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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Christmas decorating has changed dramatically in the last few years. Think of how much more there is…more kinds of lights, decorations, computer-generated house lighting displays, lasers, all of that. If you’re a Christmas junkie like I am, it’s great but it’s also neat to see how people celebrated Christmas in the early 1900s and, thanks to my great-grandfather’s photographs, we can do that. One indication of how the season was observed is the number of pictures of the Stilson/Lynch family at Christmas that survived: a handful. It wasn’t as long or involved a holiday as is celebrated today. Some photos of unknown families are included in the collection and could have been friends, family, or customers. We’ll probably never know although I’ve learned not to say “never” in the Great Harry Stilson Adventure. When I do, the next day someone contacts me to identify the place or person I was sure would remain a mystery. Like these folks:

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I’ve shown these pictures before but they’re still worth a look. When I shared them before, I asked if you recognized anyone. Your aunt Maude, perhaps? That’s how we identify stuff…Richmond In Sight’s detectives include all of Richmond and beyond. You’re part of the Great Adventure, whether you expect to be or not.

What I love about Harry Stilson’s photographs are the connections: to not only the Richmond of today but to our family. It’s cool to see buildings and places from a century ago and know we pass them (or visit them) today. It’s also really cool to examine a Christmas tree my family decorated and know that some of those same ornaments hang from the branches of my tree. I’ve been questioned about the wisdom of exposing these fragile antiques to harm but they survived thus far and I like the continuity. So here’s the present-day version. If you look at Harry’s photographs, you might spot some of the same ornaments on his family Christmas tree.

The plan is to share a few more holiday images in the next few days. As you may have noticed if you follow this blog, sometimes my best plans go awry. Real estate business, triplet grandbabies, presentations, book writing, and more can interfere with my intentions but stay tuned. I’ll try to do better. I really do need to get on Santa’s “nice” list. Time’s running out…

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.

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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

Gold Star families have been in the news recently. You may not have heard that term before so here’s a bit of Gold Star history as seen through a personal lens, that of my own family. Richmond Views shares images and stories from the Richmond of my great-grandfather’s lifetime. Harry Stilson drove a streetcar and his camera rode beside him every day. His photographs are an amazing collection of ordinary and extraordinary events and people. My books and presentations share those priceless images but some of the photographs included were actually taken by Harry’s son, Leon. Both of the Stilson sons followed their father into streetcar work but Leon’s career ended when he was called to military service in WWI. Harry & Leon pose in their streetcar uniforms below.HHS and Leon streetcar uniform My upcoming book, From Richmond to France, focuses on the young men who left Richmond to fight in the World War but it’s also about Gold Star Mothers, including my great-grandmother, Mary Stilson. Her son, Leon, did not come home from France. Leon departure                                              Richmond recruits heading off to boot camp

Blue Star families have a relative serving in the military. The term Gold Star families refers to those who have lost a son or husband in battle and comes from the tradition of hanging a gold star in a window or on a door to indicate a loss. The organization Gold Star Mothers was created as a support system for women devastated by the death of a son and Mary Stilson was active in the Richmond chapter. After WWI, there was a movement lobbying  Congress to arrange passage for women to visit their sons’ graves. My great-grandmother made a Gold Star Mother Pilgrimage to France on the President Harding. Ironically, her trip included a stay in New York at the Hotel Commodore, now a Trump Hotel.

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Harry taught his wife to take photographs (her first attempt is noted on an envelope of negatives) and she kept EVERYTHING, from passport to ship menus, from a bag of French soil to the vase presented to her by the mayor of Verdun where Leon is buried. A shell converted to a vase, it now sits on my shelf, just one reminder among hundreds of the sons who died for our freedom. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I and  we need reminding of that war’s sacrifices by so many young men, both black and white.

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When Richmond was determined to build a monument to those killed in what they called the Great War, the Gold Star mothers were right there. The Carillon was dedicated in October 1932 and the Stilsons were there. I believe Harry took the picture used in the Gold Star fundraiser pins sold at the dedication. My father helped his grandmother with sales. Next time you are at Dogwood Dell, look for the Gold Star emblem on the Carillon. I’ll share more of its history at my Veteran’s Day presentation at the Carillon next fall.

076 Dedication of Carrillon                                                         Carillon Dedication, October 1932

The loss of a son or daughter, husband or brother, in war is heart-wrenching and not soon healed. Harry worked through his grief by meeting returning soldiers, photographing them, asking questions. He found a Petersburg man who was with Leon when he was shot and corresponded with him and his father. I have those letters and they’re hard to read even now. I never knew Leon. He died nearly a century ago but my heart hurts to read how that young Petersburg man covered Leon with his own greatcoat when Leon said he was cold. Harry’s healing came from learning details and documenting the return of other men’s sons. Leon’s mother turned to other mothers who had lost sons and found comfort in their shared experience. Peace was found only after traveling across an ocean to stand by her son’s grave. Gold Star Mothers embraced each other and offered each other comfort as they stood by stark graves on foreign ground.

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Mary Stilson by her son’s grave at Verdun, France

Today Gold Star Mothers still support families in the loss of a son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister. Their sacrifice is unthinkable. My heart aches to even hear them speak of their loved ones and I stand in awe of families who sacrifice their family’s future for America’s future. I hope to honor them in a small way with From Richmond to France. It’s customary to thank those in uniform for their service. Perhaps learning what a Gold Star family has suffered will lead to a new custom. Suppose we start saying to members of Gold Star families, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” A small gesture and perhaps a century overdue.

 

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.

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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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Pace et all lineman

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