Photographer’s daughter makes gift to historical society on 100th birthday
LAKE PLACID — At just under 5 feet tall, Clara Cleveland Bass walked through the front door of the Lake Placid train station. Wearing eye glasses, black slacks and a gray sweater a little darker than her gray hair, she donned a white sash stretching from her right shoulder to her left hip. It said, “100 & Fabulous.”
It was Tuesday, Sept. 7. Clara traveled with her family to Lake Placid for a homecoming to celebrate her 100th birthday on this day. But instead of receiving a gift, she was giving one to the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society — hundreds of glass-plate negatives and photographs from her father, Grover Cleveland, who was a professional photographer in Lake Placid from 1916 to the late 1950s.
This Grover Cleveland was not the former two-time president, New York state governor and mayor of Buffalo. Clara’s father was actually named Jesse Grover Cleveland, but he didn’t like his first name.
“We never did find out why he hated that name, except he had a girl cousin named Jesse,” Clara said.
So Jesse Grover became J. Grover and finally Grover J. Cleveland. Clara doesn’t know whether her father was named after the former president, but he was born on June 15, 1887 in the Madison County town of Oneida during the president’s first term in Washington (1885-1889).
A year after his birth, George Eastman of Rochester introduced the Original Kodak camera, which was preloaded with a 100-exposure roll of flexible film. That meant people no longer had to rely on bulky glass-plate technology for their cameras.
“You press the button, we do the rest,” stated an advertisement for the early Kodak camera, “or you can do it yourself.” It was touted as “The only camera that anybody can use without instructions. As convenient to carry as an ordinary field glass.”
Thanks to the Eastman Dry Plate & Film Company, this was the beginning of a photographic revolution, one that Grover Cleveland got caught up in when he was a young man. Yet he took his photography interests to a professional level. A 1907 photo of Grover shows him with a suit, tie and hat, holding a folding camera with a cable release — not a box camera with preloaded film.
According to a March 27, 1952 letter to his mother — detailing many of the places they had lived for most of his life — Grover worked for the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester for a couple of months in 1906. Otherwise, he jumped from job to job, working for a number of places in central New York during his 20s, including the Remington Typewriter Company in Ilion, as a news photographer in Syracuse and at the Syracuse Portrait Company.
In November 1915, Grover was admitted to the Ray Brook State Hospital in the Adirondacks, where he spent several months being treated for tuberculosis. After a brief visit home in 1916, he traveled to Lake Placid in June to work for Irving Lynn Stedman (1874-1957), who ran a photography shop on Main Street.
The village of Lake Placid was a growing resort just before and after World War I. Trains carried thousands of tourists here every year. Many would bring their own cameras, or they’d look for picture postcards to send home — all to capture memories of their Adirondack vacations.
This demand drew the attention of professional photographers — to take pictures, develop film and print postcards. People like Irving Stedman and Grover Cleveland.
The year 1917 was a pivotal one for both photographers. The Aug. 3 issue of the Lake Placid News announced that Stedman had closed his shop to become the official photographer for the Lake Placid Club. And the July 20 issue of the LPN announced that Grover’s number had been picked in the Selective Service draft, as men were being sent to Europe to fight alongside British and French troops against the German army and its allies.
Grover joined the U.S. Army in September 1917 and was trained at Camp Devens in Massachusetts, where he was assigned to a field artillery regiment. He arrived in England on July 31, 1918 and in France on Aug. 5. His unit reached the front lines near Verdun in northern France about a week before the Armistice on Nov. 11.
During the war, Grover was still considered a resident of Lake Placid, as the honor roll printed in the November 1918 issues of the LPN listed him among the other Placidians who joined the military. He was discharged at Camp Devens on April 30, 1919 and moved to Oneida that fall to work for the Smith-Lee Company.
In January 1920, Grover moved back to the village of Lake Placid to work for professional photographer George Rabineau. He married Hazel Whipple, a native of Constantia, on June 15, 1920, and they settled into an apartment on the first floor of the Wanda Building on Main Street, on the shore of Mirror Lake. On Sept. 7, 1921, Clara Cleveland was born.
Grover eventually opened his own photography shop. He took photos of events, famous people and landscapes; developed film for residents and tourists; and sold postcards of his photos.
During the Sept. 7 homecoming celebration at the train station, Clara’s daughter Elizabeth — also known as “Betty” to Clara and “Sam” to her Texas family — showed the Lake Placid News an example of a postcard. It was an image of the Olympic Arena taken in June 1941. In the bottom left corner was the number “300.”
“The photograph you just took had a number at the bottom,” Sam said to the LPN editor. “That was the number of the postcard. He would take a book around with all of these photographs, postcards, and they’d each have a number. And the store owner would say, ‘I want 10 of number 300 or 12 of number 117,’ something like that.”
Clara was impressed with her father’s talent as a photographer. Sam and her sister Clara — known as Ruth — helped their mother explain Grover’s ability to compose a photo with his camera.
“He could look at a picture, a scene he wanted to take a picture of, and in his mind he could compose it,” Clara said.
“Stage it,” Ruth added.
“Stage it,” Clara repeated. “Oh, thank you. He could stage that picture, and he would snap it at exactly the right angle.”
“You can see it in his pictures. Amazing,” Ruth said.
“Framing it,” Sam added. “Framing like a scene of Mirror Lake with a pine tree here and a bush here so that it drew your eye in.”
“Yes,” Clara said, “and he could even take pictures at night. He was great for going out there and taking photos at night.”
Grover also enjoyed capturing images of events, such as local reunions of G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) members — those who fought during the Civil War. And when famous people came to town, he’d be there to see them, with his equipment and press pass.
“Even outside of Lake Placid, he has photographs of Calvin Coolidge coming out of church in Saranac Lake (in the summer of 1926),” Sam said. “And then there was a photograph he took of President Taft when he was stumping for a young man who was running for mayor of Rochester.”
Grover was much more than a photographer and a businessman. He got the thrill of being a reporter.
“He liked to be where the story was happening,” Sam said. “We have (photos of) several groups of fires, Lake Placid Inn fire, Paul Smiths fire, and a couple others where he was on the scene. … He has a lot of photographs from the Club of members of the Club in winter scenes. Margaret Dewey and her sister and Mr. Dewey.”
Grover especially liked covering Franklin D. Roosevelt when he came to town, first as governor of New York and then as president of the United States.
“And so my father always managed to be there,” Clara said. “He had a press pass, and he would call out. … He called him governor.”
Clara said she remembers traveling with her father to Crown Point to cover the opening of the Lake Champlain bridge to Vermont on Aug. 26, 1929. Roosevelt, then governor of New York, was there.
And when the III Olympic Winter Games came to Lake Placid in February 1932, Grover was there to cover many of the events, including the opening ceremony, speedskating races featuring Lake Placid resident Jack Shea winning two gold medals, and action at the bobsled run. Clara remembers going to the bobrun at Mount Van Hoevenberg with her father.
Clara currently spends part of the time living with Sam in Texas and part of the time with Ruth in Arkansas. In July 2015, the “Antiques Roadshow” PBS television show arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Clara was there with Sam, who won the lottery to bring items for an appraisal. They waited all evening, eager to show appraisers an album of Grover’s 1932 Winter Olympic photos.
“And 8:30 at night, they’re closing down and they say, ‘Let’s film you,'” Sam said.
“Oh, I remember being there with her because I’m not at my best at 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” Clara said. “And when he said, ‘I’m sending you to the green room,’ I knew what that meant.”
Meeting with Grant Zahajko, a sports memorabilia appraiser from Grant Zahajko Auctions in Davenport, Washington, Clara learned that the 1932 Winter Olympic album could sell for $15,000 and $20,000 at auction.
“They asked me about sports and all,” Clara said. “I forgot even to tell them about Jack Shea. Now, can you imagine?”
A 1939 graduate of the Lake Placid High School, Clara eventually moved away and in 1942 married Earl Bass, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps who was originally from Arkansas.
Grover closed his shop in the late 1950s and died in Lake Placid on Dec. 22, 1975 at the age of 88. His wife Hazel moved out of their Wanda Building apartment in 1990 and moved to Arkansas, where she died on Dec. 5, 1996 at the age of 99. They are both buried at Constantia Center Cemetery in Oswego County.
Clara said she was impressed with the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society’s care of its photo archives, specifically the Stedman and Moses Collection of glass-plate negatives. And that’s why she gave her father’s photos and glass-plate negatives to the organization.
“When we saw that you all had workshops on how to care and store glass-plate negatives, we knew this is where the collection definitely needed to be, not just because of subject matter but because we knew you guys knew how to take care of all of that,” Sam told historical society officials on Sept. 7 at the train station. “We thank you for what you are doing with all the collections you already have. It’s quite an accomplishment.”
During a short speech, the historical society’s board president, Parmelee Tolkan, thanked Clara for the gift.
“To have this wonderful gift from Clara, it just adds to our collection, and it’s just so nice of you to think of us and to bring it home to Lake Placid,” Tolkan said.
Photos from the Grover Cleveland collection are expected to be on display at the History Museum in the train station in 2024, after a two-year exhibit celebrating the centennial of the Adirondack Mountain Club and Northville-Placid Trail.