Archives for posts with tag: Richmond history

Yogi Berra’s famous quote of “It’s déjà vu all over again” seemed appropriate in Richmond, Virginia recently. A National Guard soldier from Fort Pickett in Nottoway was charged with driving an armored personnel carrier off base…way off base, to downtown Richmond, while on drugs. He was taken to a psychiatric hospital and then charged with driving under the influence of drugs, unauthorized use of a National Guard vehicle and evading police. How can this be a repeat of history? Easy.  We simply refer to the Harry Stilson collection of photos.

My great-uncle Leon Stilson was at Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, during World War I. His letters are part of my most recent book based on my great-grandfather’s photographs, From Richmond to France, and Leon relates a similar story of joy-riding back in 1918.

The Camp Lee recruits were young men away from home perhaps for the first time and sometimes they got in trouble. Leon reported that “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. I think the Captain is going to try to get him out tomorrow morning.”

I doubt that a $50 fine will be the extent of costs to Joshua Phillip Yabut, who lives in Harry Stilson’s own Jackson Ward. The photo below isn’t of that WWI soldier’s mishap on Broad Street a century ago but it’s just down the road. It was taken at Broad & Meadow.

South's accident

You certainly could see military vehicles on the streets of Richmond during World War I. Parades and bond drives were events to display America’s tanks and other vehicles. The 5 ton tractor below (left) is moving along Broad Street in front of First Baptist Church, 12th & Broad, now absorbed into VCU. The anti-aircraft gun is on “Ford’s lot,” where Ford’s Theater had once stood, across from the second First Baptist Church building at 10th & Broad, another VCU building. Next time you’re in that area, look for those buildings tucked into the massive school complex.

5 ton tractor 075 anti-aircraft

Automobiles were common on Richmond streets in the early 1900s but they were a luxury that many couldn’t afford so not knowing how to drive wasn’t rare. Actually, the whole procedure for learning to drive and getting one’s license was still evolving. Even when my mom got her license in the 1940s, it was a haphazard affair. She learned to drive in the family’s cow pasture at the age of 14. Bon Air was too rural to require more than simply stopping the car where you wanted. When she took her test, she was told “Now parallel park.”   She had no idea how to parallel park and hit both standing signs, front and back of the car.  She got her license anyway.

The year was cut off in Harry Stilson’s picture of these folks lined up to get driver’s licenses in front of the Washington monument at the Capitol. It seemed noteworthy to my great-grandfather so I thought it might be the first year licenses were required.  I spent 45 minutes trying to find someone who could tell me what year that would have been but gave up. It was before 1920, that’s all I know.

DMV license line

Harry Stilson took a lot of pictures of automobiles and drivers. Cars were status symbols and proof of financial  accomplishment. This may be Mrs. Senf, owner of Senf’s Store at Norton & Clay. Harry noted in his journal that he had taken her photo in her new automobile.

woman driver

These days licenses are required for trailers but back then, there were no rules. When Mary Perry Stilson’s niece came to visit, they were usually on tour. Opal’s family performed around the country and needed space for their instruments so they towed  equipment behind the car. This last image is their departure from the Stilson home on Grayland Avenue.  When you see various  trailers on the road today, remember that once upon a time, you could hitch anything to a car that you had no license to drive and learn to drive by simply…driving.

opal's trailer


Memorial Day. It’s unlike other holidays because we aren’t really celebrating but remembering the men and women who died so that we, and those in other lands, can live freely so it’s not really a celebration but a time of reflection. My latest book, From Richmond to France, focuses on Richmond’s “soldier boys” boys who fought in World War I, and the aftermath of that war including Gold Star Pilgrimages to France where mothers and widows visited their loved ones’ graves. We don’t seem to share the national grief that was felt in earlier times and that’s sad. Perhaps we’ve seen so much of war’s devastation that it no longer impacts us. That’s tragic. I heard a report on NPR about soldiers’ suicides and how painful it is for families who feel that their sons, husbands, or fathers have been overlooked as heroes and it hurt my heart. We ask so much of our military and that includes their families and friends.  It’s a small thing for them to ask that we remember lives lost and families destroyed, that we stop and imagine that kind of loss in our own lives, at least once a year.

077 MPS at LHS grave


It’s easy for me to visualize losing a son in war because my great-uncle, Leon Stilson, died in France at the end of WWI and I’ve read his letters. I know that he longed to buy a farm and leave his job as streetcar conductor on the cobblestoned streets of Richmond. He had plans, was awkward and shy, speculated about finding someone to share his life with, and was a considerate son who mailed his mother an embroidered handkerchief shortly before his death. I’ve come to know Leon, a soldier who died a century ago and I know how his death affected his family.


In a time before internet, before instant communications, our family received a rare gift: an eyewitness account of how Leon was shot, written by the man beside him, George Ivey of Petersburg. That man’s father, Thomas Ivey, sought out Leon’s family as requested by his son. George was anxious to know if Leon made it home.  Reading how Leon managed to provide sniper location and distance information after he was shot eight times, how that saved his fellow soldiers, how George shared his coat when Leon was cold, is painful. Reading the hope in that letter that Leon had survived his wounds is heartbreaking. A century after Leon died on French soil, hearing a mother describe her son’s return from Iraq, her thankfulness that he had survived, and then her agony when he later killed himself is soul-destroying.

Perhaps praying that someday Memorial Day will be held in memory of soldiers from long ago and not to remember young men and women who grew up with our children is unrealistic. My son’s close friend died serving as an MP and the loss of that young man with his potential to do so much in life still pains me.


I’d like to think that someday we’ll learn to live without wars or conflict. Until we do, and even then, we should stop and thank those who gave the greatest sacrifice of all for us, people they never knew but that they were willing to die for. It’s such a small thing to remember those men and women. If we can’t do it every day of the year, we can at least do it one day of the year.

Leon Stilson on leave


Segregation in the early 1900s was pervasive. In Richmond, Jackson Ward was the premier African-American community but it was comprised of Jewish immigrants as well. According to “Miss Ruby” Turner, a well-known activist for race relations, even in Jackson Ward people divided by race. Miss Ruby was quoted in my book, On the West Clay Line describing how each neighborhood had black families, then what she called a “Jew store” with the owners living above it and “Jew families” living beside the store. Please understand that Miss Ruby’s language was not derogatory. She declared “Jews…they are my friends. Where did we learn what we know about God? From whom did we learn it? From the Jews!” A visit with Miss Ruby was always a lesson in tolerance and diversity. She went on to say “People who carry this hatred (of other religions & races)…they may look good on the outside but they’re miserable.” She also pointed out that segregation existed even within the black community. “The people on the other side of Lombardy were “the other” colored folks. We colored folks were a little bit above the “other colored folks.” Also the people that lived down Second Street way and Brook Avenue…we were more segregated than y’all were. That’s the way it was.” Trust Miss Ruby to point out that not only color but also money and education created separation and bitterness back then just as it does in America today.

However, segregation has always been selective in Richmond. Irving Haggins remembered that his playmate, Gilbert Grossman, was a white Jewish boy who was not allowed to play with any other black kids. Mr. Haggins laughed when he said “I guess, to him, we seemed like the most prominent ones in the neighborhood.” Harry Stilson’s opinion of segregation was expressed in his speech of 1907 when he suggested integrated schools and churches to promote diversity. I don’t think either term “integration” or “diversity” was common back then but that’s what Harry advocated and his actions spoke louder than words. One of my favorite Stilson photographs is of Harry’s son, Don, and his friend.0153 Don & Denny.jpg

A hot issue was segregation on streetcars. In 1904, before Harry Stilson came to Richmond and became a streetcar driver, the General Assembly passed the “Act Concerning Public Transportation” which allowed segregation on streetcars. The Virginia Passenger & Power Company decided to enforce that law which led to a boycott of streetcars by African-Americans. John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Walker, both prominent leaders in Richmond’s black community, supported that resistance action. There had been friction between Richmond’s African-American streetcar passengers and conductors for some time. Conductors were assigned the job of separating black from white on streetcars and as the car ran its route, the racial makeup of the car changed. That allowed conductors to move black passengers farther back, sometimes several times during one trip.

0157 black men streetcar

One fact worth remembering is this: streetcar fares were expensive and the black passengers who had paid for the ride deserved that seat. Miss Ruby: “Streetcar fare was seven cents and the bus was eight cents and my mother, instead of using the streetcar or bus, she’d use that money for food. And we’d walk.” The streetcar boycott, like later bus boycotts, was effective but over time, it lost momentum and, by the time Harry went to work as a streetcar motorman, black passengers sat in the back and whites in the front as evidenced by this African-American woman, the only passenger on the car.

streetcar woman

I’ve noticed that Harry often captured black and white people together in daily activities. These unknown boys in Jackson Ward are one example and another is the two icemen in front of Harry’s home on Grayland Avenue. I have no proof that he was trying to make a point in those photographs; after all, I inherited about 5,000 of his images, but they support his contention that “familiarity” would create “better citizens having more respect for each other and less strife.”

0020 white & black kid in carriage   Ice men

We don’t segregate on public transportation any longer. Harry would be pleased. But I don’t think he’d be happy with the racial tensions of America in 2018. None of us should. Black History is celebrated for one month. Why not all year? Harry called for more respect and less strife a century ago. Isn’t it time that his words were fulfilled? And all God’s children said “Amen.”

003 Main St,black man


Hartshorn Memorial College was the first African-American women’s school to award baccalaureate degrees and it was located in Richmond, where Maggie Walker Governor’s School now stands. There was a streetcar stop at the school and Harry Stilson’s car lingered there so he could take photographs of students, staff, and buildings.

Hartshorn and Elwin.resized - Copy

The 1920 U.S. Census lists Miss Julia Elwin, teacher, shown above, as living at 1600 W. Leigh, so she lived on campus. Hartshorn’s teachers were white with the exception of  the wife of a Virginia Union professor but that was common in those days. Virginia Union was the first school in the country to have African-American teachers and Harry took pictures of them, too. Unfortunately, he didn’t label the pictures of Dr. Riggler and Dr. Jones so I can’t identify them. In the photo below, students are “tatting” but, while Hartshorn taught domestic skills, it concentrated on academics and the teachers who graduated pursued careers in Richmond and elsewhere.

Hartshorn tatting

Hartshorn lineup

Harry’s journal had a cryptic note: “Maude E. Brown & Iva Clarke” among Hartshorn photos so I called Virginia Union where their archivist confirmed that those were those of students…of high school. I had not realized that Hartshorn was also a high school until then. Iva’s great-niece is still in Richmond. Someone recognized the name and asked her friend “Is she your great-aunt?” More proof of my conviction that Richmond’s not six degrees of separation but maybe two.

maude brown iva clarke

I wonder if Miss Julia was supervising girls in the dorm December 6, 1920. In the photo below, Harry’s tripod is at the fence and you might not be able to see this but a man is crawling out of the first floor corner window of this dorm.  Harry took pictures of significant events as well as insignificant events like this one. It was only important to the parents of the girl in that corner room!

Hartshorn for blog

Hartshorn’s ‘brother school,’ Virginia Union, offered an unusual feature in its infancy: a working farm, power plant and water supply. Its adjacent Industrial Training School housed pigs, cows, and chickens and vegetable gardens and students were expected to maintain the plant and farm, which supplied the school as well as generating income. The wagon below, in front of Hartshorn, was probably in route to Virginia Union just across the trestle where Union student Percy Jones stood. This was a rare Stilson photo of  Virginia Union, possibly because it was not on his streetcar route.

wagon Bull

068 Percy VUU

Hartshorn was torn down around 1932 when the school merged with Virginia Union. It  sickens me to think of the destruction of those glorious buildings. During World War I, this dorm was decorated with patriotic flags and Harry took a picture of his conductor in front of it.  According to Wikipedia, Hartshorn students were not allowed to ride streetcars but that didn’t prevent my great-grandfather from participating in the lives of the girls of Hartshorn. He documented their faces and the face of African-American education in Richmond, a part of Black History Month that we should know and honor.

streetcar man hartshorn

Hartshorn and Elwin for blog


My great-grandfather, streetcar man and photographer Harry Stilson, didn’t take as many Christmas pictures as you would expect. Or, if he did, they didn’t survive. I’ve shared most of these before but maybe you didn’t see them  or don’t mind seeing them again. If that’s the case, about Christmas trees…

Xmas tree blog

Christmas trees were usually cedar, it seems. I have no idea who the folks below are but the piano is a player piano and the tree is circled by a white fence.

Christmas family

Those fences must have been popular because there’s also one around the base of the family tree on Grayland Avenue, between Cary Street & the Downtown Expressway. The children are Harry’s grandkids, Howard and Norma Lynch and neighbor, Ralph Carr. Many of the ornaments adorning those long-ago Christmas trees hang on my tree every year.

nkl hdl rc  house ornament  Stilson Christmas ornaments



In those days, gifts weren’t lavish. An orange, one toy (often recycled) and that was about it. My father and his friend Ralph Carr displayed all their vehicles in this Christmas Day photo but there is no way to tell which was the new prized possession that year. I think the building may be in the ‘village’ beneath the tree above.


Bike parade! I doubt any of these were new gifts but an audience of neighbors  inspired the kids to mount up and hit the sidewalk on December 26, 1927.


We are currently trying to separate damaged negatives that are stuck together. If the attempt is successful, there may be more holiday images to share in the future. Whatever we salvage will be added to the 5,000 or so Stilson photographs we have now and I’d consider that a wonderful Christmas present.



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

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