A Panoramic View of Saginaw: The Broadly Detailed Historical Lens of the Goodridge Brothers, 1910-1922

Posted In: Culture, , Biography,   From Issue 927   By: Robert E Martin

17th March, 2022     0

With their extensive and meticulously assembled new exhibition ‘A Wider View of Saginaw: The Panoramic Views of the Goodridge Brothers, the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History opens the lens of local history upon a pair of groundbreaking brothers who’s large-scale panoramic photography captured a pivotal and transitional period of Saginaw’s history in the early 20th Century from the years of 1910-1922.

William O. and Wallace Goodridge were a pair of East Saginaw photographers who left a legacy of work that established them as some of the most talented and gifted photographers of the late 19th Century. They were also the sons of William C. Goodridge, who was one of the most successful businessmen in York, Pennsylvania and an anti-slavery activist who later provided the connections that brought the famous African abolitionist Frederick Douglass to speak in East Saginaw on two occasions.

According to the Castle Museum’s Chief Historian Thomas Trombley, the story of the Goodridge Brothers is not complete without an understanding of the impact their parents William C and Evalina Wallace had upon shaping their destinies.

William C. was born to an enslaved woman in Baltimore in 1806. Although there is no record of his father, it is assumed he was a white man. Around the age of five William was sent to York, Pennsylvania, as an indentured servant to Rev. Michael Dunn.  At the age of 16 he moved to Marietta, Ohio, where he was trained as a barber and decided to move back to York in 1824,  where he worked as a barber in Central Square. He began as an employee, but soon came to own not only that shop but the building along with many others.

William married Evalina in 1827. More than his wife, Evalina was William’s business partner and under her guidance William prospered. He would try his hand at a number of business enterprises. Within a few years of owning his own barber shop, he began to also sell candies, cosmetics, and toys from the same location. He invented a treatment for baldness, which sold under the name “Oil of Celsus.” He had wholesale distribution of his product across thirteen cities including New York, Washington, D.C., and as far west as Columbus, Ohio. He also had a string of enterprises such as an employment agency and even a pay-per-view Christmas tree, which at the time was quite a novel concept.

Real estate offered his most prosperous venture. His first property was his family’s home: a two-and-a-half story townhouse, which now houses the Goodridge Freedom House Museum. There William and Evalina raised five children. Eventually, he sold properties he had bought on Center Square, where his barbershop was located, and used the profits to construct a towering five-story building known as Center Hall, where construction was completed in 1847. William and Evalina’s oldest son Glenalvin moved his photography studio to Center Hall’s top floor.  William also invested in railroad freight cars. His original line of “Bruthen Cars” moved freight between York and Philadelphia. Between 1843 and 1847, he expanded with the “Reliance Line” that connected more than a dozen cities, crossing into the South as well as running North.  

Both William’s real estate and his freight cars proved instrumental in his anti-slavery activities. For obvious reasons, there are not many records of the Underground Railroad, the name given to the clandestine network that aided enslaved peoples’ quest for freedom.  The Underground Railroad used encoded language, such as referring to safe houses as “depots” or “stations,” and people who assisted in travel were “conductors” while owners of safe houses were “agents.” Three major routes went through Pennsylvania and York had an extensive network.

Because William Goodridge was a prominent person in that network, he befriended famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, so it is no surprise to find evidence of his involvement in the Underground Railroad. One unverified story says that he even aided one of John Brown’s lieutenants, Osborne Perry Anderson, to escape following the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859.

Their eldest son, Glenalvin, began a promising career in photography. He had a studio for portraiture, and according to historian John Jezierski: "G.J. Goodridge was not York's first photographer, but he was the community's first native son to establish a studio that operated for more than a few weeks or months." Glenalvin learned all of the cutting-edge photographic techniques making him one of the most skilled photographers of his era, and one of only five Black photographers before 1850.

William’s daughters had already left the state. Emily followed her husband to Minnesota and Mary, along with brothers William O. and Wallace, moved to East Saginaw by 1863. It’s unclear why they chose East Saginaw. There is no record of any connection. It’s even unclear if they moved because of Mary’s husband, John L. Nicholas, who was a barber there, or if that came after.

Establishing Roots in Saginaw

Perhaps it was the prosperity of the lumber industry and its promise of photographic material that drew William and Wallace, both photographers who had been trained by Glenalvin. Wallace marked July 1863 as the anniversary of opening the Goodridge Brothers Photography Studio in East Saginaw.

While William remained in Minneapolis with Emily’s family for the rest of his life, and despite having spent just a couple short years in East Saginaw, he nevertheless left his mark on our community. His and Evalina’s enterprising successes and encouragement of their sons’ photographic talents led to William O. and Wallace taking residence here.

According to Tom Trombley, “Although their father never lived in Saginaw, Glenalvin was the oldest of three children that did move to Saginaw. Despite the fact that the photographic trades were new, he became well-studied in the entire process, which involved silver and copper plates; and his parents were innovative entrepreneurs who made a strong team together.”

“While their firs studio was located in York, Pennsylvania in a building their father owned, when the brothers first came to Saginaw they located their studio in the Crouse block, which is located where the Eddy Building currently stands,” continues Trombley. “Jesse Hoyt owned it and it was a two-story brick building that advertised the fact it had skylights, which was important to the brothers because of the natural lighting it afforded to their photographic portraiture work, which was the bread and butter of their business.”

“After that building burned in 1872 they moved the studio one block south where the Goodridge Lofts were located; and this is where Larry’s Lounge once stood across from The Saginaw News building on Washington Avenue,” he notes.

When asked why they decided to come to Saginaw, Trombley says it began because of the reversal of fortune the family experienced in York.  “Glenalvin was accused of rape and his father got him out of prison,” he explains. “Their sister Mary Goodridge Nichols was a hairdresser and we believe she was the first to come to Saginaw, with her brothers William and Wallace shortly following. Their father was living in Ohio, and as they relocated to the Midwest to them they were moving out West. I always find it interesting to see how during the pre-Civil War era, places like Chicago are referred to as being the West.”

“The Goodridges came to Saginaw around the same time as the Morley Family did,” continues Trombley. “While the Morley’s came with more resources, the Goodridges came with specific skills looking for a place where they could thrive and East Saginaw was that place.  The Lumbering Era was booming and at that time photography was a new trade, the brothers did not have a lot of competition.”

When asked what he feels distinguished their work, Trombley references several factors, most notably their technical talent combined with their keen eye for capturing images and brilliant photographs that serve as early historical chronicles of life in this region.

“When you look at the legacy of their imagery you see a sharpness to their work and thoughtful, beautifully composed images,” he reflects.  “I would also argue one thing the brothers were able to learn from both parents was finding ways to market their work in a way that made it possible for them to take photos they wanted to take.  While they were really good at taking portraits, which was the mainstay of their business; the way they were able to also take photos that they wanted to focus upon was by finding a way to make them profitable.  Consequently, they became publishers and took photos of buildings and the region that they would sell to libraries and publications. They became ambulance chasers in a way by going out to capture a fire if one started; but people wanted to buy their photographs.  They viewed Saginaw as a growing city.”

“Before postcards became popular, the brothers created a collection of ‘Cartridge-zines’, which contained all these different scenes of Saginaw. You would pull this little tape and another image would reveal itself to create these panoramic images and scenes of Saginaw. The brothers loved to shoot photos from the roof of the Bancroft Hotel and make these panoramic collections of the rooftops of Saginaw.”

“Thanks to the Goodridge Brothers, Saginaw’s rise as a lumber and industrial capital was preserved for the ages and we are a richer community because of their work.”



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