Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

A treasure trove of Baker County history lies in tidy piles on a table in Gary Dielman’s home, stacks of black-and-white photographs with curling corners betraying their age.

But this unique collection of several dozen crisply rendered prints, most of them made between 1936 and 1949, constitutes only one chapter of a much longer tale, one that grows more vivid the deeper Dielman digs.

Wedged against the wall are five other fruit boxes crammed with photos and negatives and film reels and.... well, as of Tuesday, April 23, Dielman wasn’t sure what those containers might reveal.

He had to that point delved into one box and part of another.

“I haven’t even opened four boxes,” Dielman, a longtime Baker County historian, said as he began to investigate the accumulated collection of photographer Robert N. Gambs, who operated a studio at 2110 Main St. in two stints separated by his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

A few days later Dielman, who spent much of last week poring over the boxes’ contents in a manner not so different from a child enthralled by a stack of Christmas gifts, had a much better sense of the scope of this donation.

And a much greater appreciation for its historic value.

“I feel like someone who gave me a big box of chocolates and I’ve been eating them all day,” Dielman wrote in an email to the Herald on Thursday.

Some of these photographs will eventually be added to the Baker County Library’s Historic Photo Collection, and likely designated as the Gambs Studio Collection, said Perry Stokes, director of the Library District.

Stokes picked up the boxes about two weeks ago from Vancouver, Washington, where they had been stored for many years in the garage of Robert Gambs’ son, Jon Gambs.

Jon, who was born at the old St. Elizabeth Hospital in Baker in 1945 (it’s now St. Elizabeth Towers condominiums, at 2365 Fourth St.), was just a boy of 4 when his parents moved from Baker City to Eugene in 1950.

Jon’s mother, Beth MacFarlane, grew up in Baker City and graduated from Baker High School in 1936, two years after Robert Gambs. Beth Gambs, who’s 99, lives with Jon Gambs and his wife, Karen, in their Vancouver home.

Jon Gambs, who inherited the collection of photos and other items when his father died in 1996, said this irreplaceable catalog of Baker County history might well have ended up in a landfill.

But he said his son-in-law, Ryan Kruse, who also lives in Vancouver, decided to phone the Baker County Library to ask whether there was any interest in preserving some of the photos.

Stokes, who fielded the inquiry in early March, hardly needed to consider the matter before answering yes.

Stokes said Kruse is a “hero for rescuing those items.”

“It’s an invaluable archive that adds to our insight into that era, and a significant period in Baker history,” Stokes said.

Jon Gambs is also gratified that his father’s legacy will be preserved.

“I’m pleased,” he said on Wednesday. “It was one step from really being dumped. I’m hoping there’s something of value there that future generations can enjoy about their history.”

Stokes picked up the collection while he was attending a library conference in Vancouver in mid April.

He then turned over the boxes to Dielman, who has been a curator for the Library’s Historic Photo Collection for many years.

Dielman, even before he had a chance to thoroughly investigate the contents of the boxes, was also thrilled.

“This is huge,” he said. “We rarely get a collection of this size.”

Both Dielman and Stokes said the Gambs Studio Collection is noteworthy not only for its quantity, but also for the quality of its contents.

This is quite different from, say, an envelope of slightly blurry snapshots, taken by an amateur, that ended up forgotten in the dusty recesses of somebody’s attic or cellar.

The Gambs Collection chronicles the work of a professional who was hired not only to take portraits of local residents but also to showcase Baker County businesses, natural scenery, youth athletic events, rodeos and much else besides.

It is, in effect, a depiction, in sharp black-and-white, of life here immediately before, and after, World War II.

By contrast, a significant number of the photos in the existing Historic Photo Collection are from the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Stokes said he had only to examine a handful of the Gambs’ photos to recognize this was a special collection.

“The skill — the composition of the photos — you can just tell they’re above average,” he said.

As for why these hundreds of prints and negatives survived for so many decades, Jon Gambs has a simple explanation:

“Dad kept everything.”

“He was raised in the time of the Depression when you apparently didn’t throw anything away,” Jon said.

Jon said his father attended Eastern Oregon State College for a couple of years after graduating from BHS. Robert Gambs then took over an existing photography studio.

Dielman said his research in city directories shows that Reginald Wagner preceded Robert Gambs at the 2110 Main St. location.

Jon Gambs said his father did commercial and portrait photography, in addition to developing film for other photographers. Among the items in the boxes Dielman sifted through are many orange envelopes that Gambs used in his film-developing business.

Robert Gambs enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Not surprisingly, he was an aerial photographer, flying on PBY “flying boats” out of Pensacola, Florida.

After the war he returned to Baker City and reopened his studio.

Jon Gambs said his father sold the business in part because he developed an allergy to chemicals used to develop film, an affliction that affected his hands.

(Dielman found city directory entries showing Holman’s photography store at the Main Street address in the 1950s.)

See more in the April 29, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.