Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cowcatchers on Clay

Give me a rainy day and some old photographs and I'm in heaven. Just don't make me choose between the two.

As it happened, today I didn't have to.

The Virginia Historical Society's banner lecture, given by author Kitty Snow, was entitled From a Richmond Streetcar: Life through the Lens of Harris Stilson.

I was intrigued because my Richmond grandmother had taken the streetcar to get to her job as an operator at C & P Telephone Company and as a kid, I'd been fascinated with her stories of riding them.

Suspecting that the topic would be a popular one, I arrived early and was soon joined by an older couple who arrived holding hands.

Before long I was chatting with the woman who told me that she'd been married 27 years to a Vietnam vet and then alone for ten years, before meeting her current husband, an engineer now sitting next to her (and looking up directions to a Bon Air store on his phone), who'd been married 52 years.

Of course I had to ask how they'd met. Seems before his first wife died she'd suggested he join the church choir and once she was gone, he did.

There he'd met the woman I was talking to, who'd been a member of the choir her entire adult life.

At that point, the husband leaned over his wife with a smile and whispered to me, "She needed a lot of retraining!"

The wife was just as funny, responding, "So did he! He told me he'd be good for five years and we've been together ten."

How cute is that?

The lecture began with the VHS president telling us, "If you have a cell phone, please grind it under your heel," easily the wittiest way to remind people to silence their devices I've ever heard.

Kitty Snow turned out to be the great-granddaughter of Harris Stilson, a Richmond streetcar driver (she said he always referred to himself as a "carman") and amateur photographer in the early 1900s, and the recipient of his archives.

Best of all for me, he'd driven the West Clay line, so I was guaranteed to see familiar sights given that that's where I live.

She'd only brought a small fraction of the fabulous collection of pictures and negatives he'd taken, but even so we were treated to an hour of Richmond's places and people a hundred years ago.

Apparently Harris' talent with a camera was well known enough that people would flag him down when he was driving the streetcar and ask him to take their picture. He charged 15-20 cents for whites and, admirably, a nickel less for blacks.

I'd come to the lecture because of my grandmother, but it was my grandfather who first came to mind when we saw a picture of a milkman on his Richmond Dairy horse and wagon because my grandfather had been a milkman for Richmond dairy his entire working life, both with horse and wagons then later milk trucks

Harris took plenty of self-portraits at a time when cameras didn't do that on their own, employing string, wire and other devices to capture his own image.

We saw First Union Church at Moore and Elizabeth Streets and while the original church is gone, the location is one I walk by often.

He'd taken many photographs of Jewish shops and shopkeepers; I was surprised to learn that Eric Cantor's grandfather had once owned a store in Jackson Ward.

One thing Harris liked to document was accidents like the streetcar collision with a cow, a horse and two goats on the first day of the streetcars running in 1888.

The picture showed the cow under a streetcar, but Kitty said the horse died when it stepped on the live electric line and no one knew how the goats had perished, but they had. It wasn't long before cow catchers were attached to the front of the cars.

Another accident photo showed a wagon with a bull in it toppled at Norton and Clay, again only a few blocks from my house.

When Kitty mentioned how at the end of the street car lines, all the seats had to be reversed for the return trip, many white and gray haired heads in the audience nodded in acknowledgement of the memory.

We saw peddlers on Leigh Street, kids jumping off the high dive into Shields' Lake, and the Piggly Wiggly on the Boulevard with a circus parade going by.

A shot of Hartshorn College, a women's teaching school then and where Maggie Walker Governor's School is now, captured a man climbing out of a women's dorm window. Pretty racy for the time.

I was tickled to see a shot of Hurdles Drug Store at Hancock and Clay (also very close to me), looking very old fashioned, right down to the spittoon by the counter.

There were many pictures of Leigh Street as a dirt road, one with a herd of cattle moseying down the middle.

Somehow I'd never heard or read about the stockyards here, but Harris had been to them so we saw his photograph of a pig in a slaughterhouse dead from heat with workers standing nearby.

That's just it. Harris - the poor man's photographer- took pictures for the masses. Blacks, Jews, immigrants, laborers, maids, slaughterhouse workers, Girl Scouts, businessmen, the St. Luke's Bank marching band.

Basically, anyone who asked or anyone who caught his eye.

The hour of looking at his photographs passed in what seemed like five minutes and I'd have happily stayed for another hour or two if she'd been willing to show us more.

Sometimes you sign on for a short time and happily stay much longer because you're enjoying yourself so much. Marriage, a noon-time lecture, they're not that far apart.

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