A Surprise Discovery Marks 1st Anniversary of ‘Mystery Dancer’

Ursula and her parents on San Leandro Bay (San Francisco)

Ursula and her parents on San Leandro Bay (San Francisco)

Guess what? MysteryDancer.net just marked its first anniversary. When I started this blog, I had no idea what, if anything, I would find out about Ursula and her family. It turns out quite a lot, and there is more to come!

I also had no idea I would enjoy this project so much. I love researching Ursula’s life and times, and sharing her story and photos with you, my readers. Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Two-year-old Ursula and mother Clara

Two-year-old Ursula and mother Clara

Now I have a tale of synchronicity and surprise for you. You may recall that I started this blog and my “search” for Ursula after buying an antique photo album at last year’s Leiper’s Fork yard sale from Yeoman’s in the Fork, a rare book and document gallery that had participated in the community event.

Just this past weekend, my husband, Michael, and I were visiting Leiper’s Fork again, after having gone to a nearby vintage and antique “pop-up” event. It was a brief stop to re-fuel ourselves and check out a gallery or two. We were pooped, so didn’t stay long before heading for home. As we pulled out of our parking spot, it crossed my mind to stop by Yoeman’s in the Fork just for fun, but I quickly dismissed the thought because we were tired and the store was in the opposite direction of home, a 45-minute drive.

Apparently, I was even too tired to check e-mail on my iPhone. If I had, we would have zipped over to the bookstore in a heartbeat. For when I got home and opened my e-mail on the computer, there was a message from Mike Cotter, Yeoman’s in the Fork’s director of operations.

“Ursula…” read the subject line. After a brief moment of curiosity (“Hmm,” I thought, “Is he writing to me about a recent Mystery Dancer post?”), I opened the e-mail. There, to my shock and amazement, were the words:

“Elizabeth,
I just turned up an entirely new photograph album that belonged to Ursula!”

At Yeoman's in the Fork: Mike Cotter and me holding the newly discovered album and loose photos

At Yeoman’s in the Fork: Mike Cotter and me holding the newly discovered album and loose photos

Wow! I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t wait to see it. The very next day, Michael and I headed once again for Leiper’s Fork, this time expressly to stop at the bookstore.

When we got there, Mike Cotter retrieved the album from the back and set it gingerly on the countertop. About 10 inches wide by 6 ½ inches tall, it is bound by string in what looks like a homemade, soft leather cover with flowers, leaves and the word “Photos” outlined in pen. Inside are dozens of variously-shaped photos glued onto pages of black construction paper. They are images of Ursula and her family engaged in many different outdoor activities, as well as scenic shots taken around Grass Valley, California, where Ursula’s mother grew up, and San Francisco.

Needless to say, I bought the photo album, which, along with the first album, as I learned from Mike, was part of a 2-semi-trucks-worth collection of books and documents that Yoeman’s bought five years ago from an estate in Virginia. What a wonderful, and serendipitous, anniversary “gift” to celebrate the birth of Mystery Dancer!

I will share many of the photos with you in future blog posts, but for now, this post includes just a few of the highlights from the newly purchased album. And who knows? Yoeman’s is still processing the collection, so it’s possible yet another Ursula album will turn up!

Ursula and her dollies outside the Cheshires' Los Angeles home

Ursula and her dollies outside the Cheshires’ Los Angeles home

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Who Was Ursula Cheshire?

YardSaleBanner

The Leiper’s Fork yard sale was held near historic downtown Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee

This past Saturday, my husband and I went to the Leiper’s Fork yard sale. Dozens of dealers—including regular folks, collectors and, ostensibly, Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” and Antique Archeology fame (I didn’t see him, but other people were staffing his booth)—were selling their trash and treasures in Marty and Bruce Hunt’s humongous front yard just on the edge of town.

Album-copy1.jpg

The antique album featuring Ursula Cheshire and her family measures about 8 1/2″ x 11″ x 4″

Among the sellers that sunny October day was Yeoman’s in the Fork, “a rare book & document gallery.” As I was sifting through a pile of old, forgotten photos at their table, the woman standing next to me picked up a worn, maroon, velvet-covered book about four inches thick and decorated with metal scroll and flowers and the word, “Album” on the front cover.

The vendor walked over and explained that he’d recently bought the album at an estate sale. Full of old black and white photos, letters and aged newspaper clippings, it centered around Ursula Cheshire, he said, a dancer who was born in the early 1900s and died too young at age 41. Peeking over the woman’s shoulder as she perused the album, I spied a photo of a pretty teenaged girl in costume, posing dramatically on one knee with her head tipped back. It intrigued me and I hoped the woman would gently set the book back down and move along. I was itching to look at it.

Eventually, after peering at the pages and looking at the price tag one last time, she sighed and gave up possession of the book. My turn.

Ursula in Nero Retouched copy

This is the photo I saw while sneaking a peek over the woman’s shoulder at the yard sale booth

I looked at the first few photos and clippings—enough to feel the album contained a story I wanted to discover. But, ooh, at $150 it was a bit pricey for me. Should I buy it or not? I felt I was on the verge of a mysterious and exciting adventure. “Would you take $100 for it?” I asked the man. A pause. “I could do $125,” he responded.

Sold!

I brought the album home, but haven’t looked through it yet. I want to discover its contents slowly and piece together the story it weaves. I have a million questions. Who was Ursula Cheshire? Where did she grow up? Did she dance professionally, or just as a school girl? Did she have siblings? Did she ever marry or have children? What caused her death at age 41? Whom had the album belonged to? Will it offer enough clues to reveal a coherent narrative? Will I be able to research information to fill in some blanks? Are any of her relatives still alive, and do they know more intimate details of her life? Once I open the book, where will the pages lead me?

I can’t wait to find out, and I thought it might be fun to share my experiences—discoveries, insights, road blocks, surprises—and bits of the album as I attempt to unlock its mysteries. Hence, the Mystery Dancer blog is born. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

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