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Posted July 18, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Storied past: Resident publishes book of postcards to remember valley's history

Charlie Thorne published a book
Charlie Thorne published a book featuring postcards from 1900 to 1950. Dennis Grundman/Daily

postcards have been enlarged and are displayed on a wall
Some of the postcards from Thorne's book have been enlarged and are displayed on a wall in his home. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Two postcards from the book
Two postcards from the book feature images of the valley in the early 20th century. On top is the Strasburg Hotel; below, is the Old Mill Tavern. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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By Garren Shipley -- gshipley@nvdaily.com

STEPHENS CITY -- Historians often tell the story of the past in grand sweeping passages. But it can also be done 2 cents at a time.

That's what Charlie Thorne, of Winchester, has done with his book "Postcards of the Past," a tour of the Shenandoah Valley from 1900 through 1950 as seen through the eyes of postcards.

Thorne, who co-owns Shenandoah Treasures in Stephens City, said he wrote the book to fill in a blank spot in the area's history following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

"There's just not that much [written about] history in the Shenandoah Valley in that period," he said.

And yet, the first half of the 20th century was a period of rapid and remarkable change. The agrarian society that was in place from the time of the American Revolution was rapidly being replaced by a modern industrial society.

"It saw people go from horse and buggy transport to jet planes," he said.

Communication was at a premium during the early years of the 20th century. Telephone and telegraph were available, but either too expensive or unreliable to make for convenient communication over long distances.

Enter the postcard. For only 2 cents, a writer could send a brief note up or down the valley in fewer than 24 hours, according to Thorne, or send a rare color picture of some faraway locale all the way across the country.

That's one reason Thorne chose postcards to tell the story of a unique time in the valley's history.

While the postcards in the book are in color and are photographs, none are based on color photographs.

Pictures on many of the cards were black and white, shot by German photographers traveling up and down the valley before World War I. Color was added later by printers.

Many bear the postage and postmarks from towns up and down the valley that sent them on their way, along with the messages that went with them.

"Dear sister, we will be over tomorrow if papa doesn't use the horse," a young woman from Stephens City wrote on one card from 1917.

Others show a cheeky sense of postcard humor.

"I can't bear to leave West Virginia," reads one card, as a small black bear looks down from a hill.

Another shows "a sample apple, grown around Shenandoah Valley, Va.," with the apple taking up an entire flatbed railcar.

Finding and preparing a vast number of vintage postcards for publication was a Herculean labor of love.

Cards were borrowed from private collections, or purchased from antique dealers.

"We did go to some estate sales," Thorne said. But the Internet helped a great deal.

"We got most of them from [online auction site] eBay," he said.

Once obtained, each of the nearly 100-year-old cards had to be scanned into a computer, and then digitally restored. Flaws in the paper were removed, as were creases and folds.

The final product is a portrait of a different time, Thorne said. A slower, more relaxed time.

Life in the Shenandoah Valley is considerably different now, due in large part to changes in transportation and population over the years.

Where once the railroad and Valley Pike were the fastest ways to get from here to there at 10 mph, Interstate 81 carries people hither and yon at speeds a local resident of 1915 would find fantastic.

The same cannot be said of the inverse.

"Try getting in an SUV, really high up off the road, rolling down all the windows, and putting it the lowest range it has. Just try plodding along at 3 miles an hour," he said.

"That's how fast horses and wagons went," he said.

"Post Cards of the Past" sells for $39.95 at Shenandoah Treasures in Stephens City, and various museums and historic sites around the Shenandoah Valley.

The author and his wife will have an open house at the store July 24-25.

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