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 A. Gildersleeve, nicknamed “Gildy,” immortalized the lives and times of this community dynamic by snapping thousands of photographs of the city spanning over forty years.
The man who would become Waco’s most famous photographer, Fred Gildersleeve, was born near Boulder, Colorado, on June 30, 1880, to Captain Allen Jesse and Sarah Ellen Pew Gildersleeve. His father Allen 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 his father’s death, the family moved to Kirksville, Missouri, near the mother’s family. There, young Fred became a race horse jockey and attended the Model School (part of the Normal School) graduating at the age of 16. His photography career then began at the age of eighteen when he was given an 1898 Kodak box camera by his mother. 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, photographing students and 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 graduating from the Illinois College of Photography in 1903, he worked in Chicago for a year and half before moving to Waco in 1905 to open his own studio. 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. 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 became a pioneer in the field of industrial photography in Texas and was invited to photograph more places and affairs than any other photographer in Waco. Examples include his commercial photography from the air in the mid-1910s. He made himself famous by photographing a pioneer flyer circling the Amicable building in 1911, along with capturing oil fields in Mexia and taking 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 1,200 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 (ten feet) becoming the largest photo print in existence. 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.
Further, 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. His 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,” his own studio in Waco (pinned on the map below), for several decades. There he developed film brought in by customers and sold Gildersleeve photo prints directly to the public, including his images printed on postcards. These picture postcards featured businesses and events.
Most infamously, Gildersleeve took photos of the Jesse Washington Lynching in May 1916. Outside of Waco, Gildersleeve is well-known as the photographer who profited from distributing and selling postcards of this gruesome event. Although not intended by Gildersleeve, these images of the lynching and mob action became important evidence used in the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign.
Gildersleeve’s background in racing horses also instilled a lifelong love for athletics. He was contracted by Baylor University from 1909 until the mid-1950s. He photographed Baylor’s sporting events including football, etc. His camera lens also captured the history of 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 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. 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 decades.
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 in 1943. Luckily a collection of glass negatives survived the messy split. The couple 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. Gildersleeve’s health declined earlier in the 1950s. He died in Waco on February 26, 1958 at age 77 and was buried next to his sister, Dr. Jessie Ellen Gildersleeve in Waco Memorial Park. The cause of death was listed on his death certificate as pneumonia with complications from arterial scoliosis.
Gildersleeve’s last will and testament left around 1,400 surviving glass negatives to his good friend and local historian, Roger Norman Conger, who realized the importance of his work and later gave them to The Texas Collection at Baylor University where they are preserved today. The Texas Collection 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 the archives.
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.