Monday, March 12, 2012

Library of Congress Photos of my Forefather

My great grandfather, Frank Gordon Latta. Montana, 1939. Born in 1870, he died in 1940. His left eye was damaged by a splinter when he was chopping wood.

I've written elsewhere about my great grandfather, Frank Latta, and his most famous tracking case--the capture of the train robber and extortionist Ike Gravelle in Montana in 1903. I have a link to that story at the end of this one.

Now, a Latta relative has discovered photos of my great grandfather in our nation's archives, taken by eminent photographer Arthur Rothstein, of Columbia University--and later of Look Magazine. 

During the Great Depression, Rothstein traveled across the country taking what is considered to be the greatest set of photographs ever recorded of American rural life. I didn't realize until now that my great grandfather was one of Rothstein's subjects.

This is the one photograph I had seen. It was reprinted in a magazine I found in my grandmother's scrapbook many years ago. It shows old Frank rolling a cigarette one handed, which is how a cowboy had to roll a cigarette on horseback.  My uncle, Jack Latta, now has the ring. I have a print of this framed--though I had no idea of its origins, in President Roosevelt's and Harry Hopkins' FSA.

Through the Library of Congress link, I learned that photograph is part of a sequence. First the roll of the cigarette, as above. Then ...

Ah, the beauties of a safety match.

Then, that coronary-bustin' pleasure.

I never knew my great grandfather, Frank. But I have an idea he had quite a time entertaining that city slicker photographer from New York City on that day in 1939. Oh the tall tales that must have been told!

In those days, my great grandfather and one of his son's, my great uncle Walter, had a contract to supply horses to a Montana ranch. So Walter Latta was also a subject of the Rothstein lens.

Walter Latta bringing in a horse to be saddled. Photo by Rothstein FSA, 1939.

Walter Latta in real cowboy gear.
Another FSA photo. 1939

Great Uncle Walter. His grandson, my cousin Frank Latta, is a former Wyoming State legislator. This is certainly a face of Depression-era America.

Old Frank had three sons about a year apart just before the turn of the 20th century. You can imagine they had a somewhat wild childhood in Montana. My grandfather Harry told me he went on a cattle drive with his father when he was about twelve or thirteen. Here is a family photograph of all the Latta's then.

Frank Latta at left, beginning to cultivate that Pecos Bill moustache and his wife, my great grandmother Rena. Between them are Walter Latta (photo left), my grandfather Harry and in the front, their brother Bud. This photo isn't by Rothstein but it must have been taken on an eventful day, since Harry and Bud have flowers on their jackets.

I did get to meet everyone in this picture except old Frank. My Grandfather Harry Latta came to California a lot to see us, and Bud lived in Southern California, operating Bud Latta's Welding Shop in Azusa. I finally met Walter Latta when I took my first television job in Tucson, Arizona and he and his wife were living there, shortly before his death. I remember he wore his cowboy hat in the house, and told me he loved Tucson because you could "live inside the city limits and still keep a mule in your backyard." He was, in a word, a character.

And I knew my great grandmother Rena, who lived into her 90s, because she lived near my Uncle Bud in Southern California.

But I sure would have liked to meet old Frank, who died, as the old West was also dying, about a year after his meeting with photographer Arthur Rothstein. I wish I could have heard the tale of Ike Gravelle from the mouth of the old guy himself.

My mother did know him a little--though she grew up in Spokane, Washington and he remained in Bozeman. Unlike her Montana relatives, my mother loathed animals of all kinds. And yet Frank, at least once, was able to coax her up onto a horse. A man with a personality powerful enough to match my mother's is a man I would liked to have known.

My mother Faye Latta, with her grandfather, Frank Latta, in Montana, about 1936. She would have been about fifteen. And she isn't smiling.

Frank Latta Captures A Train Robber

Latta Photos in the Library of Congress

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