Last Christmas, my husband and I went to Saskatoon, SK to spend the holidays with my family. While we were there, my sister Val gave me the following picture.


Who is this mystery man? Photo source – personal collection

It is a small photo – only 2¼” by 3¼” neglecting the white border – but it is full of mystery! My gut instinct told me it might be from the late 1920s or early 1930s but that is pure speculation.

What is the provenance of the photo?

Val doesn’t remember how the photo ended up in her possession. She thought it might have been in a trunk that mom gave her last summer when our parents moved out of our childhood home and into a new home in Saskatoon.

Mom wondered if perhaps Val got the photo at some point from our Auntie Edith but apparently, Auntie hadn’t seen it before either. In any case, the photo was new to me. It certainly wasn’t in any of mom’s photo albums that she kept when we were growing up.

Who is that mystery man?

The other mystery is the man in the photo. Who is he? While he looks somewhat like our dad, mom assures us that it isn’t him. Our next guess is that perhaps he is our paternal grandfather, Nick Winowich. I recently showed the picture to our Uncle Frank. He thinks it could be his dad but he isn’t certain either.

It doesn’t help that we have very few photos of grandpa and none (to my knowledge) of him before he married my grandmother.

Comparing photos

The collage below has two known photos of my grandpa. The centre photo is cropped from a photo taken on my grandparent’s 25th wedding anniversary in 1959. The right-hand photo is cropped from a photo date-stamped June 1965.

A collage comprising the mystery man in another photo and two known photos of Nick Winowich at different points in time.

There seem to be many similarities between the mystery man and grandpa but the earlobes are throwing me off. The mystery man’s earlobe is more rounded than what can be seen in the photos of grandpa.

Looking at similarities between photos is one thing. Those similarities won’t mean anything if the timeline doesn’t line up.

Dating the mystery man photo

There are several clues in the photo that can give an indication whether it is even possible that this mystery man could be Nick Winowich.

  • The type and size of photo
  • His clothing
  • The apparent age of the man
  • The serial number on the rail car
  • The apparent age of the rail cars

Unfortunately, the size of the photo does not give a real indication of its age as this format appears to have been used over a long period. 1 That said, the photo is similar in nature to others that mom has from the 1930s – 1940s.

The man’s haircut and clothing is nondescript making it hard to date. The pants sit at his waist and have belt loops, the pant leg is narrow without a cuff and, by zooming in on the photo, it appears that the fabric may be pin-stripped.

The pants look similar to the Cottonade pants shown in following advertisement from 1922 for men’s trousers on the Vintage Dancer website.

A 1922 advertisement for men’s trousers made of corduroy, striped cotton, moleskin, and wool serge.

1922 men’s trousers made of corduroy, striped cotton, moleskin, and wool serge 2

Given the frugalness of eastern Europeans (and people in general of the period), it is not hard to imagine that if the pants were bought in the early- to mid-1920s they would be worn for many more years. While this may corroborate my suspicion that the photo is from the late 1920s or early 1930s, this is not yet sufficient proof.

Let me say right up front that I am absolutely horrible at estimating a person’s age. With that out of the way, based on the receding hairline and potential graying over the left ear, I would estimate the mystery man to be in his late 30s or 40s.

Aside from the man in the photo, the most obvious item is CN railcar 76133. The first thing that came to mind was my friend Google. What could Google tell me about CN 76133 and its dates of service? Well, Google had nothing.

A change in tact was in order. Was it possible to find photos of vintage rail cars that looked similar to those in the image? I eventually ended up on the Canadian Freight Cars website. After poking around the various pages of the website, I was no closer to finding similar images.

The home page of the website indicated that if one had further questions or wanted additional information to contact Ian Cranstone. I did exactly that and am I ever glad I did! I don’t know if Ian works (worked) for the railway but he certainly was a wealth of information. He informed me of the following: 3

  • CN 76133 is a caboose.
  • This car was formerly Canadian Northern 3201 and was likely built in 1909 (based on other cars in the photo).
  • Canadian Northern 3201 was renumbered to CN 76133 sometime after 1918. Based on other documentation, he theorizes that the car could have been in service between 1919 and 1963.
  • The two cars behind the caboose are work cars so he presumes this is a work train.
  • While cars were required to be re-weighed at regular intervals (and that information was stencilled on the car), cabooses were not. Even so, the photo appears to shows a service date toward the end of the caboose. After re-scanning and manipulating the photo (see below), it became apparent that the entry was “WT 36800 LBS 9.27.PE”
Service date of caboose CN 76133

Close-up of what appears to be service-date information on the caboose.

According to Ian, the code suggests the caboose was last re-weighed in September 1927. The PE part of the code is potentially a shop code for the railway station in Estevan, Saskatchewan. Perhaps this is where the caboose was weighed.

Given the apparent good condition of the paint and lettering on the caboose, it is quite possible that the photo was taken not too many years after 1927.

A summary of the photo analysis

To recap … a man in his late 30s /early 40s wearing what appears to be work clothes and dirty shoes is standing beside a work train at a railroad siding in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Is it safe to think that he was a railway worker on a break?

Does information about grandpa align with the above?

As mentioned previously, Grandpa was born in 1888 so by the late 1920s he would have turned 40 already. This matches with my estimate of the age of the mystery man.

According to grandpa’s sworn statement (Form No. 36) 4 in his homestead file, he resided on his homestead (the SE quarter of 18-42-6-W2 near Weekes, SK) during the following dates:

  • April 15, 1927 – June 15, 1927
  • April 1, 1928 – May 24, 1928
  • June 24, 1928 – August 9, 1928
  • January 1, 1929 – May 22, 1929
  • November 6, 1929 – Present day (i.e., April 22, 1932)

Question 7 of the statement required applicants to identify where they were and what they were doing if they were absent from the homestead. Grandpa’s response was,

in vicinity on railway work. 5

Further, question 17 advises the applicant to inform the Department of any special circumstances or further information that should be taken under consideration. To this, his response was,

“Scarcity of capital unabled me to break a larger acreage – had to work out to make money for this purpose. 6

So, for periods of time in 1927, 1928, and 1929 grandpa was nearby in Saskatchewan on railway work. This too corresponds with the estimated age of the caboose, the estimated date of the photo, and the supposition that the mystery man was a railway worker.

There seems to be a good deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest this photo might indeed be that of Nick Winowich. However, without direct evidence I guess I’ll never know.

Other Potential Candidates

If the photo isn’t of my grandfather, then it must be of someone he knows otherwise why would it be in our family’s possession. To my knowledge, grandpa had no family in Canada so it must be a friend.

My dad has mentioned in the past that grandpa moved to the Weekes area with his friends, Adam Wichorek and Joe Bezugly. The family history write-up for the Wichorek family in the history book Cordwood Days to Modern Ways: Carragana – Chelan –High Tor – Porcupine Plain – Weekes confirms this story. Given that the three friends all had homesteads near each other, perhaps Mr. Wichorek and Mr. Bezugly also worked on the railway when needed. Might one of them be the mystery man?

If anyone recognizes the man in the photo, please comment below. I would love to hear from you!

Sources and Notes:

1. Chuck Baker, “The History of Kodak Roll Films,” The Brownie Camera Page (http://www.brownie-camera.com/film.shtml : accessed 24 June 2017), table giving the Kodak roll film sizes in the order they were introduced.

2. Debbie Sessions, “1920s Men’s Pants History: Oxford Bags, Plus Four Knickers, Overalls,” Vintage Dancer (http://vintagedancer.com/1920s/mens-pants-history/ : accessed 24 June 2017), 1922 advertisement for men’s trousers.

3. Ian Cranstone, Osgoode, Ontario [E-ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] to Chris Bukoski, e-mail, 23 June 2017, “Dating a CN freight car in an old photo”; privately held by Chris Bukoski [E-ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] Winnipeg, Manitoba.

4. “Form No. 36” (Statement of Nieck Winowich – Somme – Sask.), 22 Apr 1932, in Nieck Winowich (Somme, SK) homestead file bearing grant number 3948, 19 Jul 1933, Prince Albert, SK, Land Titles Office; Post-1930 Homestead File Series (S 43); Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.