Archives for posts with tag: photography

I spend a lot of time identifying people and places in my great-grandfather’s photos. I also wonder about the children Harry Stilson captured in his images and what their lives were like, what they grew up to be. Black History Month looks back at where we have been but it also looks forward to where we are going, a concern to many. Harry’s streetcar rumbled along the cobblestoned streets of Jackson Ward with his camera tucked beside his seat. I know this because Morris Goldberg told me so and he knew my great-grandfather when Morris was a kid of nine or so.

Morris Goldberg

Mr. Goldberg at Hancock & Clay, site of Goldberg’s Store

I first met Morris after hearing a voice in a crowd say “I knew a streetcar man named Stilson. He let me drive the streetcar.” Those two sentences define Harry in a way. While his surviving 5,000 photographs and movies capture events, places, workers, and more, they include hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures of children. He took their photographs and sold them to support his photography hobby but many were because they caught his eye and his fancy. I only know these little cuties are girl scouts because Harry described them as “girl scouts marking time waiting for parade.” Richmond had one of the first African-American Girl Scout troops in America and these girls didn’t even have their uniforms yet.

girls scouts bk

He was intrigued by twins. I have dozens of pictures of twins, all ages and colors. I can only imagine his delight had he been able to photograph his great-great-great grandchildren…triplets. These twins appeared in several photos, including one with Harry’s own grandchildren, my father and aunt, which was on Marshall Street.

twins, Jackson Ward reszed


Harry’s grandkids, Howard & Norma Kathleen Lynch & twins on Marshall Street

Kids in action tickled him. Kids with goat wagons of laundry, kids swimming or diving, teenagers goofing around.


When the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote about my work, Irma Dillard contacted them to say she was raised on stories of Mr. Stilson watching out for her mom and friends in Jackson Ward. I shared pictures with her of her mother and friends that she had never known existed. Her mom is the girl with the white tights and glasses in the photo below. Her mother became a teacher and I’ve met lots of her former students, which is exciting. Seeing these kids and then knowing that they went on to acquire the education their parents often lacked, to teach and inspire future generations of Richmond kids humbles me.


Some of Harry’s kids disappeared and have frustrated my efforts to locate descendants. I want to share pictures and collect oral history from their families. Children like “Miss Rubin Lee Moore” as Harry labeled her photo. I can’t find her in census records but an incredible thing happened while I was trying to interview an elderly lady. It was clear that her dementia was advanced. She couldn’t recall where or when she was born but I thought I’d show her the 20 photos I’d brought anyhow. As this image appeared, she said “I knew that child. She was a childhood playmate of mine.” I asked if she remembered her name and she said “Rubin Lee Moore. Her parents were Sadie and Ernest Lee Moore. Her parents went to Hampton Institute with my parents.” I was blown away.


I know Ernest Lee Moore was an African-American soldier in World War I but I can find no record of Rubin Lee except for Harry’s picture and Mrs. Warden’s identification of a little girl from over 80 years ago. Finding kin nearly a century ago when the name is a common one like Moore is nearly impossible but I still try. These kids matter. Their lives matter. Just one reason I do this work, why I created a non-profit to (hopefully) provide financial assistance for these searches, this slice of Richmond history. I know that one of Harry’s “kids” grew up to teach generations of Richmond children, that her daughter is now an attorney. I want to know more about the rest of Harry’s kids. Don’t you?




Some Christmas gifts are always in style, always exciting. Riding toys of any sort but especially bicycles or tricycles inspire joy in 1926 or 2016. Richmond In Sight’s collection of my great-grandfather’s photographs prove that. The Harris Stilson Collection includes a few Christmas pictures that could just as easily be now. This tricycle parade was the day after Christmas, 1927 on Carytown’s Grayland Avenue with a neighbor’s mother & grandmother admiring the procession.


That photograph of my father, Howard Lynch, his sister, Norma Kathleen, neighbor Minnie Arnold and an unknown child is as relevant as the picture that follows below. That’s my triplet grandchildren on a popular “trike” variation: no pedals so kids balance themselves and learn to ride a bicycle easier. At least that’s the theory. First, they need to learn to sit on the seat. There’s a reason parents are young…they need stamina!15731824_10154893722050909_7168745008375094271_o

Some folks are never too old for bikes. Harry Stilson tests his grandson’s new bike in this picture and I can almost hear my father pleading for his bike back.


Chia pets, pet rocks, and Cindy Lauper attire pass from favor but some toys are timeless. Dolls, trucks, and little structures endure as favorites. I bought my kids Fisher-Price garages, airports, and houses but these are really, really cool, too. Howard and his friend, Ralph Carr, proudly display their gifts and I wish at least one of those had survived for me to treasure decades later.


Harry looks delighted to be with his grandchildren as they show off their belongings. My aunt Margaret was born with only one full arm but she rode this tricycle and later bicycles and looks thrilled to be doing it.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.


Margaret loved dolls. I have a few of her dolls, still but sadly, her Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll and her Madame Alexander Dionne quintuplet dolls disappeared over the years.  I do, however, have the china tea set that Margaret is using here. Somehow it survived decades in her basement in an open box. The question is: will it survive the grandchildren?


This child below is NOT happy. Don’t know who she is but she’s the sister of a little boy  in other pictures and I’m guessing they are along Harry’s West Clay Line streetcar route in Jackson Ward. I am always hopeful that someone will see one of Harry’s images and recognize a relative. It’s happened before and is always my Christmas wish.


This last image was captured from a Stilson film and is too timely to leave out. The Byrd Theatre opened December 24, 1928 and we believe this may be the first movie matinee. The kids are all wearing Lindy hats, leather aviator caps imitating Charles Lindbergh because he had recently visited Richmond. Howard and Norma certainly wore theirs with pride. There seems to be a history of movie events at Christmas, huh? Perhaps none as significant as the opening of the historic Byrd Theatre but I know lots of families whose holiday traditions include movies, at home like us with The Muppets Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (both the “real people” and the “tartoon” version, as my granddaughter calls it) or at the theater. Traditions are priceless and whatever form they take, they are to be cherished.   022-byrd-kids

As you pick up wrapping paper and try to figure out where to store the presents your children received, remember this: some of those toys will be forgotten tomorrow but a few  will be treasured for generations. I know…the triplets love toys from the past.


This isn’t my usual blog entry. If you enjoy reading Richmond Views, you may know that it is part of Richmond In Sight, which is non-profit and was created to preserve, restore, and share the photography collection of my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson. Harry was a Richmond streetcar motorman (driver) in the early 1900s whose camera never left his side. He was the poor man’s photographer, capturing images of ordinary events like cobblestone repairing and extraordinary events like the return of Richmond troops from France in World War I. People flagged down the streetcar, asked him to take their picture, which he did. He developed the photos and delivered them along the streetcar route.

Those images, some 5,000 of them, are the basis for my books, From A Richmond Streetcar, On the West Clay Line, Up & Down Church Hill, and my upcoming book, From Richmond to France. They are also shared in presentations at venues like historical associations, schools, churches, synagogues, retirement homes, anywhere I am invited. I do those without fee. Sometimes a donation is made to RIS but almost all of my work, from organizing, creating databases, preserving, restoring, writing blogs, social media sharing, presentations, researching, collecting oral histories, identifying people and places in the Stilson collection, writing and publishing books, participating in neighborhood events like Celebrate Jackson Ward, and so much more comes from my own pocket. That brings me to why I am writing today.

Richmond In Sight is a participant in Amazon’s program Amazon Smile. When you purchase from Amazon, you can designate RIS as your chosen organization and Amazon donates a fraction of the purchase price to RIS. We’re talking pennies but I’ll take anything I can get. Doing this work is my gift to Richmond but it’s a very expensive gift and my means are limited. If you purchase items through Amazon, please click on the link that sends a bit of your money to continuing Harry’s projects.

Here’s the really critical part: today is Prime Day, one of the biggest sales days for Amazon and Richmond In Sight can really benefit from your purchases. If you’re taking advantage of special prices today, make your money REALLY count.

Today is #PrimeDay! #StartWithaSmile and @Amazon donates to Richmond in Sight. Go to

Peggy Gay hats 2

Hat shop or department, Peggy Gay Hats, undetermined location, Richmond, VA

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.



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

The 2015 Road World Championships are in Richmond this week. Very exciting…and also appropriate. Richmond’s love affair with two-wheeled travel goes back a long way. My great-grandfather, Harris Stilson, was a Richmond streetcar driver and amateur photographer back in the early 1900s and he understood the romance of the road. His collection of photographs is massive,around 5,000 images, and many of them include bicycles. In my books based on his photographs, I include oral histories shared by the “kids” who played on Richmond’s streets, rode its streetcars, and sometimes careened down Richmond’s hills on their bikes.
01 3bikesBob Griggs, known to a generation of Richmond’s kids as Sailor Bob, was raised in Church Hill. He shared memories in my book, Up & Down Church Hill, and recalled this memorable bicycle story. Bob Griggs: “I was all over within range, didn’t go very far except for one time. I took several of the boys with me, I don’t know what possessed me to do it. My grandmother lived down in Hanover where the Chickahominy Swamp is. So we got on our bicycles early in the morning and I said “Let’s go out, we can ride out Oakwood over to Creighton Road and down through the battlegrounds and down to the swamp.
I knew where I was going but they were getting weary. I said, “No, it’s just a little further, we can make it.” We left about 8:00 in the morning and about 1:30 in the afternoon we were just getting back on to Church Hill. By that time, my father was coming down the street in his car.” Bob’s other grandmother lived with his family and had been worried. She called his father at work and said “Robert’s gone off, I don’t know where he is. He should be back.” (His father) said “Where you been?” I told him and he didn’t get mad. He just said “Don’t do that again.”

"Vest child on Vine Street"

“Vest child on Vine Street”

Aleck Mollen  grew up living above the family store. Those shops were in Shockoe Bottom on Main Street and later 17th Street. I asked Aleck if he rode a bicycle. Here is his answer: “Always (rode) streetcars. 17th street was the cobblestone street and it would take a better bike rider than myself.” He wasn’t alone in his decision not to risk a tumble. Several of my oral history sources said they walked or rode the streetcar because they didn’t have bikes and couldn’t ride them on the steep hills and cobblestoned streets of Richmond anyhow.
During and after the Great Depression, times were tough. Most of my oral history sources were poor but so was everyone else. Bootsie Madison described transportation in his youth: “None of us had money for buses or anything like that.  It was quite an experience to be there on Church Hill, places to go, no money, only way to get there was thumb, ride a bike or walk. I’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to carry my newspapers, get some money.” Bootsie owned a bicycle and that gave him freedom to go farther afield than many of my friends who related stories of their childhoods. Most of them walked or rode the streetcar. Some even rode Harris Stilson’s streetcar.

Bikes, newspaper boys & parade, downtown RIchmond

Bikes, newspaper boys & parade, downtown RIchmond

When Harry Stilson wasn’t operating a streetcar, he was with his family on Grayland Avenue in Carytown. Harry spent a lot of time with his grandson, my father, Howard Lynch. Harry’s photographs of Howard on wheels began with toddler’s vehicles and advanced as Howard grew.

Harry's granddaughter, Norma, on tricycle

Harry’s granddaughter, Norma, on tricycle

One Christmas Day was documented with a procession of tricycles and three-wheelers on Grayland Avenue. Evelyn Sheppard, Howard & Norma Lynch rode along the sidewalk while Minnie Arnold watched and Mrs. Sheppard and her mother supervised the parade from the porch.

Grayland Avenue kids on Christmas Day

Grayland Avenue kids on Christmas Day

As he grew up, Howard longed for a “new” bike. In those days, the term “new” meant new to you.  In later years, my father wrote this on the back of a photograph of John Marshall cadets: “Ball park! Between Sheppard Street & the Boulevard, facing Idlewood Avenue. Howard Lynch with his 26” Fox Bicycle bought from Stuart Guthrow of 3033 Grayland Avenue.” Stuart was a neighbor of the Stilson and Lynch families who lived on Grayland Avenue and I assume Stuart got a new bike. For Howard, though, his “new” bike was a wonderful thing. Even in his old age, he became animated when describing his bike and the places he went on it.

Howard Lynch & new bike, John Marshall cadets at Idlewood Park

Howard Lynch & new bike, John Marshall cadets at Idlewood Park

Several pictures taken by my grandmother and others show Harry Stilson on a bike. Not his bike but Howard’s. I suspect when your grandfather asked to borrow your bike, you didn’t refuse.

Harry Stilson riding on Grayland Avenue

Harry Stilson riding on Grayland Avenue

Paul Nolde, of the Nolde’s Bakery family, wrote vignettes about growing up in Church Hill at the request of his son, Richard. I’ve been friends with Richard and his brother Wayne since elementary school and was thrilled when Richard shared his father’s glimpses into Richmond life in the early 1900s. Mr. Nolde never said if he rode bikes himself but his sons have always been avid riders so it might have been in the genes. I remember being impressed in high school and later when I heard of bike rides to Williamsburg and elsewhere. Perhaps that bicycling stamina originated in pumping up and down the hills of Church Hill. Paul Nolde did, however, describe an event that Harry Stilson recorded in his ‘moving pictures.’ You can watch a clip of that Stilson film on our Facebook page. That event was a bike marathon at Shields Lake in Byrd Park. Mr. Nolde: “There was some kind of a marathon with bicycles around Byrd Park Lake in the 1920s.”

Bicycle Marathon Byrd Park 1929, also in Stilson movies

Bicycle Marathon Byrd Park 1929, also in Stilson movies

Richmond’s history of bicycling is rich. The Lakeside Wheel Club is a notable example but not all bikers were in clubs.  Harris Stilson’s photographs often caught a biker on the sidelines. When troops returned from France at the end of World War I, Harry photographed them at Broad Street Station (now Science Museum) on the grounds. One image shows two men with bikes observing the soldiers.

Troops returning from France at end of WWI, Broad Street Station

Troops returning from France at end of WWI, Broad Street Station

Bicycles were ridden by messengers and delivery boys and letters in the Stilson collection mention deliveries of that sort. When Harry Stilson received the Western Union telegram informing him of his son’s death in World War I, it probably came by bicycle.

Boy on bike, probably Jackson Ward

Boy on bike, probably Jackson Ward

All facets of life in Richmond in the early 1900s were affected by two-wheel traffic. One of my oral history sources built a wagon to deliver groceries because he couldn’t afford a bike. “A bike would have been nice,” he declared. Bicycles were coveted possessions. Howard Lynch would have testified to that. He could describe his 26” Fox bicycle’s features nearly 70 years after he first rode it. Bob Griggs explored the world on his bike. Bootsie Madison rescued himself from truancy and poverty on his bike, with daring dashes down hills to school and paper routes. Paul Nolde remembered exciting marathons at Shields Lake over 60 years after the races were won. All these years later, we in Richmond reminisce. The glory of that freedom. The terror of those hills.  Lots of stories, lots of pictures. Bicycles. There’s magic in them.

Grayland Avenue kids

Grayland Avenue kids

Visit us again later this week for more bicycle images and stories.

Harry Stilson loved the movies. Richmond theaters took his money several times a week and he faithfully recorded ticket expenses in his journal (Friday, March 5, 1919: “2 movies (rain) .25”) and sometimes the movie title (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lubin”). Moving pictures were extremely popular in the early 1900s and an outing to Theater Row on Broad between 7th & 8th Streets was eagerly anticipated. Theaters sold tickets to more than movies. The Bluebird, Isis, Rex, and others offered escape from the harsh realities of the Great Depression but your ticket also included a “short”, a serial, and a news reel. One of my elderly Shockoe Bottom friends, Aleck Mollen, declared: “For a nickel you could go to the Bijou and the Broadway. Cost a nickel and we would walk up from the Bottom, walk up Grace Street, pays my nickel and looks at my picture and wait for the serial to come on.” The Lubin was next to the Bijou and is clearly visible in this Stilson parade photograph.


Harry also took movies. In October 1928, he wrote “Miss Day of Galeski Optical has loaned me free of charge a moving picture camera and projection in the hopes that I will buy one in the coming year.” Miss Day was a savvy salesperson because Harris Stilson’s “moving pictures” began shortly after that. We donated the surviving films to VCU Libraries and they are believed to be the oldest films in any cultural institution in Virginia. Those films have been restored and now we can go to the movies and visit Richmond when streetcars rumbled down cobblestoned streets. We’re sharing those films with groups around Richmond if your organization wants its own showing.

That’s just what we did last week. I invited family and friends to watch Stilson movies at a Saturday afternoon matinee. I brought the popcorn and cokes and they brought the oohs and ahhs. One scene that fascinated viewers was of another Saturday matinee…at the Byrd Theatre. Piecing together when Harry got his movie camera (October 1928) and the opening of the Byrd Theatre on Christmas Eve 1928 with the background in his film, we think it could have been filmed when the Byrd was opening. There is a truck behind the crowd of children with something BIG in it, like a sign and the canister of film was dated 1929. We can’t prove it but here is a still shot from that film. You decide.



Harry usually attended movies downtown, often after his streetcar route was ended. Normally he went alone but sometimes he took his sister, Vera, who shared his love of photography and films. He was frugal so he patronized theaters with less expensive tickets. The Byrd Theatre, on Westhampton Avenue, now Cary Street, was within walking distance of the Stilson home at 3021 Grayland Avenue (then known as Chaffin Street) but it was pricier. I know he attended the Byrd because my father spoke of going with his grandfather, but Harry most often frequented Theater Row and Church Hill’s Patrick Henry on 25th Street. The allure of the movies didn’t diminish over time. Harris Stilson’s movie-going days ended with his death in 1934 but my oral history sources describe Saturday matinees of their childhoods in subsequent years fondly.
Lots of movie memories are recounted in my book, Up & Down Church Hill. Floyd Gottwald grew up in Fulton and remembers one theater off Williamsburg Road as “the stink bomb” because it had no ventilation. Bootsie Madison went to the Patrick Henry where “Mouse” was the usher and Bootsie sneaked bean-shooters into the balcony to wreak havoc on the patrons below. Bob Griggs usually went to second run movies at the Patrick Henry because the East End Theater was more expensive.
In those days, most neighborhoods had separate theaters for blacks and whites. Edward Aiken recalled that “You could go to the Robinson Theater for little or nothing. Nine cents. You could see a cartoon, a series, and a main picture.”
Theaters offered performances of all sorts. Bob Griggs recalled that the Patrick Henry sometimes had live performances. “Occasionally they’d have a group come in and perform on the stage, a western group or something.” Westerns with Hop-Along Cassidy and Tom Mix were followed by later cowboys like “Lash” Larue and Bob Steele and delighted Richmond audiences, especially young boys. Well, not just boys…Harry filmed parts of Tom Mix serials from his theater seat and they’re in his film collection. Mary Nolde Foster: “The Byrd used to have live things, too. Phil Spitale and his All-Girl Orchestra. I used to go to music things. I remember seeing Nelson Eddy. I still have his autograph somewhere.”

Recently the French Film Festival was held at the Byrd and Harry was part of that event. French director Jean Achache’s documentary, The Byrd Theatre: A Love Affair, premiered that week end and some of Harry’s movie clips were included in that documentary. Jean did an amazing job of combining history with personalities and remembrances and his film is a charming and intimate visit to Richmond’s past. Isaac Regelson was an integral part of the project and he’ll let me know when our city’s Love Affair comes to Richmond’s big screen. I’ll keep you updated on distribution schedules because you won’t want to miss this documentary.
Meanwhile, Harry Stilson’s movies ARE available for viewing and Richmond In Sight is happy to share. Go to our website or contact me here. Just another way to be a part of Harry Stilson’s Richmond. What better way than a Saturday afternoon matinee?