The boxes that hold a significant part of Baker County’s and Baker City’s history have made quite a journey since they left here almost 70 years ago.
But after decades stored in one garage or another, in Eugene and Portland and finally in Vancouver, Washington, the boxes and their precious contents returned to Baker City about two weeks ago.
They might well have ended up buried beneath tons of dirt in a landfill.
The boxes contain hundreds of photographs, negatives and other materials amassed by Robert N. Gambs, a professional photographer who owned a studio on Main Street in Baker City during the 1930s and 1940s. Selected items will eventually become part of the Baker County Library District’s Historic Photo Collection.
That the boxes ended up back in Baker City, where Gambs filled them in 1950 before moving to Eugene, rather than rotting among layers of trash, is a testament to several people.
First is Gambs himself, although it seems we must also thank the Great Depression. Gambs’ son, Jon Gambs, who was born in Baker City in 1945 and now lives in Vancouver, said his father, who grew up during the Depression, was so accustomed to frugality that, in Jon’s words, “Dad kept everything.”
Jon Gambs inherited the boxes after his father died in 1996. And although Jon admits he was at times close to throwing the boxes away, he never did.
The boxes traveled from Jon’s home to that of his daughter and son-in-law, Ryan and Nicole Kruse, who also live in Vancouver. Ryan had the foresight to call the Baker County Library to see if there was interest locally in the boxes.
Perry Stokes, the library district director, not only said yes, but he arranged to pick up the boxes from the Kruses while he was attending a library conference in Vancouver in mid April.
Since Stokes returned with the treasure, Baker City historian Gary Dielman has been sorting through the contents, a preliminary step in deciding which of Robert Gambs’ photos will be added to the library district’s collection.
Dielman said the Gambs photos are invaluable because they cover an era that isn’t well-represented in the current collection. That the photos were taken by a professional and are of high quality, and that Gambs photographed a wide variety of people, places and scenes, are added bonuses.
Ultimately, everyone who is interested in our area’s history, or just enjoys seeing what Baker City looked like in the World War II era, should be grateful to Robert Gambs for his thriftiness, and to him and his descendants for keeping those irreplaceable boxes for so long.
Because they did, Gambs’ legacy will last far longer than he probably would have expected.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor