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WRITE TEAM: Diamonds in the rough

I like old stuff.

Not falling apart, unrepairable stuff, but things that have substance, that still have a story to tell. Sometimes we just have to look beyond the surface to see what’s really there.

And you never know where or when you will come upon a treasure.

I enjoy going to sales and second-hand shops. You can find good bargains as well as the occasional diamond in the rough. Recently, I came across three gems.

Sorting through pictures and framed art, I saw a set of three pictures in matching frames. Drawn to the sturdy, wooden frames, it wasn’t until I looked more closely at one of the prints that I recognized it as a scene familiar to Ottawans – the popcorn wagon.

It appeared to be a photograph of a drawing or painting that someone had made. The tiny signature in the bottom right-hand corner read: John F. Mitchell, 1976 or 1978.

The other two prints included a vintage, rural winter scene and a stone bridge over a creek. Old-fashioned enough to pique my interest and with a 99-cent price tag for each one, I blew off the dust and brought them home, excited to see if I could bring them back to life.

The glass and wood were in decent shape so I carefully pried off the backings. That’s where I found the first address label: John Mitchell with an Ottawa address and phone number. The picture of the winter scene also had a note on the back: photo of watercolor, blue ribbon, ’72.

The mats on which the photos were mounted were stained from water damage so I had no qualms about removing the photos to replace the matting. I cleaned the frames and hoped that a light coat of matching stain might fill in the scratches and restore the wood. It worked beautifully; the scratches disappeared and the frames looked good as new.

With a new foundation and shiny clean glass, I put the layers back together. I considered making new copies of the photos since they are somewhat faded, but for now, I like the patina just the way it is.

The popcorn wagon picture in particular speaks to me. I checked online and found an article written by Charles Stanley of The Times in 2015 that told the history of the Washington Park Popcorn Wagon. The first owner was Curtain Bixler Calhoun who located the wagon at the corner of Washington and La Salle streets.The wagon was later moved to the corner of La Salle and Jackson streets and sold to Dave Morgan in 1993.

Mr. Morgan greatly resembled Abraham Lincoln and the wagon became known as “Abe’s Last Stand.” After his death in 1993, private collector Peter Palumbo purchased the wagon and shipped it to England. In 1996, the city acquired a replica popcorn wagon, which is located in the same corner.

Based on this information, the popcorn wagon in the print is the first one. I wonder what happened to the original watercolor; I hope a friend or family member of Mr. Mitchell has it as well as other art created by this talented, local artist.

The arts offer invaluable riches to our souls. We connect, share, and tell a story when we create.

And that is priceless.

KAREN ROTH is a semi-retired librarian/educator living in Ottawa. To reach her, email

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