Images of businesses in Millheim that burned, shots of Hecla Park or many perspectives of the road between Millheim and state Route 192 — for Jim and Paula Smith, postcards are snapshots of what life was like in Penns Valley.
“They are little pieces of history,” said Paula, who selected and framed more than 100 of the couple’s postcards to create a new exhibit at the Penns Valley Area Historical Museum in Aaronsburg. The display is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays through October.
The couple, who live near Spring Mills, have loaned items for museum exhibits before, but they say they especially enjoyed being able to share their hobby, which began in the 1980s while Jim was the lone Millheim borough employee. He heard that an auction would include a postcard collection previously owned by the proprietor of Ulrich’s Barber Shop.
In a mishap, the other person who was at the auction, ready to lay down serious cash, had stepped away when the package reached the auction block. The Smiths’ collection started — and continues. Most of the Ulrich cards were from the 1910s, and his personal notes help to connect the dots in local history.
“Some of them he had written the dates on,” Paula said. “Some he had written the names of the people on the card, or the first initial and the last name. What is neat is to look at it and say, ‘This is so and so, and his son was this person and his grandson was this person.’ ”
The cards also showed what locals considered news, such as the fires, and what they considered worth remembering about the region.
“There are a lot of postcards of the remnants of the (Millheim) fires,” Paula said. “Another thing that surprises me is the road between Millheim and (state Route) 192 — called ‘the narrows’ — there are so many different postcards of that small stretch of highway. It’s just amazing that there are so many different views and angles of the narrows and Elk Creek. There aren’t a lot of buildings, other than an old pole house. A lot are just the roadway and the stream.”
The Smiths were surprised, too, when they looked on eBay.com and found many other postcards of local history — in faraway locations.
“We’ve won cards from Florida,” Paula said. “It’s just amazing when a card comes up and you look where it is and you wonder: ‘How in the world did it get there?’ ”
Now, they have about two albums almost full of postcards and they still check eBay a couple of times a month for new treasures. The Smiths started gathering advertising cards also for shops that used to be hotspots in Penns Valley.
“You find an advertising card for Millheim and it’s out in the Midwest,” Paula said. “It’s not even a postcard that would have been mailed. It blows your mind.”
‘Brings back ... memories’
Aside from being an interesting hobby, the Smiths’ postcard display aligns with the museum’s mission to display, preserve and exhibit area history, said Kay Gray, the museum’s collections and planning chairwoman.
“It is full of history,” she said. “It goes back to the early 1900s and brings back a lot of memories for a lot of people. New people who live in the area and aren’t aware of the history might be surprised at what we’ve accomplished.”
“I was surprised most at how extensive (the exhibit) is.” she added. “It shows so much about Penns Valley, Centre Hall and Millheim, Spring Mills and some of the old schools and businesses. There is the Centre Hall Mountain when it was constructed and many pictures through the narrows. It’s very eclectic.”
A valuable hobby
Fellow board member Vonnie Henninger said, as a postcard collector herself, she thinks the new exhibit will draw interest. Henninger said she was among the first to use eBay to build her collection of cards showcasing local lore.
“What’s really exciting is these local people move to Florida and California, and when they pass away, we here in the valley can buy this stuff,” Henninger said. “Things I never dreamt I would have access to can now be made available.”
Some are worth big money.
“I’ve seen postcards bring up toward $200 apiece, if it’s an unusual one. Ordinarily, they are more like $15,” she said.
‘I ran out of walls’
The Smiths continue the hunt for new cards to satisfy their urge to collect and cultivate their pride in the region where they were raised. Paula also was able to add something more personal: Her mother gave her some Valentine-type postcards with handwritten notes from her grandfather to her grandmother before they wed.
“I got started in collecting stuff because of (Jim),” Paula said. “He came home from a flea market at Carlisle with a couple tea pots for me. That blossomed into over 50 tea pots. I kept them in the kitchen above the cabinets. Then, I ran out of space for tea pots and moved on to Maxfield Parrish prints and R. Atkinson Fox prints. I ran out of walls.
“We went into postcards. They are smaller.”