Krohn’s fun historical feat makes the mailing of the postcard seem insignificant, but for historian Carol Jensen, the postcard is a clue, a glimpse into what life was like in Byron in the early 20th century.
Jensen regularly searches eBay for East County artifacts that shed light on days long gone, revealing pieces of this region’s history. Through her searches, Jensen has uncovered and purchased several real photo postcards that provide a snapshot of East County history – but a mystery surrounds these glimpses in time.
Jensen recently purchased a postcard sent by a Byron girl named Nellie. The postcard displays 45 students who attended Byron School, which educated first- through eighth-graders. The school was located on Holway Road, which is now Holway Drive, next to the Congregational church, but the photo reveals no other details. The students are lined up in front of the schoolhouse, and a horse and buggy stand off to the right. The rest of the story is unknown.
“While the photo is a treasure, it’s the information on the back that is the most interesting,” Jensen said. “The message on the back says, ‘I got promoted in the second grade. I have a baby brother.’ The note is from Nellie, but the big question is: who is Nellie? What was her last name? Who are the other students in the photo? I’d even like to know the horse’s name. This is more than an image. It’s a history mystery.”
Jensen was able to identify the school as Byron School based on her research on Byron. She has published three books about East County history, but postcards such as the mysterious message from Nellie are most fascinating to the historian, who is also a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Postcard Club.
A real photo postcard is more than your average “wish you were here” message. A real photo postcard is a photograph printed on postcard stock. In the 19th and early 20th century, itinerant photographers would roam the country, stopping to take photos of anything and everything. They used their wagons as their darkrooms to instantly develop photo postcards to sell to their subjects.
“These photographers would drive around and take photos and then print them on the spot,” Jensen said. “Oftentimes, people sent these postcards to friends and relatives living on the East Coast to show them how successful they’d become in California. California immigrants particularly liked this service because they could show people in other parts of the country what their homes, farms, businesses and families looked like, and as they say, a picture can be worth a thousand words.”
Jensen suspects Nellie was about 7 in the picture, which means she was born at the turn of the century. Jensen hopes someone will see the photo and be able to flesh out Nellie’s story. Nellie sent her postcard to Loyd Peterman of Willows, a Glenn County city just southwest of Chico. Jensen suspects Peterman was Nellie’s relative, possibly an uncle.
“The tricky thing about photo postcards is that you won’t find them here in East County,” Jensen said. “You’ll find them on the East Coast, where most of them were sent. This particular postcard was in Napa, but postcards are everywhere, so they are difficult to track down. I hope that by publishing the photo in the paper, someone will see it and say, ‘Hey, that’s my mom’ or ‘that’s my grandmother.’ I just hope that one of our old-timers might remember Nellie and tell us a little bit about her.”
As an incentive to readers, Jensen is offering a reward to anyone who can identify Nellie in the photo, provide her full name and give some details about her. To the first person to solve this history mystery, Jensen will offer a free, one-year membership to the East Contra Costa Historical Society. If no one comes forward, the prize will go to the person able to identify other people in the photo. The person who provides the most data wins. Those with information about Nellie or any of the students in the photo should e-mail Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Press will feature other real photo postcard History Mysteries in upcoming issues.