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Dozens of photos, discovered among items sold at auction, returned to family

Published: Feb. 8, 2021 at 10:25 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - This is the story of dozens of family photos that were almost lost to time, but weren’t thanks to the kindness of one Wichita man. Interestingly, this story itself, the one you’re reading was also almost lost to time.

Factfinder 12 began investigating this story more than a year ago right as the pandemic was beginning. As attentions turned to the crisis, work on this story ended...until now.

We all know photos captures moments in time. Ice cream with dad, a trip to the barber shop, Thanksgiving dinner. Moments so important someone thinks they need to snap a photo. They become images of a time, long since passed, that are forever preserved for future generations.

But that’s not always the case as antique dealer Kody Beltz discovered as he sorted through a box of items he purchased at an auction in Winfield, Kansas.

“I started going through the box, and I’ve just found these in the bottom of it,” Beltz said as he thumbed through forty some odd number of old photos at his kitchen table.

The pictures were just typical family photos. People standing in front of cars, visiting, doing the things so “important” someone thought to snap a photo.

“They were definitely farmers. You’ve got a lot of farm photographs and people out in the country and that kind of things,” Beltz said. “You know, barns, cows. Kind of what you’d expect for Kansas in the probably 30s and 40s.”

Kody, who owns and operates The Good Finch Company, hoped present day technology might help him find pictures’ rightful owners, so he placed an ad on Facebook. That’s where Factfinder 12 comes into the story. Kody agreed to let us help, and we got to work tracking down someone who might want the photos returned.

There were some clues included with the pictures. The last name Wells and stamps on the back of some of the photos from the shop where they were processed in Concordia, Kansas. Unfortunately, during a visit to Concordia, no one we spoke with recognized any of the buildings in the pictures. The last name Wells is also a fairly common one.

It was technology that helped crack the case though. Searching the Internet for variations of the names written on the back turned up an obituary for Donald Wells from 2007, and it contained a list of Wells’ surviving relatives. Relatives that led the search to a man named Steve Elstrom.

“I was fairly amazed that any photos of my great aunt and great uncle would be out there,” Elstrom said.

Elstrom is the great nephew of Donald and Ronelda Wells, and one of the only people left with a connection to the family in the found photos.

“He and his wife never had kids, so there aren’t any direct ancestors,” Elstrom added.

Flipping through the images of his family in those days long past, Elstrom noted and appreciated the rural homes, the classic cars and the man, without whom, the memories would have been lost forever.

“You know, in doing estate sales, you never know what you’re going to run into,” Beltz said. “Some families have saved every photograph. In some situations there was no family, and so there’s nobody who wants these things.”

But that wasn’t the situation this time.

“I know that would have been the easy thing to do just throw those things away. Get what was of interest in value. So I appreciate you, not doing that,” Elstrom told Beltz.

Elstrom gathered the pictures and headed back home after meeting with Kody Belts. He said he’d share them with other family members and divvy them up now that they were once again where they belonged.

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