‘Snapshots in time’
150 historic Wilson County postcards come home
About 150 colorful, vintage postcards, covering Wilson County sites and sights from the early 1900s into the 1970s, have returned to their roots.
The splendiferous collection, accumulated over half a century by Nashville historian and author Ridley Wills II, will be displayed during a month-long exhibit at Cumberland University’s Heydel Fine Arts Center.
Wills, who donated the collection to Cumberland, will speak at a reception to held 4-6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7. Hosted by the university and Historic Lebanon, the event is open to the public.
“The Ridley Wills postcard collection is a wonderful chance to see parts of Lebanon that are no longer here and to enjoy the unique ‘snapshot in time’ the postcard images offer,” said Kim Parks, executive director of Historic Lebanon.
“Anytime you can feature the history of your community, it adds to the quality of life for the area. To preserve your history, you first have to understand and be engaged in the story it can tell.”
Parks said the collection features approximately 150 postcards with a number that truly stand out, including several depicting Horn Springs Resort and a variety that show the motor lodges and travel courts that once dotted Highway 70 and Carthage Highway.
Wills, who wrote Touring Tennessee: A Postcard Panorama, 1898-1955 in 1996, began collecting postcards in his youth. After setting them aside for a time, he returned to his hobby with a passion as a young man.
“I collected Nashville postcards as a child, and I had ’em in a shoebox at my mother’s home on Belle Meade Boulevard,” Wills said in a recent phone interview. “After graduating Vanderbilt and serving two years in the Navy, I came back to Nashville and decided I wanted to take some pictures of some buildings that interested me in Nashville.
“I remember going down on Fourth Avenue North, and Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House was on that street near Commerce. I went there with my Polaroid camera, and I noticed Levy Wrecking Company was tearing the building down. I realized so many of the buildings that I wanted to capture pictures of were gone. I thought about that childhood postcard collection.
“I went back to my mother’s house and found that shoebox filled with Nashville linen postcards and found a postcard of Jacob McGavock, who owned Belle Meade, standing in front of Belle Meade Plantation with William Howard Taft and Judge Horace Lurton, a Supreme Court member from Tennessee (Lurton earned his law degree at Cumberland School of Law in 1867). I said, ‘Man, this is a great card. I wonder if there are many others like this?’”
Spurred by the thought, he began collecting anew in 1959, eventually building his collection to 28,000 Tennessee postcards, not counting duplicates.
Initially he found the postcards at the Nashville Flea Market and in antique shops, and in more recent years tracked them with his computer on eBay.
“For the last 10 or 15 years I have been giving these postcards away because usually you can’t count on your children having the same interest you’ve got,” Wills noted. “I didn’t want them to have to fool with it. It’s not an easy task.
“I’ve given postcards to maybe 50 museums, colleges and libraries across the state, but I’ve got 15,000 to go, I think. So I gave Cumberland my Wilson County postcards.”
Among his favorites in this collection, he said, “I’ve got some grand postcards of Castle Heights, and I also always enjoyed the postcards of the public squares. I’ve got several good ones of the Public Square in Lebanon showing Gen. Hatton’s statue, and I’ve got some good ones of Cumberland University.”
Parks said that the collection, which also shows restaurants, motels, churches and the old courthouse, “will be up for a month at the Heydel Fine Arts Center on Cumberland’s campus. We are working on the collection’s permanent location.”
Wills, a retired senior vice-president of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, has penned 17 books including The History of Belle Meade: Mansion, Planation and Stud, Nashville Streets & Their Stories, and Lest We Forget: Lost Nashville Companies and Their Stories, which was published earlier this year.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.