Old downtown photo offers clues about date taken

Published 8:38 am Wednesday, May 4, 2022

By John Howell, Sr.

My brother sent me this vintage photo that he copied from someone’s social media posting. It’s a view of downtown from the vantage point of a northbound train entering the Batesville Square. 

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Visible at the extreme right is the corner of what my generation would identify as the Shackeroff’s building. Most of what those who remember would later mourn as loss was then still standing when the photographer snapped this: the tree-shaded downtown park with the small bandstand, the old Illinois Central Depot, and the much lamented old courthouse building. 

In the far distance over the tracks of the main rail line is the old overhead bridge that formerly carried traffic on Highway 51. It was fairly new then as was that entire, two-lane highway completed in 1936. 

I had not seen this view before, and I always enjoy looking at photos from the Square that predate my earliest memories, especially trying to determine the date of the captured scene. I usually try to guess the date by determining the vintage of the latest model cars shown.

Whoever posted this had approximated the date as the late 1930s, and I think that’s about right — except for the dark-colored auto crossing from left to right. Although vehicle’s features are a little fuzzy for my eyes to make more specific identification, it appears to be a body style that started appearing in 1940 or 1941. Keith Ales, my go-to vintage auto guy when I’m trying to determine vehicle vintage, agreed. 

“The car crossing the track looks to me like a 1941 or later. All the others appear to be from the 1930 vintage judging by the big outside fenders,” Keith wrote after reviewing the photo.

And since 1941 was the last year until the end of World War II in 1945 that U.S. automakers produced cars for the domestic market, “it could be as late as 1946 because the cars that were produced during that time looked almost the same,” Keith told me.

On Jan. 4, 1942, less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Federal Price Administration ordered America’s auto manufacturers to cease domestic vehicle production and convert their manufacturing capacity to making war machines and material. Ford and Hudson made bombers, for instance; Chrysler made tanks, and so on. 

Before many months had passed, U.S. industry was making most of the rolling and flying stock used by allies around the world — from Russia to China and India and certainly Great Britain. 

But from 1941 on, body styles for the few new autos produced took on the same dour shape as in the foreground of our Square photo, continuing even until 1948, according to Keith. (Which may explain what followed in the 1950s when auto designers’ creativity so long pent up during those war years exploded with annually escalating extravagance into wings, fins and such.)

But back to our photo. Does anybody see another clue to the photo’s date? Most of people I’ve known who would have been around then are not around now.

John Howell is former publisher of The Panolian. He can be reached at johnhowl1948@yahoo.com.