‘Father and son’s passion for photography preserves Shenandoah history’

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By Randy Arrington

SHENANDOAH — Many years ago, Amos Thomas recalls seeing a roll of 110 film shot by someone who went up and down the railroad tracks in Shenandoah and simply took pictures.

“I’m glad this person did this so we can see how things here changed,” Thomas said. “I got my first 110 camera and it all started from that.”

More than 100,000 images later — and many cameras — Thomas has done more to document the history of the Town of Shenandoah than almost anyone. In 2018, he published “Shenandoah: The Thomas Family Collection”, which includes 690 photographs spread out over 390 pages. Many of the images were taken by his father Owen “Butts” Thomas from the 1950s and 1960s along First Street and Virginia Avenue.

“What photographs do is preserve the present for the future to enjoy,” he said.

Thomas, 62, retired in February of 2000 from the Air Force after 20 years as a fuel specialist. In March of 2022, he retired again — this time after 18 years with the maintenance facility for the Harrisonburg office of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In retirement, he took on the book as a new challenge that could not only preserve Shenandoah’s history, but his father’s work as well. While the majority of photos were shot by Amos, he’s clear about which are his favorites.

“The ones my dad took,” Amos said. “It shows how things have changed. Our town has had a lot of fires…those buildings are not there anymore…and I can remember walking by them. His were the neat ones. I got the photo bug from him.”

Subtitled “Father and Son’s Passion for Photography Preserve Town’s History 1954-2017”, the book of Shenandoah memories contains images of the inside of Boot’s Lunch on First Street with Boots and Billy Beaghan, inside the Verbena Lodge on Pennsylvania Avenue, and inside Home Grocery on Denver Avenue with Jimmy and Gladys Propes. The book includes images of the Shenandoah Elementary School showing the auditorium, gym, hallways and classrooms, as well as the retractable auditorium stage wall that enlarges the size of the stage. Shenandoah Indians fans will appreciate a photograph of a meeting at Mama Mia Restaurant with legends Wayne Comer, Larry Dofflemyer, A.C. Jenkins and Kirk Comer.

Now that everything is digital, Amos admits that “I don’t print ’em anymore.” He has more than two decades of images from Town events, especially the annual Memorial Day festival in May from 2009 to 2017. Many images from those event are contained within the book.

“Memorial Day events are special…we’re fortunate the mayor and the Town do this, and we have a good program at the VFW every year,” said Thomas, a veteran himself. ” It’s an emotional ceremony…people who gave all for their country.”

When he started the daunting process, Amos sifted through 100,000 digital images, as well as all those he had on film, along with his father’s collection.

“It was hard choosing which pictures to use because I liked all of them,” Amos said.

The best of the best were selected for the book, which is now on sale prior to the holidays for $31. A great gift for history buffs and Shenandoah enthusiasts in general, Thomas has about 50 copies remaining from the original press run and he’s looking to recoup some of his original investment in the project. The photographic book contains an index to reference people captured in the images — something Amos said “took the longest time.”

“I’m not making a profit,” he said. “I just wanted to get my dad’s pictures out there…I said I got all these pictures, what am I gonna do with them?”

Amos now works part-time at the Town of Shenandoah Museum and Visitors Center doing what he loves most — talking about history. Some of the museum’s unique items — like the buggy whip of the Town’s founding father, William Milnes Jr. — still have him in awe.

“Shenandoah has been through several names changes, and at one time it was called ‘Milnes’. That was just awesome that someone had kept that [buggy whip] and we get to see it,” Thomas said. “The museum is a great addition to the Town…I remember the one little room in Town Hall and how it was flowing into the lobby.”

In September, Shenandoah’s new museum welcomed four visitors from Oregon — believed to be the farthest point since its opening earlier this year. They learned about the new attraction due to their interest in railroad history and were guided by signs and the flags outside. A few weeks before, Amos spoke with visitors who were descendants of the Milnes family and offered them a tour.

“To be in that role is fun for me,” Amos said. “To have one of the founding father’s family come in…wow…that was great.”

When Amos got his first Polaroid Land Camera and he remembers having to pull hard to get the image out and watch it develop before his very eyes — like watching history unfold. Not unlike the time he asked Mike Gunn if he could photograph him three days before the closing of Shenandoah Pharmacy in 2013. He compared it to an older shot featuring former pharmacist Barrett Bryant at the same location.

With the coming of the digital age, Amos sometimes complains about losing images due to software upgrades. He doesn’t like the fact that he prints out far fewer images than in the past.

It’s those old printed images, and old printed words, that offer a glimpse into our past, according to Amos, and with its “very large collection of old photographs, documents and newspaper clippings”, the Shenandoah Museum highlights the importance of those words and images.

“Shenandoah: The Thomas Family Collection” can be viewed at the Museum. It can be purchased at the Shenandoah General Store and the Shenandoah Town Hall as a keepsake or a Christmas Gift.

Read more about the book on ShenandoahNewz.com

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