Archives for posts with tag: Richmond history

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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 http://smile.amazon.com/gp/charity/homepage.html?orig=%2Fgp%2Fbrowse.html%3Fnode%3D11448061011&ein=47-1678153

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

It’s been a long time since my last entry and I apologize. Sometimes real life interferes with my Richmond In Sight projects like this blog. Let me try to make it up to you with this. Fourth of July is upon us with all the traditional activities: fireworks, homemade ice cream, cook outs, and parades. Last week I attended a Richmond Pops Band concert and the M.C. introduced “76 Trombones” by explaining that every town wanted a brass band because of the popularity of John Philip Sousa and other composers. That inspired me to write this about Richmond’s bands back in the early 1900s because they were certainly a significant part of celebrations.

I know my great-grandfather loved music because I inherited his Victrola and record collection but his photographs and movies are visual evidence of his love for brass bands. Harry Stilson took lots of pictures of parades. His movies include a Monument Avenue parade that we believe is the 4th of July. I’ll share a few images along with a brief history lesson about how much Richmond loved its bands.

The John Marshall High School cadets were prominently displayed in Harry’s photos. As a little boy, Bill Long lived across from the 6th Street Armory where the cadets practiced at noon. The streets were closed for those practices. Can you imagine that happening today?

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This picture of the John Marshall band was labeled “Idlewood Park” and is on Sheppard Street. Most of the houses in the background are still standing.

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The Elks were famous for their bands. When Richmond’s “new” City Hall (now “Old City Hall”) was completed, festivities included the Atlanta Elks Band.

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There were African-American Elks lodges, too, and many of my oral history sources recall the Elks’ band fondly. The drum major with his remarkable white shako plume was firmly embedded in the memory of every kid in Jackson Ward. There was always a Sunday afternoon parade and some of my most memorable Stilson pictures were snapped as “the band played on.” This is the Elks band on 17th Street and the steep hill behind them may not be there anymore because Fairfield Avenue/Oliver Hill/17th Street has changed so dramatically.

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When Richmond’s black troops returned from France near the end of World War I, the Elks band was part of the parade and celebration.

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Parades were big events, no matter the occasion. This crowd is on Leigh Street and Hartshorn College, where Maggie Walker Governor School is now located, was behind the spectators. We think the parade may have been Virginia Union cadets but this gives you an idea of how popular bands and parades were in the early 1900s.

Negro parade Lombardy & Leigh

This photograph is of a Macon, Georgia brass band and while we can read Thomas Hardeman on the drum, we can’t confirm whether it was a military or civilian band. Either way, you can imagine the John Philip Sousa music and the excitement of the crowd. The band is on Theatre Row (between 7th & 8th on Broad Street) and you can see the Lyric and Bijou Theatres in the background.

Macon Ga band

And finally, here is a clip from a Stilson 4th of July film. It’s Monument Avenue and a tiny bit of the fence around the Matthew Fontaine Maury statue is in the far right of the picture. It’s blurry because it’s taken from Harry’s movie but I like it because the drum major is followed by a little boy dressed as a drum major also leading the band.

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There were even some great Stilson photographs of parades and bands before the music began. These are three of Richmond’s first African-American Girl Scouts before they even had their uniforms. We had one of the first black Girl Scout troops and I can only identify them as scouts because Harry described them as “Girl Scouts marking time before the parade.” Thanks for the heads up, Harry!

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Just a glimpse into the bands and music that inspired Richmond spectators back when streetcars rumbled along our cobblestoned streets. Maybe you won’t be watching a 4th of July parade Monday but if you listen closely, you might hear an echo of yesterday’s brass bands.

 

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.

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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.

 

 

I promised to tell you about the Astoria Beneficial Club so here’s a short lesson in co-operation and giving back to the community. In 1901, if you were African American, there were few options when enormous financial disasters struck. Insurance for blacks was almost non-existent so ‘beneficial clubs’ were formed. Co-ops, sort of. Members paid into the club and when they had medical expenses or funeral expenses, funds were provided. Of course, others donated as well. I have my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson’s note in his journal “.25 to bury colored man” but organizations like the Astorians were common then. Unlike most, the Astoria Beneficial Society is still providing necessary services in Richmond.

I was blessed to have a very special Astorian as my friend. Dr. Wesley Carter was friend, mentor, and cheerleader to me in my work to preserve, restore, and share the Stilson photography collection. I met Wesley when he was 104 years old but it was hard to prove his age. He lived alone, drove, went to Virginia Union weekly. As the oldest living alumnus of Union, he was revered and accorded special status. He was given that same respect by fellow Astorians so, when he received his free ticket to their annual award meeting, he offered to take me as his “date.” Naturally, I accepted. The picture below is Wesley, the man I called “the best PR man around and the best date I ever had.”

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At that dinner, awards were presented to people who do outstanding things in our community, educators, advocates, etc. That’s not new with the Astorians. Their history includes scholarships, donations to local causes, and more. The Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue is due to their determination to celebrate a Richmond hero and Wesley Carter went to Ohio with the sculptor to bring it here. Did you know why it stands where it does? Bojangles Robinson saw a child nearly hit by a car at that intersection and inquired as to why such a dangerous situation existed. Told that the city wouldn’t pay for a stoplight there, in Jackson Ward, a predominantly-black neighborhood, Robinson donated the funds to provide one. Today, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap dances near the intersection of Chamberlayne and Leigh.

During the Civil Rights movement, the Astoria Beneficial Club promoted employment of African Americans by the city, equal pay for Public School teachers, voter registration and rights, and jobs in the Richmond Police Department.

Education has always been a focus of the Astoria Beneficial Club which has given scholarships to deserving black students from its inception. Today, they inspire students to achieve their potential. At that dinner, an award was given to then-school superintendent Dr. Yvonne Brandon who praised them for going into schools that few visit. She stated that the mentor program offered by the Astorians literally changes lives.

Changing lives. Pushing limits. Giving back. To quote from their program for the 110th Anniversary & Awards Celebration, they are “Celebrating a Richm Past: Making a Difference in the Future.” One hundred and fifteen years after they were established, they are still a powerful force for good in Richmond.

Harry Stilson was the poor man’s photographer and in the early 1900s, if you were black and lived in Richmond, there was a good chance you were poor. Money was scarce and didn’t stretch to luxuries like portraits. My great-grandfather took pictures of wealthy African Americans but for many of his subjects, photographs were rare purchases. His journal indicates that he charged black customers 5 cents less than his white ones so they usually paid 10 cents for a portrait.

While on his streetcar route in Jackson Ward, he caught hundreds of its residents in daily tasks. He also recorded places and institutions along the West Clay line that no longer exist. Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was located at 2nd and Marshall Street and can be seen in this photograph behind the streetcar.

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So much black history was made in Richmond. Hartshorn Memorial College was the first African-American women’s college in the United States and it stood where Maggie Walker Governor School is located today at Lombardy & Leigh. Harry spent a lot of time there so his collection includes Hartshorn buildings, students, and teachers. Miss Julia Elwin was the teacher in this group photo. The teaching staff was white. Virginia Union (which Hartshorn merged with later) made history by hiring African-American teachers. Surviving Stilson photos of Virginia Union students include Mr. Jones posing on the trestle with Union in the background.

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If the plethora of Hartshorn photographs didn’t confirm Harry’s affection for the school, his journal did. He took pictures of Miss Elwin in her flower garden and he mentioned Iva Carter and Maude E. Brown. I contacted Virginia Union to confirm that the two young women were students. They were, in the high school department of Hartshorn. Huh. Didn’t know it was high school as well as college! Here they are, Iva and Maude:0080 Hartshorn, two girls bk

I just have to include this Hartshorn photo. Harry Stilson’s tripod and equipment are standing at the fence but this picture was taken from the streetcar and is evidence of Harry’s sense of humor. It’s a girl’s dorm and if you look closely at the building’s downstairs corner, you’ll see a man climbing out of the window. Harris Stilson took pictures of historical significance and those of no significance to anyone…except the parents of that Hartshorn student!

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One of my favorite Stilson photographs is of three precious little girls which Harry documented as “girl scouts marking time waiting for the parade.” That would be the Elks parade, which occurred every Sunday and the Girl Scouts he recorded for us were among the first African-American Girl Scout troops in America. Their group was so new that they didn’t have uniforms yet. I shared this photograph with the Girl Scouts so they could include it in their history. Harry Stilson was the poor man’s photographer but his legacy is a treasure.

 

Next time we’ll see some of the folks Harry Stilson captured along his streetcar route. You can also check out our Richmond In Sight Facebook page and www.richmondinsight.com for more stories and pictures.

 

Memories are strange things. Recently I was referred to a 95 year-old woman who grew up in Jackson Ward. I took my projector and flash drive and started showing pictures on her wall but she couldn’t tell me when she was born or where. I reminded myself that even if she coudn’t help me at all, I could share pictures of her childhood with her and it would be a good day. So I described what I knew about each picture and the show went on.

Then the image of a little girl popped up and this very old lady pointed at it and said “I remember that child. She was a playmate of mine.” I asked if she recalled her name (which I knew because Harry had thankfully written “Miss Rubin Lee Moore” on the back of the photo.) She answered “Rubin Lee Moore. Her parents were Earnest Lee and Sadie Moore and they went to Hampton Institute with my parents.”

THIS is why I write the books and make the presentations anywhere I can. Because of a Harry Stilson photograph, a dear old lady whose memory is failing rapidly was transported to the days of babydolls and jacks, when she was a little girl with parents who loved her and “Uncle Earnest and Aunt Sadie” who brought Rubin Lee over to play. 

Thank you for being part of the project that will put these memories into the gnarled hands of aged residents of Jackson Ward and transform them into the little boys and girls Harry photographed nearly 90 years ago. If you can share this project with friends, please do. You’ll be rewarded in ways far beyond books and note cards.

We have five days to collect pledges to meet our Kickstarter goal or we won’t be funded (translation: we get nothing). Please check our project out by following this link:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/890823340/richmond1919-pictures-and-stories