Uncovered in Ashland: How this century-old watch wound up back with the family that lost it.

Posted at 5:06 PM, Jul 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-17 18:20:42-04

ASHLAND, Va. -- A nearly century-old piece of family history was uncovered this year in Ashland.

In January, when a vacant lot in the 500 block of Wesley Street was being turned into Hanover and King William Habitat for Humanity's 78th home, the construction manager decided to use his metal detector around the property.

"I found a fair assortment of bottle tops and some modern coins. And then, right about where I'm seated right now, we found a watch -- bing, bing, bing," Jeff Ell said. "This had a real distinctive sound to it that most people that are probably familiar with metal detecting would know this is for sure a real target."

Sure enough, a few inches underground, Ell found a gold watch about the same size as a large coin.

Habitat watch

Ell's wife worked at a jeweler's and they were able to provide more information about the watch, but the most intriguing part was on the back — the inscription on the back, "WWB to JLW", which meant its owner might not remain a mystery.

"Here we have an artifact something that is going to be able to be tied to people probably here in Ashland," said Ell.

He then reached out to Ashland's vice mayor and longtime Habitat volunteer John Hodges.

"I had been a member of the board of Ashland Museum and knew their capabilities and doing research. So, I reached out to Rosanne Shalf, the genealogist for the museum. She does a terrific job and I knew that if anyone could track down what the initials represented, it would be her," said Hodges.

It turned out the confidence was well placed, as Shalf use property records, census data, and online ancestry sites to tie the watch to Wesley William Brannan (WWB) and Joseph "Jo" Louis White (JLW) and tracked down their descendants — which she said it not always a given in genealogy.

Habitat watch

"Sometimes families don't hang on to that," said Shalf. "Some of these people don't who the grandparents were. Not so with this family and not so, usually, in Ashland. People really hang on to their family stories, good or bad. And so, that was what was so great about this one."

The searchers eventually connected with Scott Brannan, who recalls getting notified by his receptionist at work that there was someone there with his grandmother's watch.

"And I'm thinking, my grandmother has been dead for 40 years, how does he have her watch," said Brannan.

Turns out, Ell did. It was a watch the family guesses his grandfather (known as Paw-paw) gave to his grandmother (known as Nanny) before they got married in 1925, because of the different surname initials.

He said the couple moved into the Wesley St. home in the 1940s and it served as a gathering place for their five children and their children throughout the years.

"The house that they had had a front porch across the entire front with a porch swing on the end of it and that's where you could find her most days when she wasn't cooking or cleaning or working in the garden or raising kids," recalled Brannan. "We would chase lightning bugs, which she always helped along with...while the adults usually on the porch talking about whatever they were talking about."

Habitat watch

He said his grandmother lived in the house until her death 40 years ago (his grandfather died three years before Brannan was born) and the house was eventually torn down.

As for the spot the watch was found, Brannan said it matched up with where his grandmother had a flower garden (and sometimes an Easter egg hiding spot).

"That's probably how she lost the watch was leaning over," he said. "Either planting or Easter egg hunt or somehow or another, but it's been buried at least for 40 years."

Habitat and all those involved in the search, gave the watch back to the Brannan family last week and they got to meet with the eventual homeowners and shared memories about their family home, including the porch swing — which the new owners said they would install in a way to carry on the legacy.

"Moving people up to home ownership changes their lives not only for the person but the whole family," Hodges said.

"I'm glad to see a new life being brought to this 510 Wesley Street," Brannan said.

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