by Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator
and John Wilson
The man who would become Waco’s most famous photographer, Fred A. Gildersleeve, was born near Boulder, Colorado, on June 30, 1880, to Captain Allen Jesse and Sarah Ellen Pew Gildersleeve. His father, Allen Jesse Gildersleeve was a Civil War veteran having served as a Union Army Captain in the Missouri Cavalry, 14, Regiment, Company D, and died in 1881 at the age of 46. After the father’s death the family moved to Kirksville, Missouri, near the mother’s family. There, young Fred attended the Model School (part of the Normal School) graduating at the age of 16. His photography career began at the age of eighteen when he was given a Kodak box camera by his mother. He photographed students at the school and sold them for twenty-five cents each. In 1903, Gildersleeve graduated from the Illinois College of Photography in Effingham, Illinois, and soon after, his career as a professional photographer began.
In 1905 Fred Gildersleeve came from Texarkana, Arkansas, to Waco to work in the photography business having had a brief photography career in that city. His sister, Jessie Ellen, arrived in Waco around the same time to work as a doctor of Osteopathy. Their mother, Sarah Gildersleeve later joined them and lived with her daughter. Fred married Florence Jennette Boyd on December 24, 1908, in Texarkana, Arkansas, who then joined him in Waco. They had no children.
Fred Gildersleeve became a pioneer in the field of industrial photography in Texas. Examples include his commercial photography from the air in the mid 1910s. He photographed oil fields in Mexia and took the first aerial photos known to exist of Baylor University. His ability to use magnesium powder to create “flashlight” to illuminate night-time photographs broke national records. His 1911 photo of Waco’s Prosperity Banquet set a record for being the largest flash photo ever at that time. The event seated 1200 people and ran the length of two city blocks. His skills at photo enlargement also set records. In 1913, he enlarged a panoramic photograph of Waco’s Texas Cotton Palace to 120 inches wide becoming the largest photo print made up to that time. He had a representative from Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, bring him the photo paper to do so. He also photographed the construction of the Amicable Life Insurance Company Building “Alico” in Waco. The structure, being 22 stories tall, held the title of being the tallest building in the Southwestern United States upon construction in 1911.
Gildersleeve was an active and prominent member in the Waco community. The Standard Blue Book of Texas, 1920, lists him as being a member of the Masons, York Rite, Shriners, Rotary Club, Ad Club, Young Men’s Business League (Y.M.B.L.), Chamber of Commerce, and as serving on the committees of Liberty Loan, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross. Fred Gildersleeve’s involvement with these groups and organizations allowed him to prosper in his photography business as well as give back to his community. When the Y.M.B.L. went on their “Trade Excursions” to promote the city of Waco, Gildersleeve joined them as both a photographer and member.
As well as being a professional photographer, Gildersleeve also owned and operated the “Kodak Place” in Waco for several decades. There they developed film brought in by customers and sold Gildersleeve’s photo prints directly to the public. His commercial work also included his images printed on postcards. These picture postcards featured businesses, events, and even lynchings with scenes such as that of Jesse Washington in May 1916. Outside of Waco, Texas, Gildersleeve is well-known as the photographer who distributed and sold postcards of this gruesome event. The photographer was also contracted by Baylor University from 1909 until the mid-1950s. He photographed Baylor’s sporting events including football, etc… Even though his antiquated large format equipment seemed cumbersome, his skills were still in demand by those in Waco who had known his work for generations.
The Gildersleeve couple remained married and living together until a split occurred sometime around 1943; they never reconciled and remained apart the remainder of their lives. Florence continued to live in Waco after their separation and died March 31, 1965, at the age of 79. She was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Waco. There was no recorded divorce located at the McLennan County Court House. Gildersleeve died at age 77 on February 26, 1958, in Waco. The cause of death was listed on his death certificate as pneumonia with complications from arterial scoliosis. He is buried next to his sister, Dr. Jessie Ellen Gildersleeve in Waco Memorial Park. Jessie Ellen had died February 1, 1955. His good friend and local historian, Roger Norman Conger, realized the importance of his work and acquired his professional photographic holdings upon Gildersleeve’s death. Conger subsequently donated these items to The Texas Collection, Baylor University throughout the 1970s.
Fast forward to 2018: The Texas Collection, Baylor University, has just published a new book through the BU Press called: “Gildersleeve-Waco’s Photographer.” It contains a select few of Fred Gildersleeve’s original 8×10 inch glass plate negatives and photo prints that were digitized from originals held in the Gildersleeve-Conger Collection #430 and throughout our archives.
“Gildersleeve-Waco’s Photographer” can be found through the Baylor University Press and through major booksellers.