Nostalgic writer preserves vision of Harford's traditions, changes

Bates' works feature photos and postcards of county's present and past


Looking at Bill Bates' latest book - Harford County Then and Now, which juxtaposes old photographs of local scenes with new ones - residents and visitors can see many familiar towns and streets. Communities such as Jarrettsville, Norrisville, Darlington and Cardiff still have a hometown feel. Some things are not changing.

And referring to one of his previous books, Harford County in Vintage Postcards, Bates said, "Older readers will see things they'll remember - the train stations, country stores and Aberdeen Proving Ground during World War II."

Bates has a history of producing books that evoke nostalgia.

"I have organized my books so that folks will find their neck of the woods easily," he said.

He found that all generations enjoy seeing just how much things have changed - or stayed the same.

After living in Harford County for more than 14 years, Bates noticed the trend toward change. While starting and operating a Web site development and communications business, he also found time to paint and draw, inspired by Harford County scenery.

Bates wrote and compiled the postcard history of Harford County after the success of Images of America: Bel Air, released in September 2004. His books from Arcadia Publishing have been popular with local bookstores and have drawn the attention of the public library.

"One of our materials specialists just met with the publisher representative ... and is considering adding Harford County in Vintage Postcards to the Maryland collections in selected branches," said Jennifer Ralston, spokeswoman for the Harford County Public Library.

"I was fascinated to see Harford County's past illuminated through postcards," she said. "I know that there are avid postcard collectors who will also find this book a treat."

All of his books have required Bates to contact people to retrieve postcards that had been hidden away.

"I've included the best of the best postcards. Most of them have not been published in a book like this before. These cards show Harford County as it was as far back as 100 years ago - in many ways, a different way of life," he said about the vintage postcard book.

For the Postcard History Series, Bates collected, borrowed and edited the old postcard photos showing the history of the Harford County area, which included scenes ranging from churchgoing to wartime.

The postcard book features Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and Fallston and opens with a glimpse at a Cooptown church reunion day in 1908. There is photography showing an obstacle course at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1943.

Bates set out to show the best images he could find to instill a sense of history. By borrowing residents' old postal cards and carefully scripting the descriptions, he had a chance to publish pictures little seen in the history books.

Historic knowledge

He shows the quiet dignity of the area's early inhabitants, for example, with the postcards of Quaker settlers in the Darlington area, which had many free black homeowners.

He also applies his knowledge of the people to the captions. For example, he mentions that the 2002 movie Tuck Everlasting was filmed in part at Falling Branch waterfall.

In the process of compiling the vintage postcard book, Bates found postcards can be costly.

"Value depends on the collector and the relative rarity," he said.

"Before 1915, the best quality cards other than real photo postcards came from Germany. With World War I, imports ceased and U.S. printers took up the slack for the highly demanded items; however, they tended to print on poor quality papers with poor quality inks. Many early U.S. postcards are knockoffs of earlier postcards' images. Real photo postcards were almost always produced in the United States. Their value is high because of quality and rarity."

In the postcard book, Bates favored the more valuable postcards, costing $50 to $100 or more. He borrowed them when possible.

The newest book shows James E. Kropp's photographs of Harford County now and contrasts them with photos of the same scenes years ago.

Bates' books are done with an eye for detail developed from a career in design and writing. His company, Harford New Media Inc., has designed Web sites for such local businesses as Rock Spring Heating and Cooling, Harford County Association of Realtors Inc. and the Liriodendron Foundation. Bates was the recipient of the Maryland Small Business Administration Home-Based Business Advocate of the Year Award in 2004.

County in transition

The books show what was, what is and perhaps what will be in the growing communities in this scenic county.

"I guess I've seen an opportunity to let people know what's here," Bates said.

Some places - such natural landmarks as Kilgore Falls, Deer Creek and The Rocks - have stayed the same.

One town that has not changed much is Norrisville, described as a tiny village and post office in the extreme northwestern part of the county that once listed 99 inhabitants; 80 were farmers. Of the current residents, 69 remain related to those early settlers in the area, according to the Harford County Historical Society.

Bates' book shows Main Street Norrisville with little change in appearance over 80 years. He confirmed the site with Gwen Geer, a descendant of the early founders of the town of Norrisville.

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