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A Todd County mystery

Most people dream of finding treasure in their attics, though the first requirement for that to have any possibility of coming true is to actually have an attic. Carol Spearman, along with her husband, Rowland Joiner, of rural Browerville, bought an attic, with a house and garage, nearly 12 years ago. Their story is like American Pickers, Antiques Roadshow and Storage Wars all rolled into one. Carol lived in the area back in the 1990s and had become acquainted with the owner of a 1900s era farmhouse. He was a creative spirit and a bit of a rogue. To put it kindly, he fell on hard times and moved from the house, leaving it unlived in for four years. When the house came up for sale, Carol initially thought some of her friends might be interested in the old farmhouse and garage perched on a bank above Turtle Lake in Todd County. “But I decided I could add on to it,” says Carol who had taken on home restoration projects in the past and enjoyed the process. Carol has photos of how the rooms looked when she took over ownership. She has to be given credit for her ability to visualize what could be done with a disastrous space. The first project was to decide what to do with what the previous owner had left behind. “We gave the guy a set amount of time to get the stuff moved out of the house and six months to clean out the garage,” she remembers. After that time had passed and the clutter remained, Carol knew she would have to just get a dumpster and start shoveling. “It was August or September of 2001. My son and daughter-in-law were here to help,” says Carol. The first dumpster was only a quarter full when the whole flavor of the project changed. They were cleaning the attic space above the garage when a discovery sent them back to check what had already been thrown away and the clean up became a treasure hunt. The first discovery was a box of Roman coins. That was quickly followed by more coins and artifacts including: pottery, a bronze sculpture, spearheads, clay oil lamps and a faded tapestry of Dante and Beatrice. There were mysterious finds like 100 dress shirts, 60 neck ties and armfuls of play manuscripts. There was also a brown envelope of 11-inch by 14-inch photos of movie stars from the 1960s. It was virtually impossible to determine how any of these treasures came to be in the attic of a garage in rural Minnesota. The previous owner wasn’t forthcoming nor was it possible to trace any kind of trail for the historical items. The photos, about 45 of them, were somewhat more traceable though it remains a mystery how they ended up where they did. In 1973, a coffee table book called Famous Faces was published. Carol found a copy of it in a bookstore in Stillwater. The book contains 1500 photos of famous people from New York to Hollywood and London. The photographer was L. Arnold Weissberger known as the attorney to the stars. He not only represented them, he took candid shots of such famous faces as Orson Welles, George Ballanchine, Helen Hayes, Richard Chamberlain and Marilyn Monroe. It was a Who’s Who of Hollywood: Richard Burton, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Julie Andrews, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, Rock Hudson, Martha Graham, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Lillian Gish and Otto Preminger. Many of the faces are immediately recognizable. Others less so. As Carol learned when she found the book, the photos found in the attic in Todd County were among those exhibited in this 443 page book, published by H. N. Abrams, the complete title: Famous Faces, a Photograph Album of Personal Reminiscences. H.N. Abrams was a New York publisher of illustrated art, photography and interior design books. The book is currently out of print but available on the secondary market at Weissberger was a great fan and supporter of playwrights and the theater, so much so that an annual prize, the L. Arnold Weissberger Award for Playwrighting, is given in his name. Weissberger died in 1981. So, what is the connection between the previous owner of Carol and Rowland’s house and L.Arnold Weissberger? Only he can reveal that, but a man by the same name was active in the theater culture in both the Twin Cities and New York. His name does not appear in lists of winners of the coveted Weissberger prize but he may have submitted one or more of that armful of manuscripts also found in the attic. It’s interesting to note that the “famous photos” in the brown envelope were printed in March of 1980, seven years after the book was published but only a year before Weissberger’s death in March of 1981. The photos are good quality photos, not photocopies. Were the negatives lost in the energetic dumpster dumping of the attic’s clean out or not part of its treasure trove? Spearman and Joiner, who met at a center for social justice called InterFace  in Britain in 1987 and married in 2005, are part owners of Artsplace, a gallery/studio/performing arts space at 114 Jefferson in Wadena. Since both are now retired (Carol worked at Control Data as well as for the Blandin Foundation while Rowland is an ordained Methodist minister) they devote some of their time to artistic pursuits. Carol carves out time to write plays and other fiction while Rowland explores his passion for art and history. They plan the exhibits for the Artsplace gallery and have mounted a semi-permanent exhibit of the Weissberger photos, and invite everyone to come see the photos which represent the heyday of American theater. As to the other artifacts: Some have been sold while others have become great conversation starters. Everyone loves a good mystery.

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