During the early twentieth century, Waco experienced economic growth, large amounts of community engagement and recreation, as well as racial tension and military training. Photographer Fred Gildersleeve, nicknamed “Gildy,” immortalized the lives and times of the community by snapping thousands of photographs of the city spanning over forty years.
Gildersleeve was born in 1881 in Boulder, Colorado, but 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 box Kodak that launched his career as a photographer.
While attending a state normal school in Kirksville, young Gildy practiced and experimented with photography by snapping pictures of students. Because Gildersleeve used a printing method that relied on sunlight to develop the image on solio paper, he could only photograph when it was sunny outside. He prospered anyway, selling the photographs for twenty five cents apiece, earning about six dollars a week, which paid for his education.
Gildersleeve then moved on to study 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 own studio. 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. His box-style camera, wooden tripod, and spunky personality captured Waco’s talent and development, while the city supported Gildy in his career in return.
Gildersleeve integrated himself in the community and was invited to photograph more places and affairs than any other photographer in Waco. He made himself famous by photographing a pioneer flyer circling the Amicable building in 1911, 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 the town’s history. Gildersleeve’s studio in Waco (as indicated on Waco History map) 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 Waco.
Gildersleeve’s work also reveals the racial tension of the early twentieth century in Waco. Photographed and printed on postcards for spectators, the lynching of Jesse Washington was recorded on Gildersleeve’s camera. Photographs of the lynch mob, as well as images of Klan rallies were also photographed and detail the atmosphere of racial tension in Waco at the time.
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 negatives 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.
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 Waco are well remembered.