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Old postcards speak volumes

Falcon News Service

May 5, 2017

Kathryn Otto
Kathyrn Otto holds her grandmother’s collection of postcards in the UW-River Falls archives where she
works. (Photo by Lisa Erickson, Falcon News Service)

One hundred years ago, people didn’t have iPhones, Instagram or Facebook.

The concept of a text message wasn’t even an idea yet. Landline telephones were new and expensive. Most people couldn’t afford them. The main form of communication was through letters, but people also sent short little notes with a picture — postcards.

Over the past 100 years, many things have changed in River Falls, but people still communicate like they did in the past with pictures and short messages.

“Postcards were an easy way to communicate with family and friends — just a quick little note to say hi,” said Jeff Bjork, a River Falls city council member.

Postcards have changed over time and in some places disappeared.

“Recently, I was with my son in Detroit and we went to a Walgreens store and asked the cashier where the postcards were. She said, ‘Postcards? What are postcards?’” said Bjork.

Bjork is an avid post card collector. He says they tell a story—a unique story about the history of a place and about the people who sent them.

“I started collecting when I was young,” said Bjork. He met some people who came to his grade school and talked about history. Bjork was instantly interested.

“I was a junior historian in fourth grade and I got to ring the Heritage Bell (in Heritage Park). We were the first to ring it in over 50 years. I met an older woman who helped with that. She helped me get interested in preserving history,” Bjork said.

That older woman was Ursula Peterson.

“I have lived in River Falls for over 60 years,” Peterson said with a heavy German accent. She didn’t collect postcards for herself, but when she found one that had a connection to River Falls or another area in Pierce County she would keep it. She donated all of them to the Pierce County Historical Society.

Peterson knew keeping postcards would help tell the history of River Falls someday.

Peterson has written eight volumes about local history. Some of the postcards she found can be found in those volumes, said Audrey Gilbertson, president of the River Bluffs Chapter of the Pierce County Historical Association, and good friend of Peterson.

Postcards can bring back memories or help fill the missing pieces of an era.

“My grandmother collected postcards. I have her collection. She liked postcards that were beautiful and colorful,” said Kathryn Otto, head of the University Archives and Area Research Center located in the Chalmer Davee Library at UW-River Falls.

Hundreds of local postcards are stored in the archives.

The Area Research Center is one of 14 research facilities in a statewide network coordinated by the Wisconsin Historical Society in partnership with the University of Wisconsin System. The River Falls ARC provides students, faculty and the general public access to public records, materials, collections and more.

Otto has been interested in post cards since she was a little girl and first saw her grandmother’s collection. Her love of postcards has helped her work as an archivist for the university.

Postcards are reasonable items to purchase. They tell the history of River Falls and they don’t cost a fortune like photographs can, said Otto.

“I fell in love with my grandmother’s postcards. My personal collecting really took off when I could buy them on the internet, such as eBay,” said Otto.

People collect postcards for different reasons, but it’s usually the historical aspect that people are interested in.

“It’s the artwork and the colors. Some people are very knowledgeable and they collect from a particular artist. I buy postcards, because I like them or they are historically significant,” said Otto. “You can see through the postcard a story of how things were done. Many pictures were taken of common things or places.”

Bjork has thousands in his collection, but some special ones stand out for him.

“I collect River Falls postcards…they tell a history and a story about development,” added Bjork. “One of River Falls’ greatest losses was the train depot.”

“Postcards used to cost 5 cents,” said Bjork.

For the last two years during River Falls Days the city has been handing out commemorative postcards. Two years ago, the postcard featured Junction Mill — the highlight was the smokestack from 1886. Last year, the postcard showed the Glen Park swinging bridge in the 1930s.

The postcards are a way to spread the word about River Falls, added Bjork. “The visual image and the written words are a piece of our history and it’s in part why and who we are today,” he said. “I’ve always said that without a past you have no future.”

He added: “I’d like to start a nickel historical tour—by making a connection to postcards someday.”

In the meantime, people can go see the old postcards in the UWRF archives.

“I think postcards may have a resurgence,” said Otto.