Former resident publishes postcards from Johnson City's past

Nathan Baker • Jan 7, 2019 at 10:36 AM

A former Johnson City resident and a collector of historic memorabilia put his passion to good use to showcase the city’s rich past.

For his new history book about Johnson City, author L. Thomas Roberts collected hundreds of postcards spanning decades, each image worth at least 1,000 words about the important people, places and other things that shaped our town.

Roberts lived in Johnson City during his grade-school years, but now lives in DeLand, Florida. He compiled a similar history book for DeLand four years ago for Arcadia Publishing’s Post Card History Series, and said he was surprised to discover there had not yet been one written for Johnson City.

He said he’s a history buff, and he enjoys rifling through old images and postcards online, at estate sales, flea markets, conventions and shows looking for more material for his collection.

Postcards were the emails of the past, Roberts explained, and their wide use to send quick messages across the country led to cards printed with local scenes and sold in most shops in even the tiniest towns.

“Every corner store and pharmacy sold postcards,” he said. “Every little store carried them back in the day, so people were always looking for subject matter to print on them. They would send people out looking for images in all the little communities, like Piney Flats, to the bigger cities, like Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol.”

Some of Roberts’ postcards have never been mailed, but he said those that were used have some very interesting messages written on them. On one mailed from Bristol, the writer apologizes to the recipient for not having written in a while; he’s recovering from typhoid fever.

For the book, he said he tried to compile a variety of images from across the decades. One chapter of the book is dedicated solely to showing images of Main Street from the 1900s through 1970. Another looks at the history of the Soldiers’ Home, now the Mountain Home Veterans Affairs campus, which used to be a self-sufficient “city within a city” catering to the care of vets.

He said some of the images for the “Pastimes” chapter was of particular interest to him, especially the photos showing huge crowds for downtown parades on the Fourth of July and other occasions.

“Johnson City has a lot of interesting postcards that are a good reflection on the area,” he said. “A lot of the early businesses used them for advertising, and it’s really interesting to see the buildings that are still there today and it’s fascinating to see what things look like now.”

Rather than gathering post cards and other images and keeping them locked away in a private collection, Roberts said he’s proud he was able to share them in his book.

“My goal is to get stuff out there so it can be appreciated and enjoyed, it adds to people’s understanding of history,” he said. “It’s not just for me to horde and not share. I want to give that information back.”

“Johnson City,” part of Arcadia Publishing’s Postcard History Series, is available at arcadiapublishing.com and other online and brick-and-mortar booksellers.

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