Archives for posts with tag: trains

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


Summer’s drawing to a close with Richmonders trying to squeeze one more trip in before school starts. Most of us travel by car or airplane but back in my great-grandfather Harry Stilson’s day, transportation was more varied and often more basic. “Feets don’t fail me now” was more than a vaudeville line. It was a fact of life. Walking was the most common mode of transportation in Richmond and oral histories support that statement. Whenever I ask an elderly Richmonder how they traveled, the answer is the same: “We walked.” The Marshall Street Viaduct was appreciated because it eliminated walking downhill, through Shockoe Bottom, and up to reach Church Hill and for many Richmonders, that route was walked often. The Fountain family walked the viaduct from St. James Street to grandma’s house in Church Hill every Sunday.

"Pick up your bed and walk"

“Pick up your bed and walk”

Streetcars were an option if you had the fare (7 cents). More comfortable and faster than walking, there were still drawbacks. Morris Goldberg told me the West Clay Line was nicknamed “the Slow Dummy” because streetcars were frequently late. Harry’s photo business involved flagging down the streetcar to schedule a photo shoot, usually completed along the route, and then distributed the next day, as Harry ran his route, so it makes sense that streetcars were often delayed. My great-grandfather’s journal mentioned that three cameras were stolen from his car one autumn. I guess that indicated that a camera was always nearby, business was booming, and non-customers just had to wait until the Slow Dummy showed up.

Harris Stilson's streetcar

Harris Stilson’s streetcar

Automobiles careened along Richmond’s streets but most of my older friends admitted that car purchases were impossible for their families. Harry Stilson’s streetcar income, real estate investments, and photography business allowed him to buy a car but automobile ownership was rare and so memorable that every person I interview recalls make, model, and year of the first family ride. Bicycles were more common and even motorcycles were an option. I’d love to know where the garage is in the image below. Notice the horse-drawn wagon in the background, a nice juxtapositioning of old and new. For others, the “family ride” ate hay and required the services of a farrier instead of a garage.

079 car Motorcycle in garage

Horse & wagon

Horse & wagon

When the Stilsons went to the ocean, Virginia Beach or Newport News mostly, they went by train. Richmond’s numerous railroad systems and stations allowed easy access to vacation spots. Harry even took pictures from the train headed to Newport News. If you can identify this scene, please contact me at Richmond In Sight ( or here at Richmond Views.

Between Richmond & Newport News

Between Richmond & Newport News

If you couldn’t get out of town, you could at least take an excursion boat down the James River. Rockett’s Landing was popular with tourists and commerce and the Severn appears to be casting off for a leisurely day on the water in the photo below.

Severn at Rockett's Landing

Severn at Rockett’s Landing

Air travel was relatively new but World War I created a generation of pilots and applications. This airplane at the State Fair Grounds where the Diamond is today toured the country, perhaps part of a WWI bond drive. Harry’s records of  photo sales of this airplane was evidence of their popularity as souvenirs of a patriotic event.

State Fair Grounds airplane

State Fair Grounds airplane

If you’re planning an end-of-summer trip, hopefully it won’t involve complicated or uncomfortable travel like that of the early 1900s but make it an adventure. You could be following Harry’s itinerary to Endless Caverns, Yorktown, or Portland Michigan or striking out for places Harry only dreamed of visiting. Wherever you go, take pictures and don’t forget the souvenirs. Ninety years or so from now, someone might be sharing them like I do through Richmond In Sight. You never know. Harry Stilson never expected his images to be shared nearly a century later!

Yorktown Sesquicentennial Celebration (150 years)

Yorktown Sesquicentennial Celebration (150 years)