Wacoans of many generations have likely seen dozens of the thousands of photographs taken by Fred Gildersleeve (1881-1958) during his long career here. But how much do you know about the man himself?
Gildy — as he was affectionately known — moved to Waco around 1905 with what he called “a borrowed $10 bill” and established his own studio.
The spunky little shutterbug was born in June 1881 in Boulder, Colo. His family later moved to Kirksville, Mo., where he grew up. Before he received his first camera, a box Kodak from his mom, in 1897, the teen was a race-horse jockey at county fairs throughout Missouri.
At the State Normal School in Kirksville, Gildersleeve used his Kodak to snap pictures of students and sell them for 25 cents each — about $6 in today — to pay for his education. He later went to photography school in Effingham, Ill., and worked a year and a half in Chicago. Along the way, he somehow made the acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War.
Several years after that conflict, the story goes, Gildersleeve and his mother were in St. Louis when Roosevelt was there for a political rally.
“Look, Mother, there’s Teddy,” the young Gildersleeve said.
Mortified, his mother said, “Son, don’t call him Teddy. That’s Mr. Roosevelt.”
But Gildersleeve led her to the Rough Rider and introduced her. She was bowled over when she discovered the former president of the United States was an old pal of her boy.
The ambitious image-maker came to Waco at a time of explosive growth and community boosterism. He took pictures of people — famous or not; assemblies from May parties and church picnics to lynch mobs and Klan rallies. He snapped buildings, construction, art, agriculture, businesses, schools, ranching, advertising campaigns, Shriner parades, visiting circuses, sporting events, theatre productions, houses of worship, military installations, funerals, weddings, politicians, cowboys and Indians, streetcars, planes, trains and automobiles — to name some of his subjects.
Sometime in his early years, he’d lost a finger on his left hand in an accident. When asked about it, he claimed “Hypo ate it off.” Hypo, of course, was a chemical used in the photo developing process.
One Dallas Morning News profile on Gildersleeve that described him as a “life-long bachelor,” but that wasn’t correct. Apparently a 30-year-long, childless marriage ended sometime in the 1940s, and that resulted not only in his great personal loss but a terrible blow to Waco history as well. Sometime in the mid-1930s, Gildy had switched from using glass plate negatives to celluloid or acetate negatives. After his marriage dissolved, those acetate negatives ended up in the back alley trash bin, according to Roger Conger, the Waco historian who befriended Gildersleeve in the photographer’s waning years.
That missing collection of the mid-1930s and the 1940s included major athletic events and the coming to Waco of industrial giants like General Tire and Rubber Company; and Owens-Illinois Glass, as well as the local military installations of World War II.
Fred Gildersleeve died on Feb. 26, 1958, and was buried at Waco Memorial Park. In his last will and testament, he bequeathed the surviving glass negatives — about 1,400 of them — to Conger. Conger, in turn, later gave them to The Texas Collection at Baylor University.