When a wedding ring from the 1890s turned up in our inventory, we did a little research, and wound up finding the family it belonged to.
This is the story of Olivia's Ring, as told by Steve Cameron in the Manhattan Mercury.
Pawn shops tend to occupy a place in the public consciousness alongside bail bondsmen and bounty hunters.
Most people, if they close their eyes, might picture pawnbrokers as crusty old guys who are mentally jacking up the price of an ancient varmint gun simply because a customer coming through the door is wearing a classy hat and boots.
Chris Mathis, owner of Jack and Dick's Pawn Shop in Junction City, cringes at the longtime stereotype.
"My granddad started this as an up-front, honest business," Mathis said, "and I try every day to live up to his standards."
Mathis has put his money and his time into proving that a pawn shop can have professional standards - and a pretty big heart, as well.
Recently Mathis and his wife, Manuela, spent hours of research and effort to find the descendants of a 100-year-old-plus wedding ring they came across that had been pawned more than a year ago.
Mathis found the heavy gold band in what he calls "Grandpa's old scrap Folgers can" and began to examine it under magnification for karat size.
What he found was an engraving: "L.M.M. to O.R.W., July 27, 1892."
"I'm sort of an amateur genealogist and have done some work on my family tree," Mathis said. "I remembered that we could perform a search of the marriage date on ancestry.com and maybe determine who these folks were."
So using the date alone, Chris and Manuela began hunting through marriages on that date and discovered that the list was, in Chris' words, "pretty hefty."
But still they tried, and about halfway through the listings, they came across the marriage of Lareant M. Martin to Olivia Ruffin Wade.
"It was like winning the lottery," Mathis said, "because we had matched all six initials, with the wedding date as the powerball. What are the odds? It had to be them."
Chris and Manuela searched for Olivia Ruffin Wade on ancestry.com's member tree, and they found an account for "dextersmom."
But then they faced the problem that whoever was on the other end of this mystery might not be checking the member tree — so they also posted the information on eBay, as well.
"All we could do was hope they would reply," Mathis said.
Meanwhile, in the little town of Zachary, Louisiana, Brandy Hannum eventually did check her ancestry.com account and decided she'd detected some sort of scam.
Hapnum saw the account name — jackanddicks —and promptly wrote it off as spam.
But the next day, the same name popped up on her eBay account.
"This time I thought, `OK, I'll bite,"' Hannum said. "And I read the message."
What Hannum read was that a family heirloom had been found, along with these words: "I own a pawn shop in Junction City, Kansas, and I have something that may be very dear to you if you are descended from these people."
Along with the message came a link to some photos from the shop's Facebook page.
Hannum remained skeptical.
"I'm thinking, this guy probably wants some money, and there's no way I'm falling for this," Hannum told a reporter from the Zachary Advocate.
But it wasn't a hoax.
Hannum's great-greatgrandmother, Olivia Ruffin Wade of West Feliciana Parish, was indeed given the band by Lareant Martin on that July day in 1892.
"I was in shock," Hannum said, and she promptly called her aunt, Sue Charlet, to share the news.
"We didn't want any money from them," Mathis said. "We often try to find the owners of old jewelry like that."
Mathis said he returned a class ring that went missing on a Caribbean cruise to a University of Connecticut alumnus about 10 years ago.
Back in Louisiana, research on the long-missing ring turned up information that Lareant Martin and his bride, Olivia Wade, eventually had three children — one of whom was Theodore Howard, grandfather of Charlet and Hannum's mother, Olivia Stelly.
The ring is now on Stelly's pinky finger.
"We received the ring on May 5," Charlet said. "It's pretty amazing, the power of the internet, but more astounding is that there are still people out there, like this man, who took the time to track us down and return the ring to the owner's descendants."
Mathis concedes that he gave up some money— both buying the ring in the first place and then giving away the value of the gold — but believes the joy he and Manuela provided to some new friends in the suburbs of Baton Rouge was more than worth the effort.
"It just gives you a great feeling," Mathis said. "The combination of our business, where we see just about everything come through the door, and that interest in genealogy — once in a while, it can create some real magic."