TIFTON—Polly Huff never considered a career as a detective, but she did become the Sherlock Holmes of the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Georgia Museum of Agriculture recently when she used her sleuthing and curatorial skills to solve the mystery of the shoemakers.
The saga started innocently enough with a routine cleaning of an old storage space that produced leatherworking tools which turned out to be an entire collection from a shoemaker’s shop. The Museum had a donation record from Stephen Middleton of Loogootee, Ind., and an old photo showing a man guiding a horse which pulled a Middleton’s Shoe Shop wagon.
Through an intensive search and many hours of combing through historical documents across the country, Huff, the Museum’s Curator, found J.L. Middleton, a shoe shop owner in Indiana in the late 1800s.
But was Stephen related to J.L? Ah, the plot thickens.
“As it turns out, he was not related but they were both Middletons, and they were both in the shoemaking business,” Huff said with a laugh. “Stephen was born in Tifton in 1904 but he later lived in Loogootee after meeting his future wife, an Indiana girl.”
Stephen’s mother, Emma Jane Hutchinson, was from neighboring Berrien County. She married shoemaker James Monroe Middleton, and they lived in Valdosta and Tifton between 1898 and 1908, before moving to Lenox in 1910, and then eventually Camilla.
“James was listed in the 1920 census as a shoe shop owner in Camilla, shortly before his death at 71 years old in late 1920,” Huff said. “The 1920 census also lists then-15-year old Stephen as a wage earner in his father’s shoe shop.
“Later in his life, Stephen was employed by American Shoe Machinery & Tool Company. From there, dozens of articles were located, naming James Middleton as ‘Tifton’s veteran shoemaker,’ and ‘Tifton’s popular shoemaker,’ dating from 1898 through 1920.”
So who was in the picture, the Indiana shoemaker or the Georgia shoemaker?
“We finally realized that the person in the photo was in fact Stephen’s father, James Middleton, and the shoe shop in the photo was around Camilla between 1910 and 1920,” Huff said. “James is actually buried less than three miles down the road from the Museum.”
Stephen worked as a shoemaker for his father and then inherited his dad’s shoe shop collection. Since his father was buried in Tifton, Stephen offered the artifacts to the Museum two years before he died.
“Another piece of the puzzle revealed itself in the last line of the obituary of Helen Cecilia Middleton, Stephen’s wife, who passed away in 2000 and whose funeral was officiated by a great-nephew, Father Kenneth Walker, at St. John Catholic Church in Loogootee,” Huff said. “Father Walker provided valuable information for the exhibit file.”
Mystery solved. For all those people who don’t believe in coincidences, this tale really rocks their boat. There was no connection between the Middleton shoemakers in Georgia and their Indiana counterparts, also named Middleton, although the Georgia shoemakers did have an Indiana link through Stephen’s wife.
“The process of the search was one of the most exciting times for our Museum and for the research team,” Huff said. “Solidifying the results gave us all pause and reiterated how vital historic authenticity is to our work and to the information we put out there for the public to consume.”
Dr. Sandra Giles’ communications class at ABAC assisted Huff with creating various curriculum support materials and brochures for the exhibit. Museum curatorial intern Tristin Clements from Tifton was instrumental in producing the digital content for the exhibit. Huff also thanked the Historical Society just outside Loogootee and the Camilla Chamber of Commerce.
“The photo that I found became the exhibit background,” Huff said. “With the help of a digital restoration photographer, we extracted the image of Mr. Middleton. I then sent the image to a company in Maryland, and their personnel created a life size, true representation museum figure of the shoemaker, down to his facial hair, clothing, height, and posture.
“Tristin and I placed the likeness of Mr. Middleton in front of a life size rendering of the original photo, in effect replacing his image in the photo with an actual 3-D figure.”
The Middleton Shoe shop exhibit will open virtually on June 1, via Facebook and the Museum’s website. Located in the Museum Main Exhibit Hall, the exhibit will be available to guests to explore in person when the Museum reopens after the pandemic subsides.
For more information on this and future exhibits, interested persons can contact Huff at email@example.com.