Fred R. Gildersleeve
During the early twentieth century, Photographer Fred Gildersleeve, who was nicknamed “Gildy,” immortalized the lives and times of the people of Texas by snapping thousands of photographs.
Fred Gildersleeve was born in 1881 in Boulder, Colorado, and moved to Kirksville, Missouri, where he grew up with his family. As a young man, Gildersleeve was a race horse jockey who raced at county fairs throughout the state. At the age of eighteen, Gildersleeve’s mother gave him his first camera. It was an 1898 Kodak box camera that launched his career as a photographer.
There was a State Normal School in Kirksville, and Gildy used his Kodak to snap pictures of students there. He developed them, printed them and sold them for 25 cents apiece. There was one hitch, however; He could only work on sunny days because the printing was done by sunlight on solio paper.
“I use to make a box of that solio paper,” Gildersleeve recalls. “I ran the prints through a gold solution bath to give them a rich, warm tone, then through a platinum bath to make the images permanent. Today, a chemical fix makes that part of printing much easier.”
Gildersleeve studied photography in Effingham, Illinois, where he honed his skill through capturing images of flowers, lizards, and still lifes. After finishing school, he worked in Chicago for a year and half before moving to Waco in 1905 to open his studio. This was, indeed, the “early days” of photography and photographs made in a formal setting of a studio were the norm. Since portrait photography was most certainly the most financially lucrative form of the science, very few photographers ventured outside of their studio to take “news” photographs.
Gildy was the exception; the shutterbug was easily recognizable as he cruised around Waco on a motorcycle with his assistant riding along in the sidecar, and then later upgraded to a Model T Ford to “to to the photo opportunity”.
Gildersleeve integrated himself in the community and was invited to photograph many places and events in Texas. He made himself famous by photographing a pioneer flyer circling the Amicable building in 1911 in Waco, printing a ten-foot enlarged photograph of the Texas Cotton Palace that was featured in exhibits in major cities in America, and by taking thousands of photographs that recorded many years of Texas history.
Gildersleeve’s studio in Waco was also open to develop photographs for customers, where care, quality, and art were always put into the development process. His camera lens captured the history of local buildings, sporting events, theater productions, soldiers at Camp MacArthur, parties, picnics, places of worship, circuses, weddings, funerals, politicians, automobiles, planes, and anything else related to life in Texas.
One of Gildersleeve’s most famous pictures, and one that 2,500 Shiners will never forget, was taken in the old Cotton Palace coliseum back in the 1930’s. The occasion was a State ceremonial of the Shrine.
At that time, the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum had been out of use for several years because the Cotton Palace had expired and there wasn’t much demand for the vast old hall. Its rafters had become the perching place for a large flock of pigeons. Bats and owls also appeared there occasionally. Dust was thick amid the debris and droppings on the lofty rafters.
This was the setting for the Shrine gathering. A banquet was to be served to the entire convention crowd in the Coliseum one night, and the potentate asked Gildy to photograph the scene.
Gildersleeve, incidentally, was a Shriner of long standing. Gildy and a local electrician worked all day the date of the banquet setting up flash powder guns high around the Coliseum walls, so that when the photographer pulled the trigger, his own flash powder would go off simultaneously with that in the extra trays around the huge room. An even, bright light would assure a clear photo of the big banquet.
Banquet time arrived, and 2,500 Shriners filled the Coliseum, seated along the banquet tables which completely covered the floor. Gildy set up his largest flash powder gun on the Coliseum stage and fixed his camera on the tripod.
The Shriners became still as mice, waiting the picture.
Gildy looked under his black-hooded camera, focused the image, braced himself and pulled the trigger.
The powder flash was terrific.
Window glass shattered in scores of the upper widows and clattered down.
Fred Gildersleeve and his “home made” reflex camera
Pigeon droppings, dust and feathers drifted off the rafters.
The entire Coliseum was fogged in an instant with powder, smoke and debris.
Gildy and his electrician friend scooped up their paraphernalia and ducked out the back door of the stage.
When the Shriners were able to see again, they found their banquet tables coated with debris from the rafters. Serving of the banquet was delayed a considerable while, pending frantic clean-up efforts.
But the photo that Gildy took in the split second before the dust and feathers fell is as clear as crystal. After the shock had worn off, the Shriners liked the result.
Aside from photography, Gildersleeve’s affections also included hunting and fishing. His state-of-the-art photography equipment captured rainbows in New Mexico, boatloads of bass in Guerrero, Mexico, as well as images of the Texas coast. His background in racing horses also instilled a lifelong love for athletics. He became the official photographer for Baylor University and photographed the Baylor sports teams and attended as many games as he could.
In his later career, hundreds of acetate negatives were tragically lost in a back alley dumpster after Gildersleeve’s marriage of thirty years ended in divorce. Luckily a collection of glass plates of his early work survived.
Gildersleeve’s health declined in the 1950s, he died in Waco on February 26, 1958, and was buried in Waco Memorial Park. His last will and testament left around 1,400 surviving glass negatives to Roger Norman Conger, who later gave them to The Texas Collection at Baylor University where they are preserved today. In addition to the glass plate negatives, there were hundreds of prints made by Gildersleeve in Conger’s possession. Bro. Conger gave these prints to the Texas Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. These prints are the subject of this display.
Fred Gildersleeve was a pioneer in his photography career, as well as a citizen who was supportive of the community and was able to preserve over forty years of Waco’s history through clear and sharp images. Through his photography, Gildersleeve and the history of Texas are well remembered.
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