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Postcards from the past

-  Gresham man enjoys collecting postcards from Oregon's past


OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Gresham resident David Sell collects historic postcards and photographs of Oregon highways and scenic areas. He has donated a large number of prints to the Growler Garage, where he has a longstanding friendship with owner Ryan Thompson.

David Sell was touring the Historic Columbia River Highway 24 years ago when a man handed him a stack of old postcards showing rare scenes of the road.

Always a history buff, Sell has been addicted since.

Now the Gresham resident has more than 2,300 postcards from the Columbia River Gorge and its iconic highway dating back to 1910. He has tens of thousands more from all over Oregon and the West. He even has a photo of downtown Gresham that shows two-story buildings on the south side of Powell Boulevard — before road widening took them out.

“I have the bug,” he says simply. “I enjoy history.”

It helps that Sell’s careers with the Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration took him all over the state, eventually helping manage restoration projects of the historic highway that winds 70 miles from Troutdale to The Dalles. Back in 1992, he was on a tour with an advisory committee when Steve Lehl of Latourell Falls handed Sell the postcards showing the old highway.

“I thought they were really cool,” he said. “I just got hooked on the hobby.”

For the next two decades, hunting for postcards meant stopping at every antique store or flea market he passed. And now he also prowls the Internet, either eBay or sites that deal in postcards.

“Everywhere we go we have to look,” says his wife, Kristina, with a laugh. “It’s one of those activities that keeps us young.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Iconic Oregon locations, including the Vista House at Crown Point in the Columbia River Gorge, shown here, are fixtures of David Sells collection. They even found a Columbia Gorge postcard in an antique store in England.

Generally, historic postcards are inexpensive. Most cost 25 cents to $1, but Sell has paid as much as $100 for one. Sell slips each postcard into a clear envelope and then into long file boxes arranged by subject. He also keeps a computer record of each, detailing the subject, photographer, approximate year and condition.

“I have to,” he says, “otherwise I’ll just buy another one. You get so much stuff you lose track.”

Still, he has lots of duplicates because he will always buy a postcard that’s in better shape than one he already has. Subject is important, of course, but condition is everything, he said.

The postcards give Sell an outlet for his love of history. While thumbing through a file box he can recite how Vista House was constructed, how boats used to drop passengers off at Multnomah Falls, or how they show different bridge designs. Sell even wrote a history of the gorge highway complete with his own photos for American Road magazine that editors selected as one of its best stories it ever published.

Because of his background and interest, most of Sell’s postcards show cars, roads, bridges, railways — or their construction. Sometimes that even comes in handy. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - This vintage postcard shows the view east from the Vista House, a scene that todays viewer still will find quite familiar, save for the presence of Interstate 84.   6. This print of a 100-year-old photograph of the Historic Columbia River Highway adorns the wall at the Growler Garage in downtown Gresham.

At one point in the restoration of the Historic Columbia River Highway, engineers struggled with the design of the tunnel entrance at Oneonta Gorge, which had been filled with rocks. Sell looked up one of his postcards of the original tunnel, held it up to the entrance and simply said: “Make it look like that.”

He also learned how to read markings on the back of postcards to determine when they were printed and about the many photographers who made their livings creating the cards.

Arthur Cross and Edward Dimmitt were prolific Portland photographers who specialized in scenes from the gorge, even setting up a stand at Vista House to sell their cards — 20 for $1. Sell has lots of their postcards.

“There’s dozens and dozens of photographers who made their living making postcards,” Sell said. “Back in the day, postcards were like texts or emails today.”

Sell’s most intriguing story involves B.B. Bakowski, who emigrated from Europe and became known for his photography of eastern Oregon. During the winter of 1911, Bakowski went to photograph Crater Lake — and was never heard from again. That spring, another postcard photographer, Wesley Andrews, set off in search of Bakowski. Sell has a postcard that Andrews sent to a friend with a note saying he had been unable to find Bakowski’s body and was giving up his search.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Photoshop and other software have proved to be an indispensible tool for David Sell as he scans and enlarges historic images for printing. But if there’s one thing that irks Sell, it’s the difficulty in finding postcards of Gresham. “The one town I find the hardest to find postcards for is this town,” he laughs.

Sell belongs to The Webfooters Postcard Club, a group of like-minded collectors who meet the third Saturday of each month at the Russellville Grange, 12100 N.E. Prescott St. It’s during those meetings he recognizes that like postcards, collectors are growing old and also disappearing. He takes comfort that his daughter, Trinity, is interested in his collection and has even used some images in her graphic design work.

Shortly before he retired in 2006, Sell heard that the Oregon Department of Transportation was going to computerize images from 250 colorized glass slides it had from long-ago projects. He asked for and got a disk with all of them. Now he’s painstakingly scanning them into his computer, touching them up and offering them to friends.

That includes Ryan Thompson, owner of the Growler Garage, a craft-beer taproom in downtown Gresham. They got to talking one day. Sell mentioned his collection and offered to make some copies of the ODOT prints from the gorge for a wall of the new establishment.

“They’re really neat,” says Thompson. “People reminisce about them all the time. You can tell where it is but it just looks to different now. People really like them.”