R.E. Jackson, Edgewater Photographer

Vol. XII No. 1 - SPRING 2001

By: LeRoy Blommaert

Ralph Eugene Jackson was born September 11, 1879, in Le Mars, Iowa, the third of five children (all boys) born to James Delivan Jackson, a dentist, and Anna E. Grandall. The first record of him in the Chicago directory was in 1906 when he was listed as living at 1101 Early (1261 is today’s number), with his occupation listed as clerk. The 1907 directory listed the same information. His occupation was listed for the first time as photographer in the 1908 directory, though we know from some of his postcards that he started taking photos as 1906. While he lived in Edgewater he moved around a good deal.

In 1909 he lived at 525 Winthrop (5211) In 1910 he moved a few doors down to 5215. Later that same year he moved 1417 Thome. Then, for the next two years he lived at 1443 Olive. Except for the first 1910 listing by the census all the rest of these listings are from the City Directory which preceded the Telephone Book. In 1914 he lived at 1318 Bryn Mawr, in 1915 at 5611 Ridge and in 1916 at 5605 Glenwood. Then, from 1917-1919 he lived at 1267 Ardmore.

Sometime in 1914 he opened a studio at 5626 1/2 N. Broadway on a site that is presently occupied by the new Walgreen’s store. There is no commercial listing the following year; however the 1916 and 1917 directories give his business address as 5622 N. Broadway, a few doors down.

At age 27 he married Irene Blanche Hulbert. Their first child, Donald, was born September 4, 1907; their second, Shirley Ann, was born July 27, 1914.

The 1920 census shows him as a Rogers Park resident, living at 1908 W. Greenleaf. While a Rogers Park resident he also lived at 6548 N. Ashland and later at 1610 Albion. For many years he had a photography studio at 7050 N. Clark. During the last 5 years of his life he lived with his son Donald in Palatine. He died at the age of 80 on April 22, 1960.

Though most of his professional career as a photographer was devoted to portrait and other commercial photography, it is the real photo postcards he produced of Edgewater views that merit our interest, and appreciation. Because he did not always number his cards, it is difficult to ascertain with certainty how many different views he produced; however, because the highest number on an Edgewater postcard is 309 we can reasonably assume that he produced at least that number.

One thing that is unique to his cards is that in most cases he identified them on the image side not only with his name, “R.E. Jackson,” but also his community. Sometimes he showed “Edgewater, Chicago, Ill” but mainly he showed only “Edgewater Ill,” even though Edgewater had long before been incorporated into the city of Chicago. And this was true even when the views were not of Edgewater!

The author does not know of any other real photo postcard photographer to have done this. Most such photographers had their name and address printed or stamped on the address side only. Perhaps it was a sense of community pride that caused him to so identify with his new community. We will never know for sure; however, his practice does attest to the fact that Edgewater residents then knew they lived in Edgewater, unlike today.

Besides Edgewater, R. E. Jackson took photos of Fox Lake, Illinois and Bass Lake, Indiana, both popular resort areas. However, only four cards have been found to date of these two communities. Much more numerous are the real photo post-cards he produced of Bethany Beach at Sawyer, Michigan. Bethany Beach, on the Michigan shore of Lake Michigan, was founded in 1906 by a group of Chicago south side Swedish Baptists as a faith-based summer camp. It is year-round community today, but it is still very much a faith-based community, populated in large measure by the descendants of the original settlers. R.E. Jackson began taking photographs of Bethany Beach very early. The earliest postmark found to date is July 1907, just one year after the founding. How it was that he came to Bethany Beach is a mystery, but come he did and he kept coming and photographing well into the late 1920s, far longer than he photographed views in Edgewater.

The granddaughter of the principal founder of Bethany Beach recalls that R. E. Jackson and her uncle Helmer (the son of the principal founder) took many photographs of Bethany Beach which they made into postcards which were sold at her grandfather’s store. Since the founder’s son was only 13 years old in 1907, it is doubtful it was he who caused R.E. Jackson to first come to Bethany Beach; what is more probable is that he shared an interest in photography with Mr. Jackson, and perhaps it was friendship/mentorship that caused Mr. Jackson to return summer after summer.

Comparing R. E. Jackson’s real photo postcards with those of other photographers who worked in the greater Chicagoland area, one must conclude that his were above average: they were sharp in detail and well composed. Residents of both Edgewater and Bethany Beach, and those interested in their separate histories, owe much to R.E. Jackson. Little did he realize that the view photographs he took to make a little extra money, primarily during the summers, would be such a wonderful source for visually documenting the early history of both communities.

In addition, several photographs he took in Edgewater represent unique recordings of Chicago transportation history. The photograph he took of a Milwaukee suburban train at the Edgewater depot (Bryn Mawr) in the summer of 1906 or 1907 represent the only known photograph of a train on this suburban route, which was replaced in 1908 by the Northwestern Elevated Railroad. Fortunately, when “L” service was inaugurated on May 16, 1908, he was there to record the first train pulling into the new station. Both these photographs were reproduced in Bruce Moffat’s book “The ‘L’.” We will reproduce them here in a subsequent article on Edgewater’s early public transportation.