Mystery develops after old photo of a child discovered in Grande Cache thrift store

·3 min read
This photograph of a little girl, dated 1924 and signed by a well-known American photographer, has sparked a mystery after it was discovered in a Grande Cache, Alta., thrift shop. (Submitted by Elesa Willies - image credit)
This photograph of a little girl, dated 1924 and signed by a well-known American photographer, has sparked a mystery after it was discovered in a Grande Cache, Alta., thrift shop. (Submitted by Elesa Willies - image credit)

Author Elesa Willies has a real-life mystery she hopes you can help solve.

Willies recently discovered an old photo of a young girl while volunteering at the United Church thrift store in Grande Cache, 435 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

"I was going to throw something in the garbage bin and this picture was sitting right on top of everything else," she said. "I said 'Who chucked this away?'"

Willies was told the store doesn't keep old photos like that. Who would want to buy it?

"I said, 'Well, I'll take it,' because I've always loved history and I've loved mysteries," she said.

"It's a beautiful picture, it's done in 1924 of this little girl and so I took it."

Elesa Willies holds the portrait she rescued from the garbage at a Grande Cache thrift store.
Elesa Willies holds the portrait she rescued from the garbage at a Grande Cache thrift store.(Submitted by Elesa Willies)

The 66-year-old Willies quickly went from volunteer to detective.

"I was just curious, I wanted to find out who this little girl was, and what the connection was, and how it ended up in our thrift shop, because we're stuck in the middle of nowhere.

"What we can sort of guesstimate is the little girl is probably about two in the photograph and that was 1924, so if she's still alive, which I highly doubt, she'd be like 99 or 100 years old now."

Thinking the girl in the photograph might have descendants who would like the photo, Willies began investigating further.

The signature, location and date that appears on the photo.
The signature, location and date that appears on the photo. (Submitted by Elesa Willies)

The signature on the portrait was difficult to read, but it also appeared to have the word Breton, which happens to be the name of a village about 100 km southwest of Edmonton.

Willies got in contact with the village and its museum.

"The curator of the museum there actually phoned me and said his wife thinks that it says Boston, not Breton, and she then had correctly identified who the photographer was," Willies said.

"We managed to narrow down that it was Emile Brunel."

That led WIllies to a project called Friends of Brunel Park, located on the grounds of Brunel's former home in the Catskills of southeastern New York state. The non-profit organization collects the artist and photographer's work and is open to the public.

The owner confirmed the portrait was taken by Brunel but had no information on who the little girl was or how the photo wound up in Alberta.

Brunel owned dozens of photography studios throughout the eastern U.S., including Boston. He became quite famous for his work, and was recruited to take pictures of Hollywood stars. It's safe to assume whoever commissioned the photo would have been quite well off. Beyond that, not much else is known.

Willies has shared the photo on social media in hopes someone might have some answers.

As an added bonus, Willies, who authored "Footsteps and Whispers — The Series'' about Grande Cache ghost stories and strange encounters, may have some new material to work with for a mystery.

The only question is, will it be solved?

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