John Vachon caption: Michigan, North Dakota, October 1940.
“I miss talking to him. He was always interested in what we did. He took the time to listen. He didn’t pass judgment. He taught me about responsibility. You do the best job you can do whatever it is you want to be. You practice strong family values and know that you need to work hard to earn a living.” -Laurie Acuncius, daughter of Charles Thompson
“We didn’t have enough pictures of South Dakota, so (they) let me stay in South Dakota for a while…I was gone a long time on that trip, I think about four months, maybe a little longer, and I had maybe half a dozen ports of call, that is, a project or a county supervisor who had done something special. But apart from going to those particular places, I was free to drive around wherever I wanted to. This whole country was new to me, actually I’d never been in those states before, so it was just a case of every morning looking at the road map. Well, I would drive to a town because I liked the sound of the name. There was a place in North Dakota called Starkweather, and it seemed that there should be some great pictures there so I went there.”
“I don’t want to make it sound mystical, but in the Dakotas there isn’t much. You know, you drive along for miles and especially in the winter, all you see is white, and you see the grain elevator up there about twenty miles ahead, and you know you’re coming to a town, and there’s going to be something to photograph there. But there was a real, almost coordination between the roving eye and the steering wheel and the brake. You’d drive along and look at something.” -from an interview with John Vachon, April 28, 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
John Vachon took over 300 pictures in North Dakota and South Dakota in October and November of 1940. It was his third year of full-time documentary photography for the Farm Security Administration. He was highly influenced by fellow FSA photographer Walker Evans, whose work is described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as: “…the vernacular ― the indigenous expressions of a people found in roadside stands, cheap cafés, simple bedrooms, and small-town main streets. His photographs of roadside architecture, rural churches, small-town barbers, and cemeteries reveal a deep respect for the neglected traditions of the common man.”
What did Vachon see on this quiet street in Michigan, North Dakota, on a Sunday in October? Perhaps he saw the opportunity to capture for posterity the simple pleasures of life experienced by people whose futures might wind up as humble as their past and present. Or maybe he was just curious. Did he learn who these people were and what was going on at the time? His caption gives us no clues. All he wrote was, “Michigan, North Dakota, October 1940.” Seventy-one years later, I decided to find out. My first thought was to look at the message written on the sidewalk.
I guessed that it might be somebody’s birthday, and there was a scavenger hunt going on. It was definitely Sunday, because three of the seven photos Vachon took in the town mentioned “Sunday morning.” So that explains why the boy sitting on the wagon was wearing a tie, and the other boys looked somewhat dressed up. But who was the boy on the wagon?
I contacted the Grand Forks Herald, the largest daily newspaper in the area, and talked to reporter Chuck Haga, who was familiar with Vachon’s work and agreed to publish the photo and an article about my inquiry. It began:
“He would be close to 80 years old now, maybe 82. He was a tall boy, a child of the Great Depression, but in 1940 he possessed a wagon and a jaunty cap, the sort that Spanky wore in the ‘Our Gang’ movie shorts, or Jimmy Cagney in his ‘Roaring 20s’ movies.”
“In a black-and-white image taken by famed photographer John Vachon, the boy is wearing his Sunday best clothes, including a dress shirt and tie and the cloth cap. He appears to be 10 or 12 years old and sits in the wagon, legs astraddle and hands clasping the handle as he would the reins of a horse. He sits there and studies a sentence scrawled in chalk on a sidewalk – a sidewalk in Michigan, N.D.”
“Is the boy you? Or might he be your father, an uncle, an old friend?” -Grand Forks Herald, December 11, 2011
There was no response until about a month later when I received an email from local writer and freelance reporter Maria Vasichek. She told me that she was determined to find out the identity of the boy, and that she would get back to me when she had some leads. A month later, she emailed me with some good news (email edited and condensed by me).
“After two months of searching and several dead ends, the little boy in the wagon has been identified. His name is Charles Thompson. Charles grew up in Michigan, ND. He passed away a few years ago. The first step in this process was to rerun your article in our local newspapers, the Nelson County Arena and the Lakota American. The second step was to make enlargements of the original picture from the Library of Congress and mail them and the Herald article out to various men in that age group. I received several tips that didn’t work out, but then several persons said they thought it was Charles Thompson.”
“I checked the 1983 Michigan Centennial Book and learned he had a brother, Dean, of Northwood, ND. I contacted him and he said he saw the picture and article in the Herald in December and he, too, thought it might be Charles. Dean called last night and told me that he and his family sat around the Easter table and compared pictures of Charles to the little boy, and all family members present believe it is Charles. He said that his daughter commented that Charles’s left ear was a dead giveaway. They are excited to pass the picture and article along to Charles’s children.”
“The picture was taken on the north side of 2nd Street. The United Church of Christ Congregational Church was on the west corner of this block and the Michigan Central Telephone Office was on the east corner. You can see the telephone office building in the picture. Both the church and the telephone office are gone now. The church was moved to Pioneer Village at Stump Lake, near Lakota. Vachon took several pictures of the UCC church that same day. It was a Sunday morning and in one picture he got all the neat old cars along with an old wooden wheelchair that was parked by the front door.”
John Vachon caption: Church during Sunday morning services. Michigan, North Dakota, October 1940.
I interviewed Dean Thompson, Charles’s brother; and Laurie Acuncius, Charles’s daughter, who provided me plenty of photos of her father and his family.
I also talked briefly with Doris Thompson, Charles’s widow, and this is part of what she told me.
Doris (Peterson) was born in 1928. She and Charles married in 1956, in the Detroit area, where she grew up. She met him while he was in the Air Force. He was on leave visiting relatives in Detroit. Doris knew some of his cousins and met him during a family get-together. They married about a year later, after Charles got out of the service.
He moved in with his aunt and uncle in Detroit, and got a job as a business agent for the Laborers Local Union in Detroit, where his uncle was the president. When the job was eliminated, he and Doris, now married, moved to Saginaw, Michigan, where Charles got a job as a business agent for the Teamsters Union local. Eventually, that job also ended, and they moved back to the Detroit area, where Charles got a job with Jorgenson Steel, first as a steel cutter, and later as a truck driver. He worked for the company until he retired. They lived most of their married life in Wixom, a Detroit suburb, and had four children. Charles G. (Chuck) Thompson died on November 2, 2001, at the age of 68.
Front row: Charles in middle, sister Dolores at left, and brother Dean at right. Back row, left to right: Charles’s grandfather (also named Charles Thompson); Charles’s sisters Charlotte and Margaret; and Charles’s father Alvin.
Interview with Dean Thompson, brother of Charles Thompson, conducted April 24, 2012.
Manning: When were you born?
Manning: What street was this picture taken on?
Thompson: It didn’t have a name then. There was a telephone office on the corner. There was a reservoir out in that field at the end of the street. The Congregational Church was at the other end of the street. My house would have been west of where that picture was taken, about two or three blocks.
Manning: Do you have any idea what was going on in the picture, and why your brother had a tie on?
Thompson: I don’t know. It could’ve been a birthday party. We didn’t usually dress up in those days.
Manning: What were your parent’s names?
Thompson: Alvin and Adelaide. Everybody called her Addie. Her maiden name was Garrison.
Manning: What did your father do for a living?
Thompson: He worked in a store most of his life. It was a general merchandise store, groceries, ready-to-wear clothing, and stuff like that. It was called the Johnson store. My mom and dad ran a restaurant during the World War II years. It was called the Club Café. We washed a lot of dishes and carried water. There was no water works in town. There was a pump in the alley behind the restaurant.
Manning: So you didn’t have running water?
Thompson: No, but we had electricity.
Manning: What about indoor toilets?
Thompson: Not when I was growing up.
Manning: How many children did they have?
Thompson: Six. Charles was two years older than me. I had a twin brother.
Manning: What was life like in Michigan, North Dakota at that time?
Thompson: It was great then. It was small, but we didn’t know anything different. It was happy times; it was good times.
Manning: Did your parents have a car?
Thompson: Not always.
Manning: If you needed to go out of town, where would you go, and how would you get there?
Thompson: We could go to Devils Lake or Grand Forks on the train. We had a train station in town. But the only time I remember anyone in my family doing that was for medical reasons.
Manning: Didn’t you go to Grand Forks when you needed to shop for Christmas or go to a movie?
Thompson: I never did those things, not when I was small.
Manning: What did you do for fun? It was a pretty small place.
Thompson: We played a lot of ball. We always had a big garden that we helped tend. We lived right next to a big old slough, and we went rafting all the time.
Manning: What’s a slough?
Thompson: Just a body of water that has no inlet or outlet, and smells bad after a while.
Manning: When you grew up, did you stay in town?
Thompson: After I got out of high school, I moved about 20 miles away to McVille.
Manning: What did you do for a living?
Thompson: I worked in a creamery for several years, and then I was in manufacturing the rest of my life. I worked in a small factory that made farm machinery.
Manning: Did Charles graduate from high school?
Thompson: He went into the Air Force before he graduated, but they gave him a diploma anyway. That was during the Korean War. He was an exceptional student. When he got out of the Air Force, he moved to Detroit. He would come home probably once a year when his kids were growing up.
Manning: What was your brother like?
Thompson: He was stubborn. We fought like cats and dogs when we were kids, but we got along real good.
Manning: In the picture that John Vachon took, I think your brother looks like a boy that would never get into trouble.
Thompson: You’re fairly right, there.
Excerpts from interview with Laurie Acuncius, daughter of Charles Thompson, June 22, 2012
Laurie Thompson Acuncius was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1965. Her father was working there for the Teamsters Union at the time. She is the youngest of four children. The family moved back to the Detroit area about 1969.
“When I was growing up, my dad was a steel cutter for Jorgensen Steel on the afternoon shift, so he didn’t get home until after 11:00. We were already in bed by that time, of course. And then he went to work just before we got home from school. We only saw him on the weekends. Much later, he drove a truck for the company and transferred to the day shift.”
“He was with my three brothers more than he was with me. He was in Boy Scouts with them. He taught my brothers a lot about trains and building electric trains. He always had a train table in the house. He taught my brothers, and even their friends, how to wire the train tables. He passed on his interest in woodworking to my brother, David, who now works in construction. He also took them fishing, but he took me, too.”
“I miss talking to him. He was always interested in what we did. He took the time to listen. He didn’t pass judgment. He would give me a lot of advice, if I asked him for it. He always told us that when you look for a job, take the benefits into account, because if you don’t get health insurance, the hourly wage might not be enough. I learned a lot from him. He taught me about responsibility. You do the best job you can do whatever it is you want to be. You practice strong family values and know that you need to work hard to earn a living.”
“My dad had the only pickup truck in the neighborhood, and if a neighbor needed to borrow it he always said yes. It was a stick shift, and all of us kids and most of our friends learned to drive a stick with his truck. Dad was the same with yard tools, hand tools, and whatever. You could always borrow them as long as you returned the stuff when you were finished. We kids are the same way. We always try and help our friends and neighbors by loaning out needed items and/or physically helping to complete the task. The more I think about it, I see that Dad passed on many qualities to us that I never realized, until I stood back and looked. I also see that I have passed them on to my children.”
“He didn’t talk much about his childhood. When he first got diagnosed with emphysema, I started a family tree. I asked him a lot of questions. I found out that he was a cryptologist in the Air Force. We teased him about decoding secret messages. He told me once that when he was young, he worked on farms to earn money. He always wore dress pants and a nice shirt. I never saw him in a pair of jeans until I bought him a pair. After that, he always wore jeans. All of us still work with trains. My two kids have full train sets that my dad gave them. I even have a caboose with my dad’s name on it.”
“My dad died when my son was only two years old. The main cause of death was emphysema, but he had other medical problems as well. My daughter and my father were close. After he became bedridden, they would sit together and watch TV. He would watch cartoons she liked and she would watch his favorite westerns. She just graduated from high school. She was salutatorian. My dad would have been proud.”
Charles Thompson: 1933 – 2001
*Story published in 2012.