Jennifer Poff Cooper
CHRISTIANSBURG—In mid August, the MCEAP Thrift Store & More posted the following on its Facebook page, “We received this framed picture in an unknown donation.
“The label on the back states that this is Erwin Messer who married Celeste French. He is wearing a medal indicating he is a Civil War vet who fought for the North. We would like to return the picture to his family if possible. Help appreciated.”
In just one week, their page read:
“Thanks to our extended Facebook community, a great, great grandson has been located and is making arrangements to get the picture.”
Donations flow into the store at a rapid rate. Often folks leave items without the all-volunteer staff even knowing they were deposited, so treasures aren’t uncovered until the workers begin to sort. This was the case with the mysterious portrait, which arrived this spring.
Store manager Margie Vitale priced the picture at $100 because of its valuable frame and hung it in the store for sale. Recently two different gentlemen were interested in buying it, and each called attention to the medal.
Then the staff took notice that there was a name on the back of the photo. With that much information and the special war medal visible, the consensus was to try to find the owner instead of selling the portrait.
The store had success in the past locating owners of various items via its Facebook page—such as keys found in the parking lot or things that people didn’t mean to give away, like a passport—but never to this extent.
“It took on a life of its own,” said Karen Poff, the store’s Facebook manager. “My phone dinged all the time in the week after I put this up. It created a lot of interest in our shoppers and in the community.”
Everyone involved seemed invested.
The post about the Civil War veteran reached 34,699 people, was shared 495 times, and generated 37 comments.
The Facebook community offered suggestions, numerous genealogy researchers chimed in, and finally someone said they thought they knew a descendant.
“We were blown out of the water,” said Poff.
Andrew Etman was the Civil War buff and amateur genealogist who contacted the descendant, Miles Morgan of Charleston, West Virginia.
Morgan’s brother, David, had entered the family’s information on Ancestry.com, which was how Etman made the connection.
In a phone interview, Morgan said his father would have “flipped out with joy” over the discovery, being both a Civil War buff and the family historian.
Morgan had no idea the portrait even existed or how it made its way to Christiansburg, Virginia.
The family had no prior picture of the Lieutenant Colonel, only his epaulets and a framed letter from Morgan’s grandmother explaining their significance. He anticipates putting together the portrait with these items to “display proudly” in his home.
Vitale refused Morgan’s offer to buy the photo, offering to give it to him, but Morgan insisted on making a generous donation to MCEAP.
A volunteer from MCEAP, Ray Lyons, drove the portrait up to Morgan.
The joy of it all, Morgan said, was the interest people took and the work they did to locate him as a relative of the portrait subject.
“I am floored by the excellent genealogy and research,” he wrote on Facebook. Through this research, Morgan was able to access records that told the family a lot more about Lt. Col. Messer.
Morgan said not only was he “knocked over” by this research in the online community, but also by the work that the MCEAP Thrift Store & More does as he got to know Vitale and the store’s mission.
People’s curiosity was satisfied, Morgan’s family gained a wealth of information and a precious portrait, and MCEAP received a donation.
All’s well that ends well.
The Montgomery County Emergency Assistance Program (MCEAP) is a Montgomery County program that helps those in emergency situations with food, clothing, and financial assistance, with the goals of maintaining households and restoring self-sufficiency.
All of the proceeds from the thrift store support the program. Visit www.mceap.com for more information on the store.