The following story was written by Chuck Miller, a writer and photographer for the online news site timesunion.com. Mr. Miller recently purchased an old camera on ebay, and, in doing some research, found this particular camera had a rich history tied to the American Red Cross of Greater Grand Rapids. Mr. Miller has since sent the camera back to its home at the Red Cross office in Grand Rapids where it’s now displayed among other artifacts from the chapter’s history. The following are excerpts from two articles Mr. Miller wrote about the camera and it’s connection to the Red Cross. You can read Mr. Miller’s full articles about the camera here and here.
Story by Chuck Miller
At first glance, this little black camera looks like a tiny, worn-out shooter from a hundred years ago. But upon closer examination, the camera’s black paint coating contains scribbles and etchings, with cities and locations and dates, similar to location decals on an old steamer trunk. Bordeaux, France. Liverpool, England. Camp Custer. Camp Genicart. Camp Merritt. S.S. Ascania. S.S. Chicago.
It took a while to sort through this camera’s history. What did it see? What images might it have captured? What journey could this camera have taken?
All I had was some etched locations and dates. There wasn’t even a roll of film inside the little Kodak.
But, in all honesty, those etched dates might have contained all the information I needed…
This particular camera was manufactured at the Kodak plant in Rochester, New York, and was later purchased by Frank D. Row, from Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to this website, Row may have been one of several Kent County residents to help establish a military hospital in France…
You can see the name “Frank D. Row”, along with “Hospital Unit Q” and “U.S.A.,” all carefully carved and scraped and etched into the camera back, all engraved in the largest flat area the camera provided. He even added serifs and periods to the letters “U.S.A.” As the camera traveled through the theater of war, more names and locations were etched in whatever flat space the camera provided…
Thanks to one of the engravings, we know that from May 11 to May 21, the camera traveled on the Ascania. The R.M.S. Ascania was originally built in 1911 for the Cunard line, and sailed from Canada to England and back every two weeks. The Ascania‘s normal cargo were Canadian soldiers, who were on their way to France to fight for King and Country. In May 1918, the Ascania carried the U.S. 119th infantry from Hoboken to Liverpool. On May 26, the Ascania suffered damage from a German submarine attack; but was still able to make it to Liverpool on May 27, 1918.
There’s also an engraving of “S.S. Chicago.” There was a transport ship by that name; it was part of a convoy near Floamborough Head in England, when it was sunk by a German torpedo on July 8, 1918. Three men died in that attack; I don’t have enough information handy as to whether Frank D. Row was either on the ship, or whether he knew anybody from that ship.
The camera rear says “Camp Merritt, 5/3/18, 4/27/19.” Camp Merritt in New Jersey was the point where tens of thousands of soldiers were stationed before they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the theater of war. The soldier must have spent at least part of May 1918 at Camp Merritt; and made his way back from the theater of war in April of 1919…
This camera belongs back with its unit. Specifically, as soon as I make contact with the organization, I’m shipping it to the Grand Rapids chapter of the American Red Cross. It’s part of their history and it’s part of their heritage. It’s because of men like Frank D. Row, that the American Red Cross of Kent County organized and helped establish a medical facility in the theater of war; a medical facility that assisted thousands of injured soldiers on the battlefields of France…
Last week, I told the story of the little Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic camera whose previous owner served in World War I. After I documented the camera’s individual history, I contacted the American Red Cross of Greater Grand Rapids, and asked if they would be interested in the camera as part of their historic archives.
They were extremely pleased with the idea.
Last Friday, after taking a couple more shots of the camera for my own archival purposes, I packed the little Kodak (and its carrying beltloop case) in a mailer and shipped it off to Michigan.
This is cool. Way cool. The little Vest Pocket Autographic is now on display with other artifacts from the Grand Rapids Red Cross’ history.
And what a journey that camera has taken. One hundred years ago, it was just a collection of metal parts and a glass lens, all assembled in a Rochester, New York camera plant. It was purchased by a soldier in Grand Rapids – Frank Damon Row – and later traveled with him, documented all the way, to England and France, then returned home. After Row passed away in 1966, it traveled some more – eventually ending up in an eBay auctioneer’s catalog near Fort Worth, Texas. That’s when I bought it and it made another journey, this time to the Town and Village of Green Island. One week later, it returned home once again to Grand Rapids.
A one-hundred-year journey. Now the camera can retire.
And not on my camera retirement shelf. It now gets to retire with other artifacts from the Great War.
Totally awesome all around.