William Gruber was born in Bavaria in 1903. At age 14, he began an apprenticeship at the Welte & Sons organ and piano manufacturers in Freiberg, Germany. William was a teenager when World War I broke out, sending Germany into chaos. In his diary, he recalled widespread hunger, various armies roaming the streets, being snatched off the street and drafted in the red army for 8 days, and the endless parade of black crosses placed in windows, symbolizing loved ones lost in the war.
When the Kaiser was defeated in 1918, Germany was in political turmoil. William wrote that about 75 political parties were vying for membership. Around 1920, William was working as a piano tuner when he was sent to tune the piano of the Heiler family. Josef Heiler owned a women’s hat shop in Portland, Oregon, but employed hat designers in Freiberg, where he lived much of the time. The Heilers invited William into their home, an invitation he accepted because his apprenticeship was unpaid and his father’s business was drying up. From the Heilers William learned of the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge and of Mt. Hood.
At the end of his apprenticeship, William returned to his home in Munich, where he became more involved in politics. He went to hear Adolf Hitler speak and was drawn to what he had to say. He joined the Nazi party in 1921 and was an active promoter of Hitler speeches, handing out flyers. According to William’s later writings, he was drawn to Hitler’s exhortations that Germans must unite to overcome economic struggles. Hitler spoke out against inflation and high interest rates, which appealed to economically struggling Germany.
In 1923, William immigrated to America, where he eventually settled in Portland. He quickly became connected to the German community there, and made a living as a piano tuner. One of his friends was Judge Jacob Kanzler, who is known for his efforts to preserve the Columbia River Gorge. On expeditions with Kanzler, William grew to love the Gorge. His favorite spot was Eagle Creek. Trained in pneumatics and always interested in mechanics and photography, William experimented with photography and stereoscopic images. The beautiful Oregon scenery provided plenty of inspiration.
Throughout the 1930s, William maintained his support for Hitler, and his vocal support of the Fuhrer complicated his business ventures and made him known to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.. After an eye-opening trip to his homeland of Germany, William decided to end his public support for Hitler in 1936. Meanwhile, he continued pursuing his dream of a stereoscopic image viewer and in 1938, with the help of the new Kodachrome film, William perfected his prototype. His new design would include mounting images on a rotating wheel that made a satisfying noise when clicking ahead to change pictures.
During a trip with his wife Norma to the Oregon Caves, Gruber ran into Harold Graves, who was working for Sawyer’s, a Portland-based company that specialized in producing scenic postcards. Graves inquired about the camera system William had set up, and the inquiry led to a business deal, with Sawyer’s agreeing to invest in William’s invention. Sawyer’s would market the new invention as the View-Master, though William did not like the name. He envisioned his creation being used for educational purposes, but the executives at Sawyer’s thought national parks and other scenic sights would be more lucrative.
The View-Master debuted to great success at the 1939 World’s Fair. Over the next couple of years, the United States military would contract with William to for use of his View-Master as training tool for the navy. At the same time, the FBI was investigating him for this Nazi ties. He was exiled from 1943-44 in Lewiston, Idaho, under order from the FBI. He was released from exile in 1944, and returned to his work with Sawyer’s. Gruber went on to denounce Hitler after the atrocities of World War II were revealed, and for the rest of his life, he continued with various projects, including a series of human anatomy View-Master reels intended to educate medical students.
When the plates arrived at SOHS
As the archivist of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, I was thrilled by the prospect of this donation, and at the time, knew nothing about William Gruber except that he invented the View-Master. A staff member and a society volunteer rented a U-Haul and drove 425 miles to pick up the collection. The heavy negatives, spread across approximately 70 wooden boxes, weighed approximately half a ton. The donor explained that the plates had been located at Sawyer’s, but that the collection also contained plates from the Kiser studio, which specialized in hand-tinted mounted photos of Crater Lake. Unfortunately, in some cases we do not know for sure which plates came from which studio, or who the actual photographer was. Perhaps the more we work with the images, and the more research we do on the Sawyer’s company, we will better be able to decipher which is which.
Based on the clothing of people in some photos, we estimate that most were taken in the 'Teens and 'Twenties. However, when I began unloading the photos, I found a different set of plates, that appeared to depict the Boston area around the turn of the 20th century. The origin of these plates is currently a mystery, though some are labeled "Copyright 1905 H. G. Peabody." These images were stored in cardboard boxes within the wooden boxes, and as I unloaded the smaller boxes, I was shocked to see swastikas printed on the side. Knowing that the swastika was a fairly common decorative symbol prior to its adoption by the Nazi party, I thought perhaps the symbol was purely decorative, and probably pre-dated the party’s adoption of the symbol in 1920. I also began googling William Gruber, and quickly discovered that he was, coincidentally, a member of the Nazi party, and though he denounced Hitler later in life, I began to wonder if the materials I’d just accepted were related to Nazism, and if so, in what way.
At this point, I do not know where the boxes with the swastikas came from, though due to their age, I do not suspect they have any link to the Nazi party. The contents of the Boston-area boxes are street scenes, and they appear to all be from the first decade of the 20th century. The rest of the collection is largely scenic, with views throughout Oregon and the West.
In recent years, museums have begun to reckon with the question of how best to accept donations from problematic donors. However, this conversation has largely focused on monetary donations. In addition, the issue of whether or how to display an object that was obtained through unethical means has been around for decades (thought not resolved) and many museums and archival collections have worked to return Native American artifacts, for example, to their Native communities (though again, much more work can and should be done in this realm).
The issues raised above did not seem to apply here. This donation was not monetary, and the images themselves were not stolen artifacts, though one could argue that the existence of scenic photos depended on this displacement, and death, of Native people. Some great conservationists were guilty of erasing Native peoples from their descriptions and representations of the land altogether.
In assessing how to handle this donation’s connection to Nazism, I felt it was important also to remember that the donation was not gifted by William himself and the contents are scenic, completely unrelated to Hitler, Nazism, or WWII. The collection contains important images, particularly in the field of environmental history, and should be made publicly available. At the same time, I believe the connection to Nazism, though indirect, should be mentioned. The story speaks to our current societal interest in reevaluating how to display and interpret complex histories, including ones that are connected to ideologies or actions that most contemporary Americans roundly denounce.
The negatives themselves contain scenes from several national parks, including Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier. These images provide a time capsule of our environment approximately 100 years ago. As the landscape rapidly changes, including the shrinking of glaciers at Glacier National Park, these images will continue to provide important historic records. Further, both Kiser and Sawyer’s studios were influential in developing Crater Lake and Glacier as national parks.
Finally, the images provide fascinating historical records about white Americans’ interactions with Native Americans. Particularly interesting are the images involving Chief Bighorse, a member of the Blackfoot nation who was employed in tourism surrounding Glacier National Park and the Great Northern Railway.