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Local Residents Help Restore WWI Image

Email lists in Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and Brentwood lit up to help decode some degraded text on a historic image.

Subscribers from a number of area neighborhood email lists helped a local business restore a historic photograph earlier this week. 

It all began when Upper Marlboro resident Cheryl Fountain sent a message to email lists in Hyattsville, Brentwood and Mount Rainier asking for help deciphering some text on a badly decomposed photograph from World War I. 

In her message, Fountain included a striking sample of the image highlighting the degraded text which she needed help reconstructing. The image itself was a panoramic group shot of a so-far-unknown American artillery unit taken in 1917. The image provided by Fountain showed steel eyed soldiers wearing ranger caps, kneeling, standing and sitting cross legged while staring intently into the lens of the camera. 

Fountain is the owner of , a framing and photo restoration operation out of 5331 Baltimore Avenue in downtown Hyattsville. This is the store's first year in Hyattsville. Before this, the store was located in Mount Rainier for four years. Fountain has worked as a framer and photo restoration tech for 10 years, though. 

But despite that experience, Fountain knew that she needed outside help to fully restore this photograph. The picture belonged to a Mount Rainier man who's grandfather was among the soldiers pictured in the image. 

Over the years, the image had slowly degraded, with large chunks of the picture missing from around the edges, victims to the passage of time. But the most difficult aspect of this job was the text. 

"If there's an arm missing or a part of the image missing, that's easy enough to recreate. But we get into issues when we have text on pictures," said Fountain. "If a significant amount of writing is missing, we have no idea what it says."

Such is the case with this image. Large chunks of the caption had eroded away over the years, leaving only cryptic fragments. Luckily, there was enough contextual information which local residents were able to use to piece together the likely contents of the text. 

"I'm not a historian," laughs Fountain during an interview. "But I didn't want to give my customer a job with the titles incomplete."

Within half an hour of sending out her request for research help, Fountain was inundated with responses. At least four subscribers to the Hyattsville, Brentwood and Mount Rainier email lists had replied with their best guesses about the mystery text. 

One reader noted that the 309 field artillery was based in Fort Dix, NJ at the time the image was captured in 1917. The unit was a part of the 155th Infrantry Brigade. That same reader also was able to dig up the names of 10 members of the 309th field artillery who were buried in military cemeteries. 

On section of text was particularly perplexing: a degraded three letters spelling "Col". Some thought it was part of the word "College". But one reader's sister was able to deduce that the text was likely spelling "Cole and Company", a photography studio based near Fort Dix in Ashbury Park, NJ. 

Armed with the information dug up on local email networks, Fountain had the image restoration finished less than 24 hours. She's looking forward to delivering the finished product to her customer, and she's very grateful to the local email community for helping her finish the job.

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