not because they are no longer with us. That, obviously, awaits us all. In a way, they are only partially dead, stuck in an in-between dimension. An instant of their life captured on tintype, glass plate or early Kodak negative still exists, but is no longer conntected to their name.
    All that remains of them are images, waiting for someone willing to pay $3 for it. Of course, if that old photograph does bear some form of identification its value can increase tremendously. Images of identified Civil War soldiers or officers and long-gone structures bring much higher prices.
    Most of the old photographs haunting the antique stores of Texas will remain forever nameless, but we can protect ourselves, our family and our friends from this photographic purgatory.
    Make sure you label your film-era pictures. Go back and label the ones you have while you can still remember who’s in them. If your parents or grandparents have a drawer full of old pictures, spend some time with them and get the names of your forebears on those pictures while you still have a chance.
    Admirably, many librar-ies and archives holding photographic collections actively try to get unidentified images pegged. They publish interesting photographs and hope someone will be able to come up with a name or location.
    The internet has raised the odds of being able to ID an old picture. A genealogical magazine, My Family Tree, publishes scans of nameless photographs and has had success in attaching names to faces.
    Also, thanks to the net, family historians can at least learn some things about their unlabeled photos. Various websites chronicle clothing and hair styles by era, types of photographs, and other information which can at least pinpoint the approximate date of an old photograph.
    Digital technology also makes it possible to restore a photograph and enhance features not readily apparent in the originals. Of course, the same technology also makes it possible to trick up photographs, but that’s another story.
***
    The black-and-white photograph shows a chubby little boy wearing a “Leave it to Beaver”-style baseball cap reposing on an un-carpeted floor with an African lion’s front leg draped cozily over his shoulder. The lion’s wearing a cap, too.
    From nose to tail, the female lion is longer than the boy is tall. Though the lion was perfectly capable of sudden instinct-driven violence, the eight-year-old snuggled next to the seemingly docile animal looks quite at ease. But that’s only because he didn’t know any better. The lion’s grownup owner had assured the kid and his grandfather that the big cat was tame as could be, and back in 1957, youngsters grew up believing they could always trust an adult.
I was that boy.
    My grandfather, L.A. Wilke, then editor of the Texas Game and Fish Magazine (now the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine) took that picture of me with the lion, a somewhat worn snapshot-sized print I still have. Granddad was in Port Isabel to cover the Texas International Fishing Tournament and had taken me along.
    Until recently, about all I could tell anyone about that old photograph was that it had been taken by my granddad at the Rio Grande Valley’s venerable Yatch Club Hotel the summer before I started fourth grade.
    More than 50 years later, with a nod to the late radio commentator Paul Harvey, I learned the rest of the story.
    In Graham, doing re-search for a book on cowboy stuntman Dean Smith, who grew up in the area, I got invited to supper at a ranch in Young County owned by Anita Evans. Her grandfather, Charles Edward Hipp, had been in the oil business.
    Texas has had no shortage of colorful oilmen, and Hipp, though lesser known than many of his wheeler-dealer contempories, rises near the top of the oil drum.
    Born in the backwoods of Arkansas in 1904, Hipp had to grow up in a hurry. His mother did not survive his birth and four years later, his father died. The child’s grandparents took him in and later he lived with family friends, but at 12 Hipp ran away to join a circus. With only six years of schooling, the youngster got a secondary education in the real world while working under and around the big top. And early on he developed an affinity for the exotic animals that helped draw the crowds.
    The nation’s exploding energy industry lured Hipp from the circus world to another kind of carnival, the oil patch. Hipp worked on cable drilling rigs for a time in Oklahoma before marrying and coming to Texas in 1934.  Considered one of the best cable tool drillers in the business, four years later he began an oil well service company in Graham.
    Hipp made good money in the oil business, but he was a born showman. A good trick rider, in the early 1950s he started putting on rodeos in Graham and elsewhere in West Texas. Before long his rodeo traveled the national circuit, even performing in Ma-dison Square Garden. 
    As we talked about Hipp, his other granddaughter, Cynthia Mor-rison, handed me a 1955 copy of Life Magazine that contained a spread on her dad and the family pet, a lion named Blondie. The headline on the piece pretty much said it all: “Living Room Lion – Blondie, A Docile 200-Pound Texan, Becomes A Member of the Family.”
    Hipp bought the lion from the Dallas zoo in 1953 when she was a 12-week-old cub. By the time the Life article appeared, Blondie was a familiar sight in Graham. She travelled in their station wagon, boated with the Hipp’s on Possum Kingdom Lake and even shared their bathtub.
    Looking over the article, I told Hipps’ daughters about my encounter with a tamed lion when I was a kid. Then it struck me.
    “I wonder if your dad ever took Blondie down to Port Isabel?”
    Neither granddaughter knew for sure, but both said he certainly might have. After all, Hipp had hauled Blondie to New York City to be on the Garry Moore Show. He took the lion a lot of other places as well.
    Back in Austin, I did some online research and soon found the answer to my question.
    On July 25, 1957, an Associated Press story said that Hipp and fellow oilman F.J. Reed of Graham intended to enter five-year-old Blondie the lion in the TIFT’s children’s competition. Whether Hipp succeeded in getting Blondie registered in the fishing tournament wasn’t reported, but a follow-up story said he definitely took her to Port Isabel.
    Blondie never caused any problems for Hipp, but another of his pets sure did.  
    A leopard named Randy mauled his then two-and-a-half-year-old grandson Charles “Bubba” Hipp at his grandfather’s house in Graham in 1962. The boy recovered, but still bears the scars of the attack.
    Devastated, the oilman sold off Randy and most of his other animals, but he just couldn’t get rid of Blondie. She died of old age in 1968, a beloved member of the family. The man who had raised her and made her famous lived until 1984, only four years after he staged his last rodeo.

SLS

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