City’s history illustrated in postcard collection

Posted: January 31, 2013

The Winchester Star

Postcard collector Francis Kowalski of Frederick County holds cards depicting the Old Court House Civil War Museum and the Taylor Hotel, both on Loudoun Street in Winchester. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
The offices of Dr. W.J. Whitlock and his nephew on Valley Avenue in Winchester are depicted on a postcard from Francis Kowalski’s collection.
The First Baptist Church in Winchester is depicted in a postcard belonging to collector Francis Kowalski of Frederick County. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
This old postcard depicts Handley High School. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

ROUND HILL — Francis Kowalski adopted Frederick County in 1947.

The 84-year-old Round Hill resident married into the Heishman family, farmed near Nain and served his country for 20 years in the U.S. Navy and as a Marine Corpsman.

He immersed himself in local history and became a collector of glassware and pottery crafted in Winchester and Frederick County.

And, he’s collected postcards reflecting local scenes for almost 40 years, a hobby called deltiology.

The “pioneer era” of postcards, which first appeared in Germany in 1865, runs from 1898 to 1907 — when the U.S. government began allowing a message to be written on the address side of the card. Prior to that, no correspondence was permitted, only the address.

They remained popular, for their cheap postage, until the end of World War II in 1945.

Four large binders display Kowalski’s gathering of some 500 cards, with scenes of places like the Winchester Inn, Star Fort and Handley High School — which takes up several pages in his collection.

“My favorite subjects in school were history and geography,” Kowalski noted. His postcards satisfy both interests.

Catching postcard fever

After moving to the Winchester area from Washington, D.C., in 1947, he got a library card and began reading Shenandoah Valley history at the Handley Regional Library and delving into its archives.

“The more I learned, the deeper I got,” he said.

His mother had been a postcard and stamp collector, and Kowalski enjoyed both hobbies. He began looking for postcards showing Valley scenes.

“I didn’t have the money to buy things unless they were dirt cheap,” he said.

The most he ever paid for a postcard was about $18, he said.

Sometimes, it would tell him about a place. Sometimes, the picture would send him searching for more information.

In the early 1900s, local photographers augmented their income by producing postcards featuring area landmarks and events. Some were sold to tourists. Sometimes, businesses bought them to spread the word about themselves.

Kowalski has several cards depicting the Taylor Hotel — a pre-Civil War building now under renovation — which once fronted Main Street, now Loudoun Street.

The George Washington Hotel, built in 1924 and now restored to its original grandeur, is well represented in Kowalski’s collection.

But he also has cards from some of the city’s other hostelries of yesteryear — such as the Hotel Evans and Hotel Jack.

Kowalski said when he left for a stint in the Navy in 1953, the Hotel Jack still stood on Loudoun Street. By the time he got back in 1954, “it was down and a parking lot was there.”

Kowalski’s collection includes space in his binders for various postcards depicting the same place or event by a different person or at a different time.

Several of his cards show the Winchester Inn as a sprawling structure with a corner turreted tower. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a popular tourist stop on a wooded hill off Wolf Street, west of Stewart.

While the inn itself is gone, Kowalski said stones from its limestone foundation can be seen holding up other large houses along Stewart and Washington streets.

Kowalski’s cards also preserve the memory of other, smaller rooming and boarding houses.

Mrs. L.E. Fries ran the “U.R. Home” at 510 N. Loudoun St. One postcard shows the front of her house, with the name and address, to advertise her business.

The White Sulphur Inn in Bartonsville and the Appleway Motor Court and the Elms, both south of Winchester, all used postcards to publicize their establishments.

Cards of all kinds

Some of the cards in Kowalski’s collection feature black and white photos, some are hand-colored and some are idealized sketches.

The Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival is another popular theme for his paper souvenirs of the city.

He points to one shot, a hand-colored picture of three children amid apple blooms.

The smallest child, he said, is former Winchester Mayor Stewart Bell, already doing his part to publicize the city.

While paper is the material most used for postcards, Kowalski’s favorite item is an aluminum postcard, which features a sketch of George Washington’s office in Winchester, now a museum.

Because the card was never sent, there is no postmark date to indicate exactly how old it is.

He also has two postcards made from leather.

One, with a sketch of Winchester’s Rouss City Hall, was mailed from the city to Miss Grace Romine of White Post in May of 1907.

The other shows two ships, sailing side by side toward the viewer with the word “WAR” printed between them. Underneath is a quote from author Jonathan Swift, “The mad game the world loves to play.”

Kowalski thinks this may refer to the Spanish-American War, which began in 1898.

Preserving history

The postcards also document the phenomenon of the Railway Postal Service.

While today our mail is “postmarked” at our local post office, in the early days of postcards, mail was often handed in at railroad stations and moved by trains, which had cars dedicated to mail service and staffed by postal clerks who “canceled” the mail en route.

One of Kowalski’s postcards has a railway stamp that says it arrived by Train 18, at the H.F. & Strasburg Junction station in 1909.

One postcard from the collection seems a little ironic.

It shows the Piccadilly Diner, just “a half block west of the George Washington Hotel,” along with the words “never closed.”

It’s gone, but thanks in part to Kowalski, not completely forgotten.

— Contact Val Van Meter at