A World in Pictures: Waldo Hirshberger

Waldo Hirshberger, ~1915.

His name is Waldo Hirshberger, and his smile in those pictures haunts me. He is my great-grandfather, but he may as well have been an Assyrian cobbler for all the similarities we share.

Waldo grew up in Oregon at the turn of the century. Like many industrious people at the time, he was many things at once, but in the beginning he was a farmer. He was also a tinkerer, infatuated with locomotives and automobiles. He built them, repaired them, indulged in them. By the time his daughter and her three sons began taking pilgrimages to Oregon, Waldo had reconstructed in his back yard the very sturdy train and track his own father had built when he was a child. My father and his two brothers were in hog heaven when they stayed with “Daddy” Waldo.

Undoubtedly, Waldo loved cars. In nearly half of all pictures taken of him, he is posing next to an automobile. His fluency with mechanics was very much a nineteenth century necessity. I love this page in his album, which shows him doing something he clearly enjoyed.

Waldo shown taking the engine and transmission apart, left, and cleaning the carburetor, right. An expense report in the middle, saved for posterity. (1915)

Waldo’s charisma oozes from the pictures. He also seemed to be a ladies’ man. What’s undeniable is his charm in front of the camera, and his eye for recreating scenes from his younger years. Here are two pictures of Waldo and his friend, Pauline Coe, in a canoe.

Young friends in a canoe, ~1908.

Young friends in a canoe, reprise. ~1912.

Next, another reprise in the Ford Model-T Roadster, which Waldo purchased on May 19, 1914, for $300.00. Both Garnet and Shaw figure in many of Waldo’s pictures. Ralph and Waldo would later take a trip down to Tijuana, Mexico from July-September, 1915, in the same Roadster.

The Fitzgeraldian-named Garnet West, with Waldo, ~1915.

Ralph Shaw and Waldo, Aug. 27, 1914. Dinner that day consisted of “sardines, dusty bread and raisins.”

Looking at Waldo’s photos, I am awestruck. It’s hard to tell, however, where that awe comes from. Is it because Waldo helped put into motion my existence, or is it because he captured the echoes of the past so deliberately, with humor and verve? Is it because, for all the insight the photos offer, his world is still a mystery to me? I feel all of these things at once, each one prefigured in the other. Going through his many albums is a lot like learning an occult script, where the content of words and images is felt before one truly knows its meaning.

One thing is clear—Waldo loved being in the limelight. It’s important to put this into perspective: at the time, cameras and cars weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today. They were truly uncommon. The smile issuing from Waldo, I imagine, is delight mixed with the love of novelty, the excitement of being associated with the cutting edge. But Waldo’s enchantment with early twentieth-century technology is not inward-looking. At its best, it expresses a rare, but not altogether forgotten, enchantment with life.

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