A pair of steamer trunks believed to have been formerly owned by Upper Iowa University alumna and accomplished stage actress, the late Zinita Graf ’1913, were recently donated to the University Archives by a thoughtful Iowan family.
After delivering the antiques to UIU on Thursday, December 8, Norma McLean noted that she and her husband, Loyal, first uncovered the trunks when they purchased their Charles City home in 1962. The two trunks remained mainly untouched in the family’s attic until this past July, and it was not until moving items out of the space that family members once again rediscovered the large pieces of luggage.
Upon closer examination, including the discovery of a hidden compartment in one of the trunks, family members for the first time noticed a C.A. Taylor Trunk Works manufacturer’s guarantee. Dated September 30, 1920, the document included Graf’s name and an address of Fayette, Iowa. In an attempt to see if any of Graf’s family members would like to have the trunks, the McLean’s granddaughter, Leah Reineke of Council Bluffs, began researching the original owner of the travel cases.
“I started to Google her name and found the Upper Iowa University connection right away,” said Leah. “It was so fun! I reached out to the University and wanted to see if anyone would be interested in the trunks being returned and I received a positive response within hours.”
While expressing the University’s great appreciation for the donated items, UIU Archivist Janette Garcia explained Zinita Graf studied oratory and liberal arts before achieving her BA at UIU in 1913. She made her professional stage debut in 1917 with the Deveraux Dramatic Company after being cast as Beauty in the play Everyman. It was the beginning of a very impressive career in stage acting for the aspiring actress. The available reviews of Graf’s acting ability are numerous and there are no documented negative reviews in the University Archives.
Graf remained employed with the Deveraux Company, which in general was heralded by the times as one of, if not the most talented dramatical acting companies in America until 1928. A Fayette newspaper in October 1920 states the Devereaux Company was scheduled to go on a transcontinental tour throughout the United States and Canada. This may support why Graf would have purchased one of the steamer trunks in 1920, but it doesn’t explain how the two pieces of luggage came to be located in a Charles City home.
Leah said she intends to continue researching Graf, who died in 1930, in hopes of discovering living family members, who may know how or why the trunks came to be placed in the Charles City home.
“I find treasures like this so remarkable,” said Leah. “These trunks were meant to be left in my grandparent’s attic and at just the right time they were to come down from there and find a new home. Everything happens for a reason and I still believe we’ll find an answer to why they were discovered there.”
Thanks to the McLean family, the trunks now have a new home where they will inspire curiosity and fascination in others.
“This is where they belong,” Norma said, while admiring the exhibit. “We’re so happy that the two trunks will now be displayed together for the entire UIU family to enjoy. Otherwise, they may have been stuck alone in an attic for another 50 years.”