Archives for posts with tag: historic photos

Before Harry Stilson was a streetcar driver, he was a farmer. I have his journals from the late 1800s that include details, everything from seed purchases to his code for wind direction and weather. In 1907, Harry packed his household and animals into a freight car and moved from Michigan to Virginia. He and his son Leon rode in that freight car with the livestock. What a miserable trip that must have been.  My great-grandmother’s letter acknowledging his arrival expressed sympathy for the “poor animals” but disregarded the discomfort experienced by her husband and son. They rented a farm in Orange, Virginia in 1907 but farming here proved harder than expected. Michigan hogs died in the Virginia heat. Finances were dire, domestic life was tense, and two years later, Mary Stilson returned to Michigan to care for her mother while Harry moved to Richmond with their three children and applied for a job on the streetcars. Changing careers didn’t change the farmer in Harry, though. His photo collection contains hundreds of animal images and his letters to family discussed livestock and crops.  He kept chickens in the back yard of his Carytown home as did his neighbors, the Garbers. Below is “Best cock in show,”owned by a neighbor on Westhampton Avenue (now Cary Street)  and chickens in the poultry show at the “old Coliseum,” Lombardy & Broad, now condos.

best-cock-in-show coliseum-poultry

Someone in the family must have contemplated an additional income stream because I found this 1932 booklet “Making Money with Rabbits” which was published by R.C. Gulley & Co., 314 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA. It might have been his younger son because, while Don followed his father into streetcar work, he hated it and saved to buy a farm.making-money-rabbits







He succeeded in his dream and purchased property on Route 5 in Charles City County. I have the hand-drawn, colored-pencil survey of Red Hill Farm from 1888 and the deed. Mostly, though, I cherish my memories of Red Hill. The house never had heat or indoor plumbing but I loved visiting, picking vegetables, even helping with sheep shearing. I also remember animals like Mabel, the blind horse who plowed following her partner, Ned. Even animals of earlier decades were preserved in film, like the Stilson hog below.


The entire family was involved in Don’s investment and visited often. Don commuted to work in Richmond  after he bought Red Hill Farm which must have been difficult even without long farming hours before and after driving to town. Stilson movies include footage from farm visits and one scene is significant. Moving picture cameras were rare back then but what I have is perhaps unique. I found an October 1928 journal entry stating “Miss Day of Galeski Optical has loaned me free of charge a moving picture camera and projection” so I know where and when he got his camera.  The movie camera, complete with instructions, was discovered in my aunt’s basement. Upon inspection, a pretty boring picture of Don plowing was revealed to actually be Harry taking a movie and I even have the movie clip he was filming so my documentation of Stilson movies is amazingly complete. See why historians love Harry and Richmond In Sight material? You can’t beat provenance like that!


I’m often frustrated by the fact that every animal, from dogs to cows, is named but people and places often aren’t, perhaps an indication of how significant animals were to everyday life in the early 1900s or maybe it’s simply a sign of how dysfunctional my family was. Either way, the Stilson legacy includes lots of four-legged photo subjects.



Above: Hand-tinted cow “Daisy” at Red Hill Farm


0161 Road work

Contaminated water in Flint, Michigan and failing systems across the country are in the news and my mental image of those aging infrastructures may be more accurate than others. That’s because, like a lot of ‘ordinary’ work in my great-grandfather’s life, Harry Stilson took photographs of utility work along his streetcar route and in his neighborhood. Everything from cobblestone repairs to power company linemen caught his eye and, for Harry, that meant he captured those scenes on film.


Richmond had a state-of-the-art water system in the early 1900s, so impressive that it was a streetcar destination for tours. The Pump House, an early multi-purpose facility below Dogwood Dell, supplied the city with water while dances were held upstairs. From all over the country, people came to admire our water plant. I also have pictures of Harry’s grandchildren at the “settling basin” but here’s the Pump House in the 1920s. Its restoration is a project dear to my heart but seemingly out of reach with current budgets. Don’t you think it would be great to hold dances in that historic building once again?

118 pump house  119 interior

Harry took hundreds of pictures in that area because his family lived on Chaffin Street, now Grayland Avenue, located between Carytown and the Downtown Expressway. Heading downtown on that highway, look to your left and you’ll see the church shown below. Back then, Park View Church overlooked Fountain Lake in Byrd Park. See where the vehicles are parked? Today we drive in that space. The hill was cut away and the Park separated from the church area in order to build the Expressway.

018 Park View church,

The installation of curbs and gutters on Harry’s street was big news and he documented the work with several photographs. The picture below is labeled “all in” which expressed his satisfaction at the completion of the project. I have utility bills and a plumber’s bill so the expenses we incur today were part of family budgets in the early 1900s.

101 curb & gutter

091 back gas,water bill


Cobblestoned streets are an iconic part of Richmond. In oral histories, I’ve asked about riding bicycles on cobblestones and heard Aleck Mollen’s response repeated often: “Not on cobblestones! It would take a better bike rider than I was to ride on THOSE!” We love our charming cobblestoned streets even though they require a lot of maintenance. They did back in Harry’s day, too.

044 cobblestones Leigh St

This picture was a puzzler for two reasons. The streetcar man seemed dark-skinned and we wondered if he was perhaps the Indian man Harry wrote about on a postcard. He reported that his daughter had gone to visit an Indian woman whose husband worked on the streetcars, that they were good neighbors and that he wished “all white folks” were like them. Well, we were wrong. The streetcar man’s daughter contacted me to identify the man as her father and he’s not Indian. The lighting (or Harry’s developing) must have been flawed. The other mystery was the equipment beside him. Randy Jordan’s research determined that it was a water cultivator. Why a water cultivator was required at “the flats” on Leigh Street in Jackson Ward is still a mystery!

093 Indian conductor, machine bk

I mentioned that Harry took a picture of a lineman, “Joe Pace up a pole.” That also was a mystery. I used to be a telephone installer in Church Hill, Oregon Hill, Shockoe, & Fulton so I was searching for a man hooking a pole. Nope. One day we noticed the safety belt around this man’s hips. Not exactly “up a pole,” Harry, but this is Joe Pace, lineman for Virginia Power, the company that ran Richmond’s streetcars. By the way, when I hooked poles in downtown Richmond, none of “us guys” wore suits, ties, and hats, unless you count hardhats!

Joe Pace et all lineman

These are just a few of the men at work, specifically utility work, captured by Harry Stilson’s camera being preserved, restored, and shared by his great-granddaughter,  Kitty Snow, and Richmond In Sight. This blog is part of the RIS project and donations are tax-deductible. If you enjoy these snapshots of Richmond back when streetcars rumbled along our cobblestoned streets, go to and purchase a book of Stilson images and stories, schedule a presentation of his images, or make a donation.


Epidemics, medical advances, drugs, all affected Richmond lives in the early 1900s. Today the zika virus and ebola evoke fear but in Harry Stilson’s time, Spanish influenza stuck terror in hearts. 1918 was an especially deadly year and Richmond wasn’t exempt from tragedy. My great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, as a streetcar motorman, was exposed to passengers with all sorts of diseases as were his fellow “car men.” He kept a journal and one entry offered a poignant illustration of the friendships between streetcar men: “Wed 8/7/18 W C Wright my conductor, became sick and getting worse. I asked to have him relieved but it was 3.30 before Outland 212, came, and I had gotten Wright into Power House to wait for Ambulance which had been called to take him home.” The next day his entry read: “Thurs 8/8/18 Told that Conductor William Clarence Wright died last night after 7 PM at the house of his sister at 1505 Garland Ave Barton Heights.” A few months later, he noted: “Fri 10/25/18 Spanish Influenza the end of Willie McCloud last night.”

Diphtheria was another dreaded disease. I found this booklet entitled “Train Ticket to No-Diphtheria-Town on the Health Road” filled out with my aunt’s name. In 1913, the Schick skin test was developed but only came to the United States in 1923. It offered a simple mass immunization and I suppose the “Train Ticket” was designed to inspire participation in the immunization programs.

diptherianorma  diptheria2  diptheria3  diptheria4  diptheria next last

Medical practices were different back then. My grandmother was bitten by a snake as a little girl. Doctors were summoned from Richmond or Midlothian to treat Bon Air patients so her father called the doctor. Hours passed. Finally, at sundown, Dr. Hazen rode up on his horse and said, “If that snake was poisonous, she’d be dead” and headed home again.

069 Doctor

Visiting nurses and midwives handled most medical emergencies. Harry simply labeled this photo “Visiting colored nurse” with no explanation of who, where, or why he took her picture. 003 Black health nurse

Even back then, the Medical College of Virginia was respected for its advanced treatments. Several photographs of “Mr. & Mrs. Lynch” clarified that they were not related to Harry’s son-in-law, Lee Lynch. The couple came from North Carolina for treatment and rented an apartment from Harry Stilson. Several notations on photographs refer to Mrs. Lynch having “little chance of surviving” whatever illness she suffered from.Hospital stays exposed patients to germs and bugs. Dr. Charles Williams was a patient at MCV as a boy and witnessed the use of blow torches to exterminate bugs in his hospital room. lynch

Harry’s sister was married to a doctor and some of his equipment, including a porcelain urinal, survived the decades to wind up in my house. Without disinfectants, I doubt any of the equipment was very sanitary. urinal

And then there were the usual accidents…broken bones and such. Bet they didn’t offer this guy his choice in neon-colored casts.

man in castHarry Stilson’s bouts with his “lungs” were less worrisome than they could have been. He reported missing work and then, “feeling some better”, going to see his friend, Sam Sparrow, in Jackson Ward. Sparrow, an African-American railroad porter, had reason to be irritated at Harry if he realized that Harry, still sick, might have caused what Sparrow told Harry: “Tue 12/17/18, Sparrow reported his wife sick Saturday night soon after I left.” People didn’t know how germs were transferred. Without sick day pay, missing work was a financial hardship so folks like Harry “Went back to work “all in” at quitting time” and probably passed his germs on to his coworkers as they had done to him.

The descriptions and terms are quaint, as when Harry wrote that his conductor was ill: “2/9/19 Epperson off, throat and lung sore.” All in all, I’m glad to live in times when inoculations are routine, sanitizers are available in most public places, and urinals come in disposable plastic.



Now that Black History Month is over, March is Women’s History Month and Richmond In Sight is on top of that, too. Harry Stilson’s wife, Mary, wasn’t your usual “little woman.” Literally, sure, she was tiny but she had the determination and ingenuity of an Amazon. Mary Perry

Mary Elizabeth Perry was born in Michigan in 1885 into a hard life. She lost her father as a child and became responsible for the family’s survival. Mary juggled school and work, fighting to get her education and teacher’s certificate. Once money ran out and the family lived in a tent for six months. The Seventh Day Adventist Church, which the Perry family attended, held camp meetings in tents but those tents weren’t designed for extended periods of habitation. Mary, her mother, and younger brother pitched their “church meeting tent” beside the Grand River and lived there. The photo below isn’t the Perry tent but it’s similar to the one they owned. Sounds like fun but Michigan summer nights are really cold and the campsite didn’t provide conveniences like water (other than the river) or electricity.

church meeting tent

Mary sold taffy and popcorn to tourists visiting the resort hotel across Michigan’s Grand River which paid for food and the Ferris Institute certificate needed to teach. When school opened and a pay check was promised, they moved into a rented house. Below is one of her teaching contracts. MPS contract

Teaching was dangerous in those days. I have Mary’s school bell but the horse whip she kept by her side for protection from the larger boys went missing over the decades.

The (mis)adventures of Mary and Harry Stilson are described in my first book, From A Richmond Streetcar so I won’t repeat them but in 1907 Mary left her husband and children in Virginia to return to Michigan and care for her invalid mother. She built the house they lived in, which is still standing, an enlarged version of the small house Mary built.

During those tumultuous years, Mary divorced her husband, a scandalous action in those days. She and Harry reconciled after several years and the death of their son in World War I but apparently never remarried. In 1930 census records, they are both listed as divorced and she states her role as Harris Stilson’s housekeeper and relative. To the world, however, they appeared as a middle-aged married couple. Here, on the porch of their home on Grayland Avenue, they look content. 025 harry,mary

Harry must not have objected to her unusual talents because he preserved the record of her carpentry for posterity. Here’s Harry’s photo of the child-sized secretary she built for her son out of scrap wood. His camera and movie camera sit atop it so I put them back for the “now” picture.

086 secretary,old   secretary now reszed

Mary continued her carpentry, restoring the farmhouse her son bought in Charles City County. A 1935 Garden Club tour brochure included Red Hill Farm on its program and listed Mary’s “renovation costs” of $109. The description noted that much of her material was “found around the property.” In other words, she recycled. In later years, she put in a bathroom for her daughter’s family and converted one room into a kitchen for my parents’ half of the home place. Not your usual women’s work.

My upcoming book relates her journey to France as a Gold Star Mother to view her son’s grave. Harry taught her to take photographs and I have the envelope of her first efforts labeled “Mary’s first lesson in picture taking.” mary's first lesson

After her lessons, she sailed off, recorded her experience in photographs, and brought them home for her husband (or whatever he was!) to develop. Not too tame a life for a girl with no money, no education, and nothing but grit to keep her going. That same 1930 census stated that Mary did not attend school, although she supported her family as a teacher. She educated herself like she taught herself carpentry, drawing, and photograph-tinting. Mary Perry Stilson wasn’t famous but she is worthy of admiration in this month recognizing Women’s History.



If you follow this blog and Richmond In Sight, you know that our mission is to share photographs taken by my great-grandfather in Richmond between 1909-1934. Harris Stilson was a streetcar motorman, or driver, who carried his camera everywhere. I usually show you photographs of Richmond and its people but today I thought I’d invite you into the house Harry returned to at the end of his streetcar route.

038 HHS coming home.jpg


That house was 3021 Chaffin Street, now Grayland Avenue, in what we call Carytown. He also owned the house next door where his daughter and her family lived. That was convenient for visiting but you can visit, too. Come on in and sit a spell at the Stilson home.

Vera, HHS in lr

Harry’s sister Vera moved in after her husband died. This living room scene (above) shows her tatting on the table, a table in my bedroom now. The painting over the piano was created by my grandmother. I still have it. In another view, you can see Harry’s streetcar cap on the mantle.

living room

Lots of household items in Harry’s photographs have survived and are still being used in my home.  One example: my father is banging a spoon on a tin container  in this hand-tinted picture.

HDL, Spoon, chair  tin pail

Harry’s camera was sight in so many pictures. This view of the hall shows a bookcase with his camera sitting on top of what might be a Victrola but not the one I have. Mine is huge and contains the Stilson family 78 record collection. This child-sized secretary was built by my great-grandmother for her son to match a larger one in the house. Mary Stilson was a carpenter and teacher so this photograph reflects hobbies each loved: Mary’s carpentry and Harry’s photography.  Harry’s camera and movie camera are clearly visible on top of the small secretary.

Stairs, camera  086 secretary,old

That same hall was where the Christmas tree stood. I’d love to have the display under it which must have been lost over time but I do have some of the ornaments on the tree.

Christmas tree   Stilson Christmas ornaments

I’d hate to see what the kitchen looked like before the “remodeling” that Harry described this photo as displaying but the eating nook was cool. Notice that the seats fold into the wall. Salt shaker, teapot, dog nutcracker n the window, all accounted for in the Snow household nearly a century later.

Kitchen  057 grayland kitchen

Dining area

We think Harry developed his photographs in the bathroom, glimpsed from his study in one photograph. I’m not sure if it was upstairs or not but his typewriter (got it) was used for hundreds of letters (got them). When he wasn’t developing pictures, he was catching his grandchildren in the bath.

HHS at desk  HHS desk


Next time we’ll visit the gardens, yard, and a bit of Harry’s neighborhood. I hope you’ll check back for that. You can also go to for more about the Stilson collection and our projects and books based on Harry Stilson’s images.


Richmond sent her boys off to war in 1917-1918. Some came home, some didn’t. Their stories are compelling as are my great-grandfather’s images of those young men. Harry Stilson captured recruits off to boot camp, soldiers going to war and coming home. His photographs of Richmond’s African-American soldiers provide a rare glimpse of Jackson Ward’s patriotism. That devotion is considered by some as striking in a country that offered freedom and opportunities to all…unless your skin was dark.

The day after the African-American Soldiers' parade in Jackson Ward

The day after the African-American Soldiers’ parade in Jackson Ward

Harry’s elder son, Leon, was one of the Richmond boys to go to France and his letters and post cards provide the basis for my fourth book. I’ve been gathering oral histories of other Richmond soldiers and am praying for more. If you know someone who had a relative in World War who left Richmond for Europe’s war, please contact me. I want as many memories as I can collect because every family’s story is unique. Many of those boys had never left home before so traveling across an ocean to another continent was exhilarating as well as terrifying. Veterans’ Day inspires reflection on all the young men and women who have served our country over the year but Richmond In Sight is dedicated to the early 1900s so we’lll focus on World War I. The United States entered the Great War in 1917. Here are a few photographs of the boys who left Richmond and returned, if they were lucky, as men.

Leon Stilson, WIlliam Grubbs, and others off to Camp Lee

Leon Stilson, WIlliam Grubbs, and others off to Camp Lee

Leon Stilson left for Camp Lee from Shockoe Bottom. One of his companions, William Grubbs, came home, returned to farming and his ferrier business, and nearly a century later, his granddaughter saw this photo in the Richmond Times Dispatch and contacted me.

Sam Beasley & brother

Sam Beasley & brother

I’ve researched Sam Beasley and his brother (labeled in Harry Stilson’s notes) but I can’t find them. Many boys enlisted with siblings and went off to France, confident that they could keep each other safe.

Soldiers at Broad Street Station, now Science Museum

Soldiers at Broad Street Station, now Science Museum

Grays returning from France on Broad Street

Grays returning from France on Broad Street

When the war ended and Richmond’s soldiers returned, a week of celebration rocked the city. The white troops, including the Blues and the Grays, came home a week before the African-American troops. The parade in Jackson Ward was memorable and Harry Stilson recorded it all, from preparations to the long-awaited parade led by the Elks.

Set up for parade of black troops, on Bowe Street, at Leigh Street, looking north

Set up for parade of black troops, on Bowe Street, at Leigh Street, looking north

Elks leading parade on Clay Street just west of Norton

Elks leading parade on Clay Street just west of Norton

Richmond's African-American troops return from France, June 14, 1919

Richmond’s African-American troops return from France, June 14, 1919

For years after the Armistice, parades were held each November 11th. Sadly, the days of parades and bands are gone but our veterans, all of them, from all the wars, and all the services, are heroes. Our gratitude shouldn’t be confined to a single day. Thank you for your service should be heard all year long.

Armistice Day parade

Armistice Day parade

Memorial Day was established to remember the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country and for each of us. Our family’s soldiers and sailors all came home from war with one exception. My great-uncle Leon Stilson died in the “Great War,” World War I, from a sniper’s bullet. In the Stilson collection are hundreds of photos of Harris Stilson’s older son but I also have Leon’s letters from boot camp (Camp Lee, now Fort Lee), postcards,  and photographs that he sent home for his father to develop.

Camp Lee hospital postcard

His letters after he left for France are especially poignant. His mother’s letters that arrived after his death were eventually returned to her. Decades later, I found them and they made me cry.

Leon Stilson on leave

Letters and photographs, not only of Leon but of so many young Richmond men going off to France, many of whom had never left home before,  inspired my fourth book, available this fall.  War affects families and cities as well as countries. Postcards filled with the details of combat training, homesickness, and words designed to relieve his mother’s worry, highlight the heartbreak accompanying each young person going off to war. Every brave, scared, lonely young man sent messages home echoing Leon’s words.

Richmond soldiers to Camp Lee

Harry Stilson took hundreds of photographs of soldiers, sailors, Armistice parades, air ships, and anti-aircraft guns. He documented the Broad Street Station return of his son’s unit at war’s end. The persistence of a grieving father led Harry to a family in Petersburg, Virginia,  whose son did return from France and who witnessed the fatal wounding of Leon Stilson. Letters from Mr. Thomas Ivey and his son George described how one man died in simple, heart-wrenching words. I believe those letters and documents illustrate how war impacts us all.

George Ivey letter

In 1932,  Mary Perry Stilson sailed to France on a Gold Star Mother pilgrimage to see where her son is buried among 17,800 graves at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Paris scenes, 1932 maps, ship menus, even her passport and Gold Star Mother Identification, all were lovingly preserved. When I started working on the Stilson collection of images, the enormous number of wartime photographs struck me. So did that pilgrimage of all those mothers who traveled so far to stand by a grave identical to thousands of others and remember their little boys.




I think one young man’s story becomes symbolic of many stories. Richmond’s dead are listed on a commemorative stone at Byrd Park under an American flag. The Carillon was dedicated as a memorial because these deaths were personal. Our city lost these boys, too.

098 memorial, leon and colored

We lost all the possibilities of all those young people, all the amazing lives they could have lived. I’m not into military history and don’t intend my book as such. It will be a personal look at who went to war, images of one city’s response to a worldwide conflict. I want to share letters, postcards, notes, and anecdotes about Richmond’s boys: farmers, mechanics, students, streetcar conductors. Sons, husbands, fathers. Those who came home and those who did not.

075b LeonLeon Stilson at Hartshorn College (now site of Maggie Walker Governor School) on his last leave before sailing for France
Each family grieves in its own way. Memorials can be as impressive as the Carillon or as quiet as a yellowed packet of letters. Those expressions of grief echo through decades and we should be respectful of them.

Gold star ID
Harry must have sent money to George T. Ivey, the young soldier who was with Leon. In George’s letter to my great-grandfather, he said “I suppose you desire to give expression to your appreciation of what I did for your boy, who fought by my side. The little that I was able to do for him was done gladly and cheerfully, but I would have done the same for any other, for I would have been neither a soldier nor a man if I had failed. I did what I could, and regret that I could do no more. I was near him until ordered away by my superior. I think of him nearly every day, and sincerely regret that such should have been his fate. My last service for him was to wrap him in my rain coat, as he complained of the cold; then I had to leave.“ George Ivey thought about Leon Stilson nearly every day. Don’t we owe the men and women who gave their futures, their everything, for us at least one day a year of remembering and gratitude?