The suitcases were small, about the size of today's carry-on luggage, and made of thick, brown cardboard with leather-reinforced corners. They were probably from the Fifties or Sixties, but what was inside was even older.
"It's something we came across while accessioning the collections and cataloging everything," explains Broward County Historical Commission Special Projects Coordinator Barbara Poleo. "We found a couple of old suitcases that hadn't been opened, and when we saw what was inside, it was like Christmas."
What she and commission administrator Rodney Dillon had stumbled upon was a set of 172 glass negatives, many unlabeled, upon which were etched images of Broward County citizens and scenes shot between 1915 and 1921 by an uncredited photographer.
In a note left in one of the suitcases, long-time Broward County resident Edith Lewis indicated only that they had been given to her in 1921. She turned over the negatives to historical commission founder Judge L. Clayton Nance in the early Seventies, and he put them in the commission's storage room sometime during the mid-Seventies, where they sat for twenty-odd years. Even after their discovery, it took a bit of detective work to figure out who had made the photos.
Poleo says that the only photographer listed in the city directory at the time was William V.B. Mullikin. Voter registration records confirmed Mullikin's presence in Fort Lauderdale from 1914 to 1921. On his voter registration, he listed his profession as photographer.
"We know that he left in '21 and returned in '23," says Dillon. "As he was cleaning out his stuff to go, he handed over these negatives. Now that we've seen these [pictures], we recognize the backdrop of Mullikin's studio in a lot of our photographs."
The Mullikin photos are part of the new exhibition "Setting the Stage: Broward Before the Boom!", which opens today (Thursday) at the Broward County Historical Commission Museum.
The display also features a collection of approximately 100 World War I photographs from the European theater, and two D.W. Griffith films shot in Broward County in the early 1900s will be screened. Other items on display include WWI-era Coast Guard and Army uniforms and an early-1900s model #3A Pocket Kodak camera. (The bellows is too old to risk opening and closing, but when folded up the cumbersome unit may have fit in a large overcoat pocket.)
The war pictures were bequeathed to the commission by the Mocqs, a Broward pioneer family. The photographer who shot them was the brother of Lewis Mocq, who came from France to Hollywood in the Twenties.
"Sometimes it seems that we receive a gift or a donation from someone, and you think, 'How does this apply to Broward county?'" says Broward County historian Helen Landers. "This area sent many soldiers to war, and people that come in and see the exhibit can then get a very vivid picture of the trenches, so they can really see what these people did."
Best known for The Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith shot The Idol Dancer (1919) along the New River and at the Las Olas Inn on the beach to create a romantic island setting. The Love Flower (1920) was also filmed here and, ironically enough, took its title from the water hyacinth, the now-hated, waterway-clogging vegetation. Both silent films will be shown throughout the run of the exhibition.
Most of the Mullikin photos are portraits, but some portray scenes from early Broward County, which was established in 1915. One shot shows fish drying in the sun on a dock just east of the Andrews Avenue bridge. Beneath the hanging fish sit the proud fishermen who caught them. Signs on the buildings in the background date the photo at about 1920.
"It is our hope that someone will be able to see the exhibit and identify some of the subjects in the photos," Poleo asserts. "Only a few [negatives] were specifically marked, but we have been able to backtrack and identify a few more of them."
In the portrait marked "Mattie Marshall family," for example, only a mother and her three children are pictured, not the father. "It wasn't identified," explains Poleo. "But we were able to go to the  census and match up the number of people in the photograph and the ages to determine which Marshall family it was." The missing patriarch, A.D. Marshall, was first a merchant (until his store was leveled in the hurricane of 1926), and then a county jailer.
"When you start to put the pieces together, that's the fun of it," says Poleo. "That's the reward for all of the hard work."
-- John Ferri