Thurston photos now available from Nabb Center

Walter C. Thurston was a photographer and portrait shop owner in Downtown Salisbury.

The photograph collection of Walter C. Thurston, arguably Thurston’s greatest gift to Salisbury, has a secure home and now an online presence.

That home is the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University. The collection of over 3,500 images arrived at the center in 2016, donated by Thurston’s granddaughter, Pam Pickel. And now that collection is accessible to all through the Nabb Center’s website.

Thurston worked over 30 years for the U.S. Postal Service, but it was his later career and business as a photographer for which he is best remembered. He died in 1980 at the age of 72, yet he is still remembered for his Thurston’s Studio and Camera Shop, long a fixture on Main Street at the corner of Division Street.

After inheriting her grandfather’s photographs, Pam arranged for the care and storage of the photographs at Lenscraft in Salisbury. Finally, in 2016, she donated them to the Nabb Center, a fitting archive to showcase an expansive array of photographs of Salisbury and other areas of the Eastern Shore.

For months, the center has busied itself with the arduous work of scanning the extensive collection and putting them online.

As Pam saw that the collection was being made available online, she said to the Nabb Center, “I am so happy to see you sharing images from this collection. My grandfather would be so pleased that he has left something that can be enjoyed for a long time by everyone.”

Thurston’s collection has found a home.

The collection includes photographs taken by Thurston, as well as reproductions of older and printed images. Many of the images have identifiers but most do not. The Nabb Center welcomes comments to help identify the images.

Referred to as Walt or “Uncle Walt,” Thurston focused his camera on the ever-changing scene of Salisbury, as noted in 1980 by Mel Toadvine, Managing Editor of The Daily Times. “We’ll remember Salisbury as she grew over the years mainly through Walt’s pictures.” Thurston liked to photograph buildings and places undergoing change. The images include buildings under construction or others which no longer exist. Many of his photographs were taken from the air, documenting the changing landscape. Thurston jokingly referred to himself as the “flying photographer,” snapping aerial photos while his friend John Sturgis piloted the plane.

Thurston was remembered for his outspoken opinions to the revitalization of downtown of the mid-1900s which he witnessed happening. Wrote Toadvine, “He wasn’t for it. He thought there were other ways to save Main Street.” So, one might imagine how he would feel at seeing today’s changes along downtown’s Main Street.

In addition to documenting the changing face of the area, Walter was also known for his photographic portraits.

A collage of Thurston Collection photographs on exhibit at the Nabb Center.

Walter had a particular fascination for photographing and composing portraits of local resident Howard Birckhead and his dog, “Lucky.” He invited the two constant companions into the studio several times for posed portraits. Birckhead, a longtime hospital employee and known for his voracious hobby of reading, died in 1983 at the age of 91.

Following Thurston’s death, the Walter C. Thurston Memorial Scholarship was established by the Salisbury Exchange Club at Salisbury University, then Salisbury State, in memory of Thurston, for students continuing study and work in photography and visual arts.

Thurston was the son of Walter C. and Anna Burke Thurston. His father, usually referred to as W.C. Thurston, was widely known for his poems and writings about the people of Salisbury and other areas of the Eastern Shore. W.C., who died in 1944, had visited Salisbury 30 years earlier and decided to stay, open a bookstore, and continue writing. He had been described as Salisbury’s unofficial poet laureate for his works throughout that time period.

W.C. Thurston is shown in a wonderful photo of the interior of the Mayflower Grill, owned by the Sarbanes family. W.C. is shown seated at the counter.

The Thurstons have chronicled the people and history of Salisbury and its environs, first through W.C.’s writings and then through Thurston’s photography. Walt’s collection serves as a kind of community scrapbook shared through the generosity of the Thurston family.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com.

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