A mother lost her wallet in the 1950s. 65 years later, a family is reconnecting with lost history

Dec 23, 2023, 10:46 AM

SAN ANSELMO, CA - AUGUST 29: In this Photo Illustration, Twenty dollar bills sit in a wallet on Aug...

SAN ANSELMO, CA - AUGUST 29: In this Photo Illustration, Twenty dollar bills sit in a wallet on August 29, 2017 in San Anselmo, California. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(CNN) — A raffle ticket to win a new 1959 Chevrolet; credit cards with no magnetic strip; family photos in black and white: All tucked away behind a bathroom wall in the Plaza Theatre, untouched for decades.

Until 65 years later, when contractors discovered a hidden space behind a crumbled wall in the bathroom during renovations. Under a mountain of dust, in what used to be a closet, lay a withered burgundy wallet, frozen in time.

From there, Plaza Theatre owner Chris Escobar said he was determined to return the wallet to the family.

“It was a portal back in time,” Escobar told CNN. “And then realizing that this has been missing from this family of real people who lived in this neighborhood for 65 years, imagine if we could find them.”

The Plaza Theatre, the oldest cinema in Atlanta and a cultural landmark, is home to all sorts of old things. Escobar said they’ve found old popcorn displays with marquee letters, bottles of spirits that are no longer in fashion. But finding this wallet that hadn’t been seen for half a century felt different, he said.

The wallet was “chock full of history,” Escobar said, giving him a good starting point to find its owner’s family.

That owner was one Floy Culbreth, according to a license inside the wallet. But Escobar ran into his first problem – women were often referred to by their husband’s name at that time, so searching Culbreth’s name yielded few results.

Escobar recruited his wife Nicole, who he calls an “internet sleuth,” to track down the owner of the wallet.

She was able to find Roy Culbreth’s obituary – Floy’s husband. From there, it led them down a rabbit hole of kids and grandkids until they came across a website for the Culbreth Cup, a charity golf tournament for a cerebral palsy nonprofit held by the family. They were then able to track the family line to the Culbreths’ daughter, Thea Chamberlain.

“I already feel like it’s a privilege to be able to watch over and operate this historic space,” Escobar said. “But to literally hand back family history. That’s such a gift.”

Chamberlain said her mother was described as being as beautiful as Myrna Loy, with the personality of “a spicy June Cleaver.” She remembers kids from the neighborhood saying that watching her mother was more than fun than watching “I Love Lucy.”

Culbreth was also very involved in the community, teaching Sunday school and being involved in the garden club, her daughter said, and also in her nonprofit work to help those with cerebral palsy.

Chamberlain even found some of her own belongings in the wallet: A few insurance cards and a doctor’s appointment note. Now 71, she was only 6 years old when her mom lost the wallet.

The trinkets in the wallet were indubitably her mother’s, Chamberlain said. She could imagine Culbreth hoping they’d win that Chevrolet raffle or stashing her shopping cards away.

“It was quite touching,” Chamberlain said. “A flood of memories came back, and it kind of brought her back again.”

The Culbreths gathered together in November to retrieve the wallet and commemorate their family.

“We had kids, grandkids and great grandkids there with us,” Escobar said. “So several generations of Culbreths were there to recover this lost piece of family history.”

Chamberlain watched as two of her grandchildren, aged seven and five, gingerly went over the receipts and pictures, asking their parents about its history.

“They knew it was something to be treasured, she said. “That this was a special moment.”

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A mother lost her wallet in the 1950s. 65 years later, a family is reconnecting with lost history