The trove of old postcards in Pete Bonesteel's basement is more than a collection. It's a historical archive, carefully cataloged by state, town and topic: breweries ... baseball stadiums ... railroad depots ... resorts.

Some celebrate places and sights he's actually seen, but many depict locales he's only heard of. And some of the places are long gone.

"I like the obscure ones, like small towns that no longer exist," said Bonesteel, a history buff who is an active volunteer with the Fridley Historical Society and provides content to PrairieWorks (www.prairie-works.com), an Eden Prairie-based company that produces local-history CDs and DVDs.

Postcard collecting, formally known as deltiology, is believed to be the third largest hobby worldwide, surpassed only by coin and stamp collecting.

But while many collectors specialize in a particular type or era, Bonesteel's wide-ranging interests have resulted in a wide-ranging -- and gigantic -- collection. His postcards fill albums, filing cabinets and whole rooms in his Fridley home. He doesn't know how many he has. "I've never counted 'em," he said. "It's in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 15,000."

What drove him to collect so many? "Just personal liking," he said. "I've traveled a lot. It's in my blood."

An Oklahoma native, Bonesteel grew up, literally, on the road. His father, who worked in the railroad industry, had health problems that made it difficult for him to hold a steady job. "All we did was travel," Bonesteel recalled. "I went to 18 schools before I graduated from high school [in Wayzata]."

After high school, Bonesteel enlisted in the Army and attended Airborne School at Fort Bening, Ga., where he learned parachute jumping. He later attended teachers' college in Aberdeen, S.D., and worked in radio, as an announcer, sportscaster, sports director and in sales.

His prodigious postcard collection started in the '50s when he won a trip to Hawaii in a sales contest. "I thought, 'I probably will never come back [to Hawaii] so I'll get as many pictures as I can,'" he recalled. He spent six days and five nights on the islands and came home with about 200 postcards. "That got me started. It kept mushrooming," he said.

His collecting impulse soon moved closer to home. "I'm real strong in Minnesota stuff," he said. "I like Minnesota." But he doesn't limit himself to his adopted state. He has postcards from all 50, as well as several countries.

He also gravitates to postcards related to transit, from the horse-and-buggy era to streetcars to railroads to airports. In addition to his cards, Bonesteel has a room full of railroad memorabilia, including spittoons, hats, playing cards, china and silverware, and switchman's lanterns. "It just got out of hand," he said.

The oldest cards in Bonesteel's collection date from the 1880s, but most come from the early 20th century, when apparently every village, building, landmark and activity had its own commemorative postcard. After the 1930s, "everything got generic," Bonesteel said. "There were fewer postcards made. It makes me sad."

His favorite postcards hail from Bonesteel, a tiny town (297 residents, according to the 2000 census) in South Dakota, near the Nebraska border. Bonesteel has no relation to the town, he just feels an affinity for it based on their shared name.

"I've been there three or four times," he said. "It was the jumping-off point for free land [during the 19th-century land rush]. A guy said he'd pay for a school if they named the town after him." So they did. "I think it had more postcards than people," Bonesteel said.

"If the house was on fire, I'd grab the Bonesteel postcards and Schell Brewing Company postcards from New Ulm," he said.

He has one Schell card, dating from 1910, that's worth about $50. But as a whole, postcards don't have much value, according to Bonesteel.

"I'd like to sell," he said, "but there's no market for them."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784