When he died over 60 years ago, photographer J.W. Bald of Midland was already well known for the scope of his work, as well as its quality. I wish I had known him as many of his interests have also been mine. Back in 1981, I had a newsletter on marine topics named The Water Rat and I asked the late Juanita Rourke to contribute an item about J.W. Bald. Her story is reprinted below.
By Juanita Rourke
J.W. Bald, photographer, and his boat Redfeather were a familiar sight at the docks of Midland and among the islands of Georgian Bay for over half a century. From the time he opened his photography studio on King Street in 1900 until his death at the age of 94, he took pictures of everything of importance to the community.
He recorded through photography the history of the area — ships, hockey teams, lumber mills, street scenes, buildings and people.
Bald has been recognized as one of the country’s most important early photographers. His business extended as far north as Algonquin Park. His selection of local views is considered to be among the largest of any town in Ontario.
John Witherspoon Bald was born in Ireland in 1868 of Scottish parents. They emigrated to Canada when he was a small boy, settling in the Collingwood area. Later they moved to Penetanguishene and Bald began a five-year apprenticeship with Frank Jackson of Orillia.
During that time he travelled by tugboat up the shore of Georgian Bay taking pictures of popular resorts such as the Copperhead Hotel near Sans Souci, the Yankcanuck Club, and various other spots around the Moon River.
In 1900 Bald married and opened a studio in the Bennett Block on King Street in Midland opposite the post office. Those were the days of glass negatives.
One of his first projects as a self-employed photographer that year was to visit lighthouses and cottages on Georgian Bay, creating a pictorial record of those isolated stations.
In 1904 Bald made a composite photograph of the local hockey team, champions of Northern and Eastern Ontario. The players were photographed indivually on a background view of a ship and grain elevaor in Midland harbour.
Bald was also a news photographer. He covered many local events such as fires and accidents. He recorded the burning of the Letherby Lumber Yards, and he was on the spot when the first elevator in Midland, a wooden structure, burned in 1904. Both photos have been reproduced many times.
He loved boats, and in 1910 he built his cruiser Redfeather. The 30-foot craft was one of the first boats to pass through the lock at Port Severn. Many of his scenic photos of Georgain Bay were taken from Redfeather. His pictures of Midland’s busy harbour, from the time of sailing schooners to those of the cruise ships such as the North and South American, Noronic, the well remembered Midland City and City of Dover (above) which plied the Inside Passage between Midland and Parry Sound, as well as the Canadian Pacific boats out of Port McNicoll, form a valuable chapter in the marine history of the region.
Two hundred of Bald’s photographs are displayed at the Huronia Museum in Midland. His King Street studio has been recreated in the museum, complete with the camera which captured so much history. He compiled a gallery of 200 ship pictures on request from the National Archives in Ottawa. Several sizeable collections are owned privately. Ironically, Bald’s own family has only a small representation of his work.
J.W. Bald was more than a photographer of places and events. He was also an artist and prize-winning portrait photographer. He produced several books of area pictures which he supplied to local stores. Many of his scenes were skilfully hand coloured.
John Bald was also an avid sportsman. He enjoyed hunting, hockey, lacrosse and iceboating. He was involved in the community, spending six years on the board of education, twice during that time as chairman, He was also very active in the Masonic and Odd Fellows Lodges.
Active and vigorous until his death in July, 1961, J.W. Bald had at the time 3,000 newly printed postcards bundled and ready to mail. In his lifetime, he had preserved in pictures the history of a town and of Georgian Bay, a spledid legacy for future generations.