Sunday, January 20, 2019

My Search for a Photo of Belle

I spent a lot of time last year searching for a photograph I thought would be easy to find. Spoiler alert - I was not successful. The more attempts I make to find a photo and fail, the more challenged I am to find one.

My Great Grandmother, Lena (Jorgenson) Roscoe had a sister who was very musically inclined and a performer on a small scale. “Belle”, was born Merlin Isabelle Jorgenson in 1871 in Will County, Illinois. Using details mentioned in her obituary I've searched the country for her photo.

She attended Valparaiso University (at that time the Northern Indiana Normal School) about 1892, but I was told they didn't have yearbooks until 1911. I emailed the college and they were able to confirm she was listed in the 1893 catalog as a student in the Music Department. She taught school in her home town of Peotone and was "greatly beloved for many years." 1 City Directories for 1895 & 1902 show her living in Joliet a short distance from Peotone. By 1900, she moved to Chicago and I'm not sure if she was still teaching in Peotone then. In 1904 she moved to Rock Springs, Wyoming where "she became director of music and public speaking of the city schools. She also taught in Menominee, Michigan". 2 I haven't been able to locate any yearbooks for those schools at that time, but I have found her name in the newspapers in Rock Springs, Wyoming from 1904 through 1906.

Newspaper clippings in social columns from Peotone in 1907 state she is in Chicago, studying music at the Columbia College of Music.  In 1910, her occupation was Musician, "on the road". I think this is when, according to her obituary, she was travelling with a Chautauqua around the midwest. More about the Chautauqua in a minute. 

Her obituary states she was married in 1915, but it was actually in 1911. I've found this announcement of her engagement in the Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 4, 1911 3 which was shared in her hometown paper. Last year at the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield I searched the Chicago Daily Tribune, but found nothing about the wedding. The papers were too faded to see very well. Her obituary states that they were married by B. Fay Mills, more about him in a minute. By November 3, 1911 the Peotone Vedette had a mention that Mrs McKee "recently became the bride of Earl McKee". 4  They were expected "to make their home in Fort Worth, Texas." It appears they didn't live in Texas for long.

In "Music News", a trade publication out of Chicago 5 this paragraph about the Del Mar Ladies' Quartet was in a column of news from Los Angeles in July, 1913. By November of that same year, the name of the group was changed to the "Los Angeles Ladies Quartet" and there are two different members, Hulda Besch and and Mrs Laura Johnson Sondea in place of Miss Ethel Verda Ellmore and Miss Ruby Dale. 6  I found out that Miss Ellmore was killed in a car accident in early November. The name "Del Mar" Ladies Quartet lead me down a long path of the wrong group of women who sang with the travelling Chautauqua during the years 1917-1920. I found several advertisements in newspapers, some WITH a photo but the women weren't named individually. I contacted the New York Chautauqua Institution who sent me to the University of Iowa's Redpath Chautauqua Collection. They have info on the travelling Chautauquas and I found the same photo from the ads of the Del Mar Ladies Quartet with the names of those women. None of them were the same women named in the Music News notices. I'm still wondering if there is some connection between the Los Angeles group named Del Mar Ladies Quartet and the Chautauqua group.

The California Digital Newspapers online have the Los Angeles Herald where I found several mentions of the Los Angeles Ladies Quartet (with various spellings). From 1913 to 1917 they held performances in LA, often associated with the Fellowship of Los Angeles. The Fellowship was located in Blanchard Hall and just by chance I found that Mr B. Fay Mills was "permanent minister" there in 1906. B Fay Mills was the minister who married Belle and Earl in 1911 in Illinois (or at least I think it was Illinois, but I haven't found a marriage record).  B Fay Mills was a nationally known revivalist, social reformer and advocate of free religion. The connection between Belle and B Fay Mills seems like a strong one. An interesting thing to note is that in California Voter Registrations, Belle is usually registered as a Socialist. Her sister, Bertha, was married to Jacob O. Bentall who ran for Governor of Minnesota in 1916 as a Socialist, but was arrested and spent some time in Leavenworth, Kansas for violating the espionage act. But I digress.

The last time the Los Angeles Ladies Quartet appear in the newspapers was 1917, and according to her obituary it was 1918 when her husband suffered from an illness which left him an invalid. I wonder if it was polio, but have not found any more information on that. He was a court reporter for the Superior Court of Los Angeles for several years.

So with nothing more from the online newspapers, my search turned to LA City Directories. Belle is listed as a teacher/music teacher from 1922 to 1934. This was where I found her listed with the Los Angeles Coaching School. The LA Public Library was not able to find any information on the teachers of the school and didn't have any yearbooks. I also tried the Music Department of the UCLA library with no luck. 

Los Angeles Coaching School was not an ordinary high school. It was a private tutoring school where Intensive preparation was given in small groups or individually. Some of the more famous students of the school were Will Rogers Jr and the sons of Edgar Rice Burroughs, both mentioned in Belle's obituary.

One more interesting item I found through a search on Google Books was quite a surprise. She obtained copyright on a "scenerio" called "You Supply the Girl", in 1935. 7 I'm not sure if this is a song or a play or exactly what. I'd like to get a copy of that, but if I understand the government copyright website correctly, it would cost $200. I wish that didn't matter, but it does.

The informant on Belle's death certificate was her nephew, Carleton Bentall. From what I've seen, Carleton had one daughter Carol Ann who married Alan Steidley. This is something I need to pursue. I've contacted local libraries, posted requests in facebook groups, I occasionally check Dead Fred and other old photo sites.  Someday I hope to find a photograph of Merlin Belle McKee. One of her as a member of the Los Angeles Ladies Quartet would be great. ANY photo would be wonderful to have. I'm still working on it.

1 Peotone (Illinois) Vedette, Thursday, August 13, 1942, pg 1
2 Ibid.
3 Chicago Daily Tribune, August 4, 1911, pg 6
4 Peotone (Illinois) Vedette, November 3, 1911
5 "Music News", by Watt, Charles E., Vol 5, No. 27, Chicago, July 4, 1913, pg 5, digital images, Internet Archive
6 "Music News", by Watt, Charles E., Vol 5, No. 48, Chicago, November 28, 1913, pg 30, digital images, Internet Archive
7 "Catalog of Copyright Entries. Part 1. {B} Group 2. Pamphlets, Etc." New Series, Vol 32, No. 9 1935, digital image, Library of Congress, Copyright Office


  1. Great research, How long did this take to get all this information?

    1. I had initially contacted some of the schools & libraries a couple of years ago, then put it aside. This past year I probably worked about 4 or 5 months. Things like the city directories and some of the newspaper searches went pretty fast. All told, I've spent nearly a year so far focused on finding her photo. Thanks Claudia!

  2. Do you know "Mr Mike" of ? He is a MAJOR collector of photos and postcards featuring music groups, musical instruments, etc etc. Anything music, he knows it already. He might have an idea for you. And if Belle was ever on a photo postcard, he probably has it. Fingers crossed!

    1. Thank you so much, Wendy! I will absolutely contact him. He sounds like just what I need.

  3. How frustrating! She certainly had many opportunities to be photographed. Hoping your hard work pays off and you find one soon!

    1. Thank you Mary! This has been a little bit of an obsession for me. I won't quit.