A pictorial peek into the past
BRIDGEPORT – For nearly half a century, Freter Brothers Photography and Famous Postcards was an Ohio Valley Staple before the family got burned out and left the business during the 1950s.
Recently, John C. Freter, the son of John C. Freter, one of the four Freter brothers who owned and worked at the company’s four Ohio Valley studios, discovered some old negatives from his father’s company and decided to get them developed.
What he and his wife Donna discovered were pictures from Bridgeport during the January, 1937 floods, one of six flooding events for the Ohio River between 1936 and 1937.
The negatives were saved from the fire that totally destroyed the Freter Brothers photography studio and storage facility on the corner of S. Lincoln Ave. and Howard St.
That studio was housed at the current location of Economy Auto Sales II, across the street from the Freter family home, which served as the base for operations.
In addition to Bridgeport, Freter Brothers had studios in Wheeling, Martins Ferry and Bellaire, at a location near the former on-ramp to the Bellaire Toll Bridge.
As best as John can remember, Freter Brothers began between 1906 and 1910 by his father John, his uncles Henry, August and aunts Louise, Ellen and Mary Agnes.
All seven siblings were involved in the family business after the four brothers decided they’d had enough of the industrial life.
The foursome at one point worked at LaBelle Glass Plant in West Wheeling. Eventually, that life took its toll and together, the embarked on a new path of photography.
John C. Freter travelled across the region, taking photographs of various events while his brothers and sisters manned the studios, doing portraits and making the postcards.
Despite no formal training, Freter Brothers developed into one of the top studios in the area.
“They went out and worked their butts off because this was how they supported the family,” John said. “They took pictures of common people doing common things.”
John Freter told of a series of pictures depicting local mine workers exiting the shaft for the day, both the adult miners and the younger boys. This was back before child labor all but came to a stop during the Great Depression and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Men and boys alike, their faces caked with a mixture of sweat and black coal dust, depicting the aftermath of a long days work.
“They’d wait until the shift was over and when the miners came out, father would group them, with the dirty kids down in front,” John said. “It was the same for the steel mills. He’d travel all over Barton and Lafferty and other little places, documenting everyday life.”
John’s father, John C. Freter, died at age 57. His wife, Virginia, passed away a short time after. The young John C. Freter was adopted by his aunt Mary Agnes and grew up around the business.
John worked for a time as a photographer for the Cambridge Daily Jeffersonian and also took pictures during his time overseas as part of his duties in the transportation company of the U.S. Army.
When he returned, he worked for a studio in Weirton for a time. That studio is now Newbrough Studios.
But the young John Freter got away from the business and never re-opened his family’s studio.
“I got tired of driving back and forth taking photos,” John said. “We’d do what they called “kidsnapping” … going from house to house, taking pictures of the kids in the family homes.”
Freter still has a number of film cameras but has never gotten into the digital age of photography.
He and his wife still own a good portion of photos and photographs taken by Freter Brothers photography, along with a number of negatives that have never been developed.
However, much was lost in the studio fire on S. Lincoln Ave.
Those that remain tell the tale through pictures of just how great the Ohio Valley used to be.
“This was a booming valley,” John said. “And you have to talk about it and have to remember. If you don’t, all those memories are gone.”
Hughes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org