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Massapequa history buff solves photo mystery

Carol Giannattasio and Lillian Bryson page through the

Carol Giannattasio and Lillian Bryson page through the vintage photo album that Carol purchased on Ebay. It held treasures, and a mystery, of Massapequa. (November 2010) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

It took a sleuth with institutional knowledge of her hometown to unravel the mystery behind the old photo album. And, like the surprise ending in a good detective novel, the dramatic plot twist came when she realized she was part of the story.

That story starts about five years ago, when Carol Giannattasio, now 62, was browsing an online auction site. An aged book of pictures caught her eye.

"It was listed as 'Sports Pictures,'" she recalled, "and it had a lot of place names after it," including Massapequa, where Giannattasio lives.

Giannattasio, who has what she describes as "an insatiable curiosity about local history," submitted a bid of about $30.

Soon, the album arrived. It was cardboard bound; 46 pages filled with various-sized black-and-white photos. Some had hand-scribbled captions in German, and as Giannattasio carefully flipped through the brittle, black pages, a narrative began to unfold.

The album seemed to have been compiled during a trip to the United States by a team of handball players who came to compete against German-American teams in New York. There were pictures of the group departing Hamburg in September 1929 on the Steamship Reliance, bound for "Amerika."

The photos captured a team of fit, blond men in athletic uniforms embossed with an eagle - the symbol of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic. An entourage of coaches, officials, friends and family members accompanied them.

Outdoor team handball was developed in Germany after World War I. Perhaps some of these men would go on to play in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the only time outdoor handball was a medal event until the 1970s, when it returned under a different format.

Still, the athletes were also tourists: The album contains pictures of the Statue of Liberty, Coney Island and old Yankee Stadium, along with more rural settings that Giannattasio suspected showed Long Island nearly a century ago.

Giannattasio bought the book in 2005. Over the next couple of years, she would pick it up, flip through the pages, ponder the who-where-why of the photos and put the album aside. Finally, she decided to seek help from Lillian Bryson, a member of the Historical Society of the Massapequas and a fourth-generation Massapequa resident. Now 81, Bryson, nee Rumfield, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the prewar Massapequas.

"I knew there were things in the album only she would know," Giannattasio said,

Indeed, she did: Bryson pored through the book's plot line - the passengers waving goodbye on the ship bound for the United States; the athletes in Astoria Park, Queens, apparently competing against a local team.

That a group of Germans would visit Long Island is hardly unusual. "Almost all the new and growing communities out here would have had a strong German presence at this time," explained Nassau County historian Ed Smits. "This was a strong area for families of German heritage, Farmingdale and Massapequa in particular."

As Bryson scrutinized the album with Giannattasio, she shared her knowledge of Massapequa history, prompted by the old images in the photos.

"I saw a house, and I recognized it as one of the old houses that were along Merrick Road in Massapequa," Bryson said. "I turned the page and saw a photo of the old brick Massapequa Railroad Station, and a couple walking on the path between the railroad and the reservoir."

Suddenly, the history lesson became personal. "I turned back a page and looked at the one they called 'Das Haus in Massapequa' and suddenly I realized . . . I know that house! I was in that house!"

The wood-framed home on Front Street belonged to her grandaunt, Lisette Schaefer - Bryson's grandfather's sister, who had emigrated from Germany with her husband, a piano maker who died before Bryson was born. "I was a child when she was elderly and ill, and remember visiting her," Bryson recalled. Her aunt was "a feeble lady in a Murphy bed that folded into the wall," she remembered.

"Auntie had a little white dog whose nails made a clicking sound on the linoleum floor. His name was Tippy." Tippy made the album, too, in a picture outside Auntie Schaefer's house.

Giannattasio said she was thrilled to learn about Bryson's personal connection to the album. "What are the odds that we would have happened to have brought it to someone . . . related to a person in the photos?"

While pictures of Long Island in the 1920s and 1930s are not uncommon, "the fact that there's someone who can authenticate many of these photos makes it special," Smits said. "And if there are a couple dozen in the album just dealing with Massapequa, that's interesting, because that was a critical time in its development."

In the late 1920s, this was a community in transition, from a largely German-speaking, rural backwater to one of Long Island's early suburban developments - a small-scale precursor to the massive suburbanization that would transform Long Island after World War II.

While the identity of the scrapbook's original owner may remain a mystery, what is known is that after Lisette Schaefer died, in 1935, her house was converted into the first Massapequa Park Village Hall. There, in what was once Auntie Schaefer's parlor, Lillian and Gene Bryson were married in October 1948.

The album's story would have been lost if it were not for Bryson's precise memories of her town and family history.

That kind of institutional memory is a finite resource. "It hits you that, sooner or later, there's not going to be anyone to ask these kinds of questions to," Giannattasio said. "You can't ask anyone under 50 about this."

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