Billy Ray Simmons was reading The Times-Gazette last week when he recognized an old photo of a man standing in front of a blown-out rock wall.
The photo, one of dozens of undated, unidentified photos kept by the Highland County Historical Society, shows a man appearing to be in his 30s or 40s standing in the midst of some stone rubble with a wooden structure in the background.
As fate would have it, that man was Simmons’ great-grandfather, a railroad track foreman who lived in Highland County in the early 20th century.
The Times-Gazette published the photo online and in the print edition Thursday, Feb. 21, and plans are in place to continue publishing similar photos every Thursday in an effort to identify them and tell their stories.
Simmons, 64, lives in the Rainsboro area, and frequently reads The Times-Gazette. An avid genealogist with an interest in local history, Simmons recognized the photo as one commissioned by a relative when a railroad bridge was being constructed north of Leesburg in the late 1920s or early 30s.
Simmons’ great-grandfather, John Milton Simmons, is shown in the foreground of the photo wearing a dark suit, and his brother, Orley Simmons, is shown standing on the beginnings of the railroad bridge in the background. Orley – or Orlie, as name records vary – was a county commissioner at the time the photo was taken, said Billy Ray.
John and Orley Simmons’ sister, Sadie Sexton, was a wealthy farmer in the Leesburg area who commissioned the photo. She is buried in Leesburg, Billy Ray said. The card stock to which the original photo is affixed reads “Simmons Bros.”
Billy Ray provided The Times-Gazette with another photo of John Milton Simmons later in life that closely resembles the man in the railroad bridge photo.
Billy Ray described his great-grandfather as a heavy-drinking railroad man who frequented bars and clubs with other railroad workers.
He was born in 1862 and died in 1949, attended a Methodist church in East Monroe, and may have briefly co-owned a newspaper in Greenfield, Billy Ray said.
John Milton Simmons’ son, Floyd A. Simmons, worked on a railroad bridge gang with his father, and Floyd Simmons’ son, Ulmont Vernon Simmons, fathered Billy Ray Simmons. Billy Ray said he himself has a son and a grandson.
When asked why family genealogy is important to him, Billy Ray said, “I love my family. If you’ve got a grandfather, you want to know his brothers and sisters because you love them. If you’ve got a dad, you want to know his brothers and uncles, you want to know who raised him, stuff like that.”
But to Billy Ray, there is more to family history than life and love.
“Connivin’ stuff” was how he described scandals, fraud, mysterious fires and mafia deals that he says entangled his family over the years.
Beyond Billy Ray’s own family, wills and other documents show brothers and sisters turning against each other over money and possessions – “Who gets this and who gets this,” Simmons said – and that taught him a valuable lesson.
“I’ve seen how money can change people,” he said. “We all need it, you know. But it can change you. It can change your health and everything.”
If you happen to recognize an unidentified photo, call us at 937-393-3456, or email [email protected]
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570.