The best photos are not always the best photographs. Blurred focus, poor lighting, or even cutoff framing will not detract from a picture that has a good story. And photo postcards like this one often have the best mystery tales.
The imagination looks into the photo and sees a story, but it is very short, often minimalist with only a few characters. And though the main protagonist is there, the time and the place are not always clear, since the clues, like breadcrumbs in a fairytale, are scattered and may not lead anywhere. Any action is only suggested, and never explained. The ending can be as unsatisfying as a foreign language movie, but still we re-read the image over and over, trying to complete a hidden story.
The card back gives us our character's name - Uncle Ed in his band uniform - standing at attention with his cornet and music stand. His uniform lacks the fancy embroidery of most town bands, but it does have a fine trouser leg stripe, and on his collar a musical lyre with the initials U.S. I believe this is a U.S. Army bandsman from about the same time as Jesse Romig who served in the 11th Cavalry Band in Iowa. The epaulets and coat match army uniforms, but there is insufficient detail to say which unit. My guess is an infantry band.
His full name is Edward Rister from Oliver County, North Dakota and I found him in the 1910 census, living there on his father's farm. Born in Germany, June 1883, his family came to America in 1891, and Ancestry.com even found the ship manifest listing him with his father Abbrlow Rister and mother Margaretta. Uncle Ed's sister could be either Mary, Lilly, Ida, Bertha, Freda, or Emma. His brother Otto Rister shows up at No. 24 on the 1917 North Dakota plat map, which helps convey the amazing flatness of the great plains. The population of the county in 1900 was only 990, but a major wave of immigration in the next decade took it to a remarkable 3,577 by 1910. Now one hundred years later. the population has declined to 1,846. Perhaps smaller families account for that.
Miss Bertha Bertsch was born in 1902 and her father and grandfather, Christian Bertsch Jr. & Sr., ran a blacksmith shop in Bismark, ND. If we suppose that she was 8 or 9 when she received this, the photo is about 1911-12.
Fortunately a thoughtful descendant wrote down Uncle Ed's last name as searching for Bister would not have brought as many good hits. The message and handwriting suggest Edward had limited skill in English, but probably his music was better. As his trail in history disappears before the next decade's census, the annotation would seem correct, and he dies in 1912.
Was he an army bandsman? Just across the Missouri River from Bismark, the capital of North Dakota, is Fort Lincoln. It was established in 1895, to replace an earlier fort of the Indian Wars period, and was the only likely place to have a regimental army band. A German farmer's son who had a talent for music and wanted to see the world, would certainly look to military life as a way out. And if he had just joined up, he'd pay a dollar to a photographer for a few photos to send off to family and firnds.
My contribution to Sepia Saturday
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