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This blog is a companion to my Richmond In Sight work. We created that non-profit to preserve, restore, and share the nearly 5,000 surviving images that my great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, took of Richmond and elsewhere in the early 1900s. The sharing part is accomplished by presentations, books, and our online presence so my fourth book continues that effort. Previous ones focused on neighborhoods, with On the West Clay Line (Jackson Ward, Carver, Newtowne, & Navy Hill) and Up & Down Church Hill concentrating on Church Hill and Shockoe but the new book is different. One reader called and said “It grabbed me and pulled me into those boys’ lives. I felt like Leon Stilson was right beside me.” From Richmond to France contains story and images of young men who went to war but it’s not a military history. It’s told in the words of my great-uncle Leon, other soldiers and sailors, and their relatives. It’s more about adjusting to Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, coping with homesickness, straw mattresses, and learning to survive in battle than it is about battles.   

From Richmond book cover

2017 is the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I. Many of us know little about that time or that war but it was more than a turning point for our country. Before then, America’s military numbered about 135,000…total. We weren’t considered a force to contend with, military or otherwise.  The Great War changed that. We expanded to millions of soldiers and became a world leader. Our presence in France changed the world’s perception of the U.S. but there were other significant effects of America going to war overseas.

mess hall

Wealthy Americans took world tours and traveled to Europe but the majority of ‘soldier boys’ that fought in France had never left the country before. Many had never left their city borders. The impact on their lives can’t be overestimated. They experienced the horrors of war but they were also exposed to other cultures, languages, and architecture that existed centuries before our nation was born. The song “How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree)” was popular for a reason. It echoed the sentiments of parents throughout rural America. Their sons came home looking at life through a different lens.

Sam Beasley

American soldiers’ interaction with Europe influenced our nation’s health as well. Returning soldiers and others carried the Spanish Influenza home with them. According to the National Archives, more people died of the flu than were killed in the war. One example of the scope and randomness of that pandemic comes from Clyde Goode whose father served in an engineering company . Ralph Goode survived the war, then returned home to discover that his mother died of the flu while he was en route from France. The epidemic was so prevalent that references to influenza even appeared in my great-grandfather’s journal. Harry described deaths of fellow streetcar men and the survival of a neighbor from the influenza during the war. Death was as near as next door or as distant as an ocean away.

burial at sea

Despite reluctance by veterans to describe battle conditions, details did emerge. Horrific battles with unbelievable carnage left survivors damaged in various ways. Men came home without limbs and with nightmares. One man told me his uncle came home with a wooden hand. Lives changed for those men and for the families who waited for their return.

This isn’t a depressing book of war woes, though. The stories are funny and a glimpse into the innocence of our world in 1917. Leon was introduced to gambling and dancing, to “smokers.” He wrote “This company had a smoker last Tuesday night. I don’t think the word applies very well. We had 5 or 6 wrestling matches and 4 or 5 boxing matches. After that was over and in between, bouts of plenty of music, a piano, banjo, violin, and singing. Then we went downstairs to the mess hall to eat all the ice cream and cake we wanted. Then the cigars and cigarettes were passed out and the men given permission to smoke in the mess hall which is against the rules at all other times. The lights were put out at eleven o’clock and everybody went to bed.”

beans

He explains passes:  “I did not ask to go this week as we have no uniforms as yet and my clothes are dirty. “ He also writes about what happens when young men are away from home and get that pass: “A private took a corporal home with him to Richmond last Saturday and the corporal went out of a house where they had went to visit and took the private’s automobile which he did not know how to drive and proceeded to go crazy on Broad Street and ended up by smashing the car up against a tobacco factory. Now he is in jail with a $50.00 fine unpaid.”

From Richmond to France is also about Armistice, the aftermath of war, and the healing that came later. When a Gold Star Family made news last summer, many Americans were unfamiliar with the term but it was familiar to everyone in the Great War and afterwards. A unique piece of history included Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages. Congress authorized a program in which mothers and widows traveled to France to see their loved ones’ graves so Paris in 1932 is also part of my book.

Eiffel tower

If you read this blog, you’ll appreciate the books based on Harry Stilson’s images and oral histories of Richmonders. I tell people that they aren’t my books. I just assemble them. They’re the stories and the images of our city’s past and they direct our future by lessons within the pages. This story’s time has come.  Contact me directly or go to www.richmondinsight.com to purchase From Richmond to France. Support our efforts to share Harry’s images and be “grabbed” at the same time. I promise that it is a story you won’t soon forget.

5 ton tractor

 

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Education and self-improvement were valued by my great-grandparents, Harris & Mary Stilson. Both were teachers in Michigan. Harry actually used schooling as an inducement to marriage. He offered to pay for classes that Mary Perry needed but couldn’t afford… if she would marry him. Mary’s teaching skills were beneficial when the family moved to Orange, Virginia, and money was tight. Public schools were rare in those days so Mary taught class in their living room. It put food on the table.

Robert E. Lee school roomEducation wasn’t always available in a schoolroom environment. Harry took correspondence classes and I have textbooks dating from 1892. White’s School for the Reed Organ & Melodeon included music for “Come Where the Rippling Waters Flow.”

reedThe Stilsons’ daughter, Anita, continued that tradition of correspondence schooling, taking classes from White School of Costume Art. One lesson advises studying “style magazines for type.” The text continued, “Study every line and trimming effect from neck line to hem and compare or change according to those best suited to your type.” Anita must have been a determined student because my mom credited her mother-in-law with teaching her proper tailoring. Those skills enabled me to wear dresses that looked “store-bought” but were homemade.

White School of Costume Art lesson

White School of Costume Art lesson

Harry, on the other hand, didn’t study style but electricity, bookkeeping, hydraulics, even hypnosis.

hydraulicsHis books on hypnosis are a hoot. Personal Magnetism & How to Develop It by Paul Weller, promised that “Sage’s Revolving Mirror, endorsed by the largest schools of hypnotism in the world” is “the only mechanical device ever invented that is absolutely sure to produce hypnotism in every case.” I haven’t found the revolving mirror or Rev. J.S. Wharton, M.D.’s hypnotic ball in the massive collection of Stilson memorabilia but they could be here somewhere. What does a revolving mirror look like, anyway?

hypnosis pictHarry’s grandchildren chose more traditional learning methods. Howard & Norma “Kit” Lynch attended Robert E. Lee School.  Harry took movies of recess there and this is a still from that movie.

RELeeschool01Norma, particularly, was a good student. She was class valedictorian at Midlothian High School, worked at the Pentagon designing munitions during WWII, and became the second female bridge engineer in the Virginia Highway Department, now known as VDOT. Kit was an avid reader. She owned an eclectic collection of books, some of which I consulted when writing books on Richmond’s past, but Kit also depended on Richmond’s library. As a little girl, her library card with its metal stamped identification number was well-used.

NKL library cardAll sorts of literary endeavors appealed to Harris Stilson. In 1907, the Ladies’ Literary Club in Danbury, Michigan invited him to visit and give a talk. I have that hand-written speech and share it in presentations. Harry’s journal mentioned library visits and I’ve even found a book or two stamped “Portland Library” (Oops!) so it’s only appropriate for his great-granddaughter to make presentations and share his films in libraries a century later.

Stilson photo of Ida Cauthorn reading book, 1207 Brook Avenue

Stilson photo of Ida Cauthorn reading book, 1207 Brook Avenue

I’ve given presentations at libraries in Henrico, Chesterfield, at VCU, and I’m going to Rockville next month, but November will offer an experience unlike my usual talks. I’ve been asked to participate in Midlothian Library’s Festival of the Written Word as part of a panel of local authors. Maybe I should read Harry’s books on hypnosis to see if I can hypnotize panel members and audience into barking…or buying my books of Harry’s images! Maybe not. After all, I have no proof that Harry passed those correspondence classes in “personal magnetism, hypnosis, and suggestion” or that the techniques even worked!

personal magnatismI promise not to hypnotize you but I do promise to share my process of collecting oral histories, researching Stilson images, restoring them, and combining them with stories to place you on Richmond’s cobblestoned streets back when streetcars ran. If you’re in the Richmond area, you might want to be part of the Festival of the Written Word on November 7th. Here’s the info:

LibposterStory of my life…I published this last night and then found a magazine page, no way to identify the publication,  in the Stilson stuff that BEGGED to be included. It was in an article about Christmas gifts and labeled “Book tree for mobile readers.” Well, that was probably in the 50s, way before e-books, iphones, even computers, so we’re a lot more mobile in our reading. A great gift for Christmas this year! So here it is…

"Book tree" for mobile readers, unknown magazine

“Book tree” for mobile readers, unknown magazine

This is a classic Richmond story so listen carefully. In my first book, I insisted that Richmond was “not six degrees of separation, perhaps two”. Upon hearing this story, you might agree.

After my first book, From a Richmond Streetcar, came out, two ladies from the Forest Hill Neighborhood Association made a long, rainy- night trip to hear my presentation and buy books. One gave a book to a man named Richard Lee Bland, who called me to say that, upon reading it, he realized that he had “seen these pictures before.” Because my great-grandfather sold photographs, that didn’t seem implausible…but this story is. Implausible, I mean.

Richard Lee Bland was at the Church Hill Tunnel collapse 75th anniversary commemoration when he noticed a man showing people a photograph of the Tunnel before it collapsed. He approached the man and asked if he could take the photo to VCU Libraries to be scanned. Mind you, this was a historic photograph and Richard Lee Bland a complete stranger but the owner of the picture immediately handed it over. Richard took it to VCU and shared the image, then contacted the owner to return it. As Richard Lee described it, he drove “all the way to Moseley, Virginia” and by this time, I knew exactly who “the man” was. It was my father, Howard Lynch, who gave a stranger a precious piece of Richmond history and trusted that it would be returned to him. His trust was well-placed in Richard Lee Bland.

005

East Entrance of Church Hill Tunnel, 1918

This story had already answered one big question we had pondered: how did The VCU Libraries digital collection get Harry Stilson’s photograph? We were told that it was donated. Now we knew by whom. But there’s more. When Richard returned the photo, he taped the conversation as Howard Lynch showed him the Stilson collection, about 300 photos. That collection now includes nearly 4,000 negatives, prints, and films, materials I found in Howard’s sister’s basement and garage. In my new book, Up & Down Church Hill, dedicated to Margaret Lynch’s memory, I describe her as our “accidental” historian. A lot of accidents or coincidences surround this Church Hill Tunnel photograph. Richard wanted to meet me and give me a copy of that audio tape. It’s disorienting to hear a tape of your deceased father discussing pictures you work with daily. It’s also frustrating because they discuss pictures I either don’t have or can’t recognize. “This is a house being moved…” WHAT???? Where? I don’t see that in any of Harry’s pictures!

There’s more. I donated Stilson films and images to VCU Libraries because I was contacted by Ray Bonis, VCU archivist, who’d heard about the collection. We met and I agreed to share material with VCU Libraries. That was in 2012. A year later, while going through my dad’s papers, I noticed VCU’s letterhead on a letter. It was written by Ray Bonis after the donation of the Stilson image by Richard Lee Bland. Dated in 2000, Ray asked Howard to consider donating the collection to VCU. I scanned the letter and attached it to an email to Ray with the explanation that he needed to see this “historically significant letter.” Poor Ray. Expecting some exciting new “find,” instead he found his own letter which he didn’t remember writing to a man he’d never met but who gave a photograph to someone Ray knew who then gave it to Ray to scan. Following this?

In 2000, Richard Lee Bland spots a valuable photograph and shares it with VCU. In 2003, Howard Lynch dies and I inherit his grandfather’s collection of early 1900s photographs. In 2012, I write a book based on those images and a museum staff member I met told Ray about the collection so Ray reached out to me, not realizing he had requested the same collection from the same family 12 years earlier. Good thing Ray’s a patient man.

There’s more. When Richard brought me the tape from a decade earlier, he also gave me a priceless piece of information. Between phone conversation and visit, someone offered to sell him a photograph. Richard said he would have bought it anyhow because it was a rare 1919 image of an African-American man in Jackson Ward, documented by the enamel street sign on the corner of a house, but he was certain it was a Stilson photo. He recognized the writing stating the date as that of Harry Stilson. What are the chances of being offered a Stilson photo days after reading my book with photographs that he recognized as the work of a man whose grandson he met 12 years earlier? I know. This is getting complicated.

073 Richard Bland photo, reszed

Richard Bland’s photo of African-American man, N. Kinney & Leigh Streets, June 15, 1919

There’s still more. His photograph was taken the day after Richmond’s African-American troops returned from France at the same corner my photograph of the soldiers was taken but his displayed the location, a mystery we’d tried to solve for months. No one could identify the location and now we know why. That block of Leigh Street, just east of Moore Street Church, is gone. All that remains is a small sign: “Hartshorn Community Association.” The purchase of a book for a friend resulted in a trail of interactions and coincidences that documented the location of a historic event, the parade route when Jackson Ward’s sons returned from France.

072 parade Af Am

African-American troops returning from France June 14, 1919

There’s one final piece to this illustration of how small Richmond really is. Last night Richard Lee Bland emailed me that he had found “documentation” of the Church Hill Tunnel photograph provenance. To view a picture of my father, now deceased, unknowingly setting in motion the project we call Richmond In Sight is emotional. His generous sharing of one Harris Stilson photograph was the first step in my work of research, indexing, and writing. It’s a labor of love, squeezed in between real estate and triplet grandbabies and usually means working at 5 AM or midnight but Richard’s “documentation” made me cry. It’s a connection between generations, sort of a sign that there is a reason that I do this, even when it’s expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating. I’ve said all along that Howard Lynch would love all this. Oh, yeah, the man who handed over a priceless piece of family and Richmond history to a stranger because the stranger said he “wanted to share it” would have been delighted by the books, the presentations, the blog, all of Richmond In Sight. How cool is that?

HDL with Church HIll photo

Howard D. Lynch loaning Church Hill Tunnel photo to Richard Lee Bland, October 2000

Christmas traditions have changed over the decades. In the 30s, kids got an orange for Christmas or maybe one toy. Lights were confined to Christmas trees when my parents were little and a Tacky Lights Tour was unimaginable. These days, my great-neices and I  eat cookies and drink sparkling grape juice from plastic champagne glasses while admiring the Phifers’ million and a half lights on Asbury Court but that’s just one of my family’s “gotta do” events and/or activities.  There’s also  gingerbread houses with oh, 50 kids or so, the church caroling party, Christmas brunch with my ex-husband’s family and mine, the Richmond Pops concert and the Richmond Nativity Pageant at Dogwood Dell. Unfortunately, this year the Pops is the same night as the Carillon program and my aunt, who has Alzheimer’s, can’t stand long enough to participate in the outdoor event so we’ll be at the Landmark (still “the Mosque” in my family) delighting in the Richmond Pops’ songs of the season.  Make sure you’re get to at least one of  these great Richmond traditions.

The Richmond Nativity Pageant at Dogwood Dell is celebrating its 82nd year. It’s Richmond at its best: a little corny, all-volunteer, and absolutely wonderful. Some families have been in it for generations.  Go to this link  http://www.richmondnativitypageant.com/index.html for details. The lead picture from last year’s program includes three generations of Robbens as the Holy Family.

Dress warmly as you’ll be outside. The pageant,performed at the Carillon, truly is an event you should experience at least once. That’s all it will take to create a  tradition.

Meanwhile, at the Landmark, the Richmond Pops holiday concert is free but you need to get tickets and it’s probably too late now since the concert is Monday night. Put it on your calendar for next year when (hopefully) it won’t conflict with the Carillon program.  The Pops is an incredible amount of musical talent, all volunteer, under the skillful direction of  Joe Simpkins. It’s a great way to get in the holiday spirit. https://www.facebook.com/pages

Don’t forget the Tacky Lights Tour. You can go big (limo) or small (car crammed with kids) but don’t miss the gaudy and the glorious. www.richmond.com/events/tackylights-tour

For contrast, here’s a little glimpse into the Christmas traditions of Harry Stilson’s time. Then, for laughs, I’ve included a few pictures of our holiday events like my back yard after my annual open house last Saturday where several folks got stuck in the mud and gingerbread house time the next afternoon. The gingerbread house pictures are courtesy of Bruce Boyajian.

0136 christmas toys                                                       Howard Lynch & Ralph Carr

around Christmas tree girl by tree

I have no idea who the people in the pictures above are. Any suggestions? See your great-aunt Maude? Your cousin’s wife’s sister? Anyone?

yard reszed                    Just a glimpse of my back yard, post-open house

RJ                                                     Gingerbread house making, 2013

Nora                               That Skittle is awfully little to be “glued” with that spatula!

Haley                                                            Construction completed

Rountrey gang                                    My kin, some working, some supervising

Asha                                                 First year of making gingerbread houses

I know this isn’t much of a history lesson and it’s certainly not a well-written, thoughtful blog entry but hey, it’s Christmas. I am impressed with myself for simply getting a photo to Channel 12 for their Throwback Thursday Facebook page and for getting this hodgepodge blog entry done! So grab your kids, your friends, whoever, and go savor the season. It’s Christmas in Richmond, Virginia and that says it all. Merry Christmas from Kitty Snow and Richmond In Sight.