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Local man connects orphaned photographs with their families Sunday, February 2, 2003

By Teresa S. Newton

The Morning Newstnewton@nwaonline.net

Joe Bott operates an orphanage from the basement of his home east of Springdale. The lost, the abandoned and the unwanted find their way to him. Some sharp and crisp. Others dim by their experiences.

In the past two years, he's connected 123 with families. Others have found homes, but he isn't always informed.

Bott's "orphans" are photographs, thousands from his personal collection and contributions to his archival Web site, www.DeadFred.com.

"You see a photo of someone who existed. It's their light, even though they're long gone," Bott said.

ARCHIVAL ADDICTION

Bott has collected photographs for years -- 15,000 to date -- but one picture made the 56-year-old decide to try to connect film and family.

A photo of a mother and child from the early 1900s was particularly touching, he said. Surely, some family member is still alive to cherish the photo, he thought.

Bott had a good start because the print included both names, the child's birth date and the date the photo was taken. He searched the Social Security Death Index for the child's name and learned the man died in 1995. Next, Bott searched for anyone with that man's name and eventually found his son. At first the son was skeptical, but Bott sent the photo to him anyway.

"Is this a drug? The feeling is wonderful," Bott said of learning the son appreciated the photograph of his father and grandmother.

DEAD FRED GOES ONLINE

By early 2001, Bott planned to put some of his photographs online as a way for others to find familiar faces. He hired Vulcan Creative Labs in Fayetteville to design the site.

A unique name would make the project stand out in the maze of genealogy Web sites, he said. The inspiration came from Bott's photograph of Frederick III, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia, taken after his death.

"People remember the name," Bott said.

DeadFred.com: The Original Genealogy Photo Archive was born March 16 that year with 2,000 photographs and modest expectations.

The site was an instant success.

"Within a week, we had so many hits we were freaking out," Bott said.

He enlisted his daughter-in-law, Claire Bott, who lives in Virginia, to handle e-mail correspondence, research and site development. Jeannette Balleza writes and edits promotional materials and assists in marketing and advertising in Springdale.

Bott said the whole project would be impossible without the support of his wife, Laurie, a physical education teacher at Jones Elementary School in Springdale.

"She lets me do this and takes care of everything," he said, referring to Laurie taking care of the house and the couple's two teenage sons, Matthew and Andrew, while Bott scans photos. He estimated he works on DeadFred until 8 p.m. each day after work and on weekends.

Today, the DeadFred.com has 25,000 photographs representing 5,500 surnames and numerous "mystery" photos of unidentified people. About 8,000 of the photos are from Bott's personal collection, with the rest donated and uploaded by site visitors. Five hundred to 5,000 new photographs or yearbook pages are added each month.

In recent weeks, the site had 2.3 million "hits," with 17,625 visitors spending between eight and 11 minutes per visit. The average time a person spends on one Internet site is about three minutes, Bott said.

DeadFred.com's newsletter has 2,000 subscribers.

Family Tree Magazine named Bott's creation to its list of 101 Best Web Sites for 2002.

INTERNET REUNIONS

Personal stories reveal more about the Web site's success than numbers, Bott said.

One woman found 31 family members through a photo album Bott purchased and placed online.

Several people from Missoula, Mont., have found family photographs.

Bott's site had several photographs that a woman had wanted from a relative's estate many years ago, but she was denied access to them. Through DeadFred.com, she now has copies of those photos.


"I found my great aunt's husband. I had searched for him everywhere. The item even had details about how he and my great-aunt Ella met."

-- Allison MacDuffee

"I just discovered my Uncle Lawrence Allen Blaisdell. ... He dated several young starlets. Norma Shearer was one."

-- Joan Blaisdell

"Howard Broughton is a dead ringer for my father, and I think he may be a relative from my dad's mother's side."

-- Mary Killian

"The site not only surprised me, but it brought my husband to tears. ... You have pictures of his father. ... When I began the search for information seven years ago, we knew next to nothing."

-- Pam Crawford

DEAD FRED'S OPERATIONS

Bott has simple rules for submitting photos to DeadFred.com:

  • No photos taken after 1960.
  • Only photos of deceased people.
  • Only what is socially acceptable.

"If it's your grandmother in her bloomers at the swimming hole, then OK," Bott said. "If it's just a naked person, then no."

People can upload their family photos onto the site by following a simple form.

For prints, Bott encourages people to send copies to him and not the originals. If they send originals, Bott said they should be considered donations to his collection.

Apparently, people don't mind sending originals. Bags and boxes of photos arrive each week, piling up on tables alongside Bott's computer, waiting to be scanned.

For photo seekers, the site offers searches by name, place, date range, photo type and other options.

All photos on the site can be downloaded for free.

Prints in Bott's collection are available free only if the seeker can prove a family relationship to the person in the photograph. After that, Bott waits six months before mailing the photo to see if others request the print.

OUT OF POCKET

Expenses for DeadFred.com come directly from Bott's pocket. It is a hobby, not a business, he said.

Costs include archival-quality sheet protectors and boxes to keep the prints, tin types and daguerreotypes safe from light and contaminants; Web site maintenance; postage fees; and a few office supplies.

Web site visitors are encouraged to send donations, about $1 per person. Response has been good, Bott said, but only totaled $300 last year. He also received a $250 grant last year from a genealogy writer.

"I don't want to charge for this. I hope some genealogy societies will help sponsor," Bott said.

He is working with a Eureka Springs business on gaining sponsorships for the site.

Bott said he hopes to retire in five years, and that, by then, the site will be financially self-sufficient.

As for his own retirement support, Bott has spent 30 years in product development, including the last 10 years at Tyson Foods.

FINDING FAMILY

The story of Bott's love of images goes back to his rather photoless youth. His family came to the United States in the late 1800s from Ireland and Germany, settling in Pennsylvania's coal-mining country and eventually moving to New York and New Jersey.

"We were not too affluent, very blue collar. We didn't take photos," he said. "If a relative visited and took a photo, they might give us a copy."

While in the Navy in 1965, Bott wandered into an antique store in Newport, R.I. He spotted an album with about 30 photos and bought it for $18.

"What draws you to something like that?" he asked rhetorically.

Through the years, Bott has found individual prints, boxes of snapshots and file cabinets of portraits available for sale at antique stores, flea markets and estate sales. He brought a huge suitcase full of "cabinet card" photos home after a business trip to Duluth, Minn., and picked up photo albums and yearbooks when his checkbook would allow. Cabinet cards are photos on heavy cardboard and were popular around the 1880s.

His favorites were taken after 1900 and before World War I, when cameras became more available to the public. Photographs from that time seem more happy and carefree, Bott said.

"The quality of the photographs doesn't matter to me. It's the expressions," he said.

His collections include pictures of Madame Curie, a post-World War II Japanese photo album, group school portraits, entertainment promotional photos and "death pictures" of dead family members, which were popular in the 1800s.

Bott has paid as much as $200 for a daguerreotypes and as little as a couple of dollars for a box full of snapshots.

The photo he wants most is of Mary McEntire Bott, his grandmother, he said.

One image collection on his Web site makes the connection to Bott's family. The "Shenandoah" photo album includes 90 photographs from an affluent family in the Pennsylvania area where his ancestors lived. Although Bott's family might not have been able to participate in the leisurely activities of the family pictured, they might have seen the same scenery, he said.

"Maybe I'm collecting my family in a way," he said.


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