Farragut Caught in Time
Photographer Ross Hall recorded an era
By Marianne Love
In 1942 he was 36 and too old to be drafted. But Ross Hall wanted to help the war effort. That same year Lt. Commander Henry T. McMaster came West from Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois and took on the challenge of organizing virtually every non-military aspect of Farragut Naval Station southeast of Sandpoint on Lake Pend Oreille. As head of ship service at the 4,000-acre facility, which in six months sprang from dry, empty fields into a giant, bustling military training post in the Idaho Panhandle, McMasters supervised support services ranging from laundry to loaves of bread.
In 1942, when Hall and McMaster met, both men fulfilled an important need. Every sailor who trained at Farragut wore a personally tailored uniform. The Navy also saw to it that all of the nearly 300,000 recruits and support staff had their portraits taken in uniform. In addition, each company of 200 men stood at attention in neatly organized rows for group pictures. When McMaster went searching for someone to assume this responsibility, he didn't have to go far. As Hazel Hall tells it, the administrator wrote to Eastman Kodak and they wrote back saying, "You have a man in your own back yard." Hereford, Tex., native and Effingham School of Photography graduate Ross Hall had arrived in Sandpoint during the Depression to go to work for Mrs. Richard Himes, whose photographer husband had started a studio in 1908. When Himes died, his widow needed someone to run the business. In those days, Eastman Kodak sent representatives out into the field to help photographers stay current. The lean, handsome young man who had chosen photography as his craft through the influence of his sister, a photographer for the University of Missouri, had impressed Kodak's northwest reps.
"Mr. Mason from Eastman Kodak recommended Ross, then 25, to Mrs. Himes," Hazel Hall recalls. "When Ross came up to see her, she said, `Oh, Mason, you sent me a boy!' He looked about 16.
"Ross asked, `Let me try a year,'" Hazel added. "At the end of a year, she liked him and wouldn't think of letting him go." After going to work in Sandpoint, Ross took some time off to go to Colorado to marry his sweetheart. Over the next eight years, he took portraits and taught Hazel how to take, develop and retouch photos. In 1940, he purchased the studio on First Avenue.
One day two years later, McMaster walked into the studio and enlisted Ross Hall's talents. "Ross, you're going to have to give up your work here," McMaster, now 97, remembers telling the photographer. "He was very enthused about it. Ross put his whole heart and soul into it and developed one of the best photo stores at any Naval station anywhere."
During the war, the Halls had two small children, Bob and Loyce. With McMaster's request, family life changed dramatically, especially during the first six months. When the first recruits arrived, Farragut had no photographic facilities and Ross didn't have a panoramic camera for photographing the companies.
"These cameras were very scarce," Hazel explained. "Film was hard to get... we could run our studio only two days a week because we didn't have enough film to take pictures."
Ross went to Farragut each day to take pictures and organize a large photographic facility. Meanwhile, Hazel ran the studio in Sandpoint. Each night Ross brought his work home and the couple printed hundreds of pictures in their basement in an effort to meet the two-day turnaround time.
"We washed them in the bathtub and we had to wear big high rubber gloves and keep stirring them," Hazel recalled.
Drying the huge photos presented a special problem.
"They were all over the front room, the kitchen table, everywhere," she recalled. "We dried them by blotters. You could hardly go to bed at night, and I had to keep the kids off from them."
Eventually Ross had the studio at Farragut organized and he found a panoramic camera in Seattle. Even then, Hazel had to close the Sandpoint studio for three months and accompany him to Farragut to teach 15 workers how to retouch photos.
Once the staff and darkroom facilities were operating smoothly, Hazel reopened the Sandpoint studio. In the meantime, Ross hired local girls to help him. Mary Verdal graduated from Sandpoint High School in 1944 and enjoyed working at Farragut printing the large company photos. She recalls many mornings of getting on the bus at the former Pend Oreille Hotel (now Taylor-Parker car lot) and other days riding to and from work with Ross Hall.
"While driving down the road, he looked for photos," Verdal said. "Those eyes were always looking."
During his three years at Farragut, Hall transformed his photographic duties into a science. His friend Jim Parsons, Sr. once said that Hall developed a system of "photographing a company of 120 men in 30 minutes, taking 3-by-5 poses of each man. He used three cameras operated by girls."
McMaster, who now lives in Sun City, Ariz., admired Hall.
"He was one of the greatest helpers I had at Farragut," the former administrator said. "He just wanted to help everyone else... he would go out of the way to do anything for anyone."
As a testament to Hall's altruistic attitude, McMaster recalled an incident when the photographer received a letter from a lady from Mississippi who had lost her son in the war. She had no picture of him, except for the company photo.
"Ross wrote and told her to send the picture and put a circle around her son's face," McMaster recalled. "He made pictures of the son and sent them to her. He received lots of letters about that."
More than 1,100 laminated company pictures are now on display at 22 podiums at the Farragut State Park Headquarters museum. Fifty years later, veterans are still coming back and thumbing through Hall's work to find their picture and reminisce.
In addition, a large panoramic shot of Farragut taken from Bernard Peak overlooks the WWII memorabilia that tells the story of the Base. When the war came to an end and security concerns had lessened, the Navy allowed Hall to take the photo showing the layout of the base. More than ll,000 copies sold as souvenirs to Navy men.
Henry McMaster's eyes are weak these days, but he still cherishes the pictures of Lake Pend Oreille and the book entitled "We Went to Idaho," given to him and his wife by Ross and Hazel when he left Farragut at the end of the war. The Hall's produced the album of large prints, including a picture of their two small children, who were joined by a third after the war.
"He writes that I reported to Farragut on Sept. 2, 1942, and left in Sept., 1945," McMaster said. "I have that to remember Ross and Hazel by."
When World War II ended, Ross Hall had served his country as well as the men and women of the U.S. Navy. Although he died in 1990 at the age of 85, his work and dedication lives on in the hearts and homes of thousands of Farragut veterans across the United States.
Hall's photos from the Farragut era can be viewed at the Bonner County Museum and at the Farragut State Park Museum. In addition, Hall's youngest son Dann, born after the war, manages the Ross Hall Photography Collection at 202 1/2 South First. For more information call 263-4704.
Marianne Love is journalism instructor at Sandpoint High School and author of "Pocket Girdles: Confessions of a Northwest Farm Girl," available in all finer bookstores. See her web site to learn more.
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Back to 1996 Summer Sandpoint Magazine