Edwin John Woehl was born February 4, 1919 at Colome, South Dakota to John and Mary (Bohnet) Woehl and he died July 9, 2005 at the Gregory Healthcare Center in Gregory, South Dakota at the age of 86 years, 5 months and 5 days.
In 1920, Edwins parents moved the family to a farm south of Burke, South Dakota, where he was raised. He attended country school through the eighth grade. He enrolled in Burke High School for one year and decided, This is not for me. He showed at an early age interest in inventing things, being referred to by his teacher, Mrs. Cass Graham as My little Edison. She could see that sitting quietly at a desk doing lessons wasnt Eds thing, which made it tough keeping order in a one room school house. Yet, give him a scrap of wood, some rusty nuts, and some bolts and there was no telling what his inventive hands might produce.
Ed joined the CCC in Blue Bell, South Dakota on October 20, 1937 as a sawmill operator, and he was discharged on March 31, 1939. On July 26, 1940 he enlisted in the military and was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he taught classes in photography at an army base. He spent three years in Alaska and from there he was stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia. He was one of the escorts for President Franklin D. Roosevelts funeral. From Georgia, he was honorably discharged at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin on August 25, 1945.
After VJ Day, Edwin headed for Chicago, which was his home until May 25, 2002. He opened a camera store in 1951, which developed into more than just a camera store. Word of mouth of his stores rather eccentric collection reached national boundaries. He discovered that the cities basements and attics were a treasure trove for older equipment. Some of the old cameras might have been banged up or allowed to rust, but given Eds magic hands, it was a snap for him to put them back in working order. His knack, he noted, is a family inheritance. Sometimes he would find himself with a camera that was beyond restoration, even though some parts were still usable. So he would experiment with mating, taking a lens from one camera and a shutter from a second, and splicing the parts together, then splicing those parts to a film transport from yet another camera. He got so good at his craft that he could take many pieces of several camera lenses and assemble them into a fish-eye, or a wide angle lens, a task usually preformed by computers and hi-tech optical equipment. In all, he built nine cameras. He had a man come into his store one day who was from Germany. Ed asked him how he had heard about his store and he said some guy in Berlin told him about it.
Ed was preceded in death by his parents, two brothers and two sisters.
Ed is survived by his sisters: Esther Biggins of Gregory, SD: Elsie Rauscher of Sacramento, CA; Edna Woehl of Gregory, SD; Martha Elwart and Mary Ellen Schad, both of Chicago, IL; and several nieces and nephews.
Funeral services will be held on Wednesday, July 13, 2005 at 11:00 AM at Grace Lutheran Church in Burke, SD. Burial will be in the Graceland Cemetery, Burke. Visitation will be Tuesday from 4 to 8 PM at Clausen Funeral Home in Burke and prior to the services on Wednesday at the Church.
If you stand on the sidewalk and cup your hands up to the window of Ed Woehl's Photo Supply store, at 1800 N. Honore, it's possible, with some concentration, to sort out recognizable objects from the stacks and piles crammed inside: metal lunch boxes, wire-screen flyswatters, camping gear, fishing rods, kitschy signs, clothes, fans, curtains, clocks. Close to 20 walking canes hang on a rope suspended from the ceiling. And there's the album cover with John Lennon and Yoko Ono staring lovingly into each other's eyes stashed carelessly in between roller skates, a wooden goose, a plastic turtle, and a thing that looks like a faucet.
Though few of these treasures seem related to photo equipment, flashing signs above the windows and doors promise "Press, Movie View and Still Cameras," "Used Cameras, 8 mm projectors, $15 and up." Stashed among Ed Woehl's other collectibles are tripods, lenses, editors, plus hundreds of photographs, most taken with Woehl's handmade wide-angle cameras, stuck in books, boxes, and files. The photos are long, skinny panoramas that bring back buildings long ago torn down and people Woehl used to know from Maxwell Street, some of whom, he'll tell you, are dead or in jail for shooting landlords. He takes a lot of photos with a 1940 Mercury camera he restored, and it's not one he'll sell. But he says he's sold most of the wide-angle cameras he's hand-built in the last 20 years, to photo students, professional photographers, and collectors who've heard about him through word of mouth.
"About 20 years ago, I got tired of looking for a wide-angle camera. I couldn't find what I wanted, so I just made one. I chopped up some old cameras and made 'em longer. I've made 10 or 12 cameras since then," Woehl explains, but adds modestly, "I don't know nothing about photography when it comes down to it. I just goof around. I got a lot of these kids that come in here. They know what they're doing."
Woehl and his feisty black pup, Princess, spend their mornings "prospecting" in resale shops, flea markets, and "different places"--he's hesitant about revealing his sources--looking for rare or unusual cameras, looking for cameras to use for parts, and looking for more odd objects to add to his piles and stacks. A photo student from the Art Institute brought Princess to Woehl after he lost his beloved terrier Champ--or Shampoo, as he sometimes called him--to old age. At night Princess curls up on her pillow in the back of the shop where the two eat and sleep, while Woehl takes the cameras apart, swapping parts around and restoring them to working order.
Ed Woehl is a stout man, with large ears and ruddy round cheeks. He wears heavy work pants of the Sanforized variety, Sanforized shirts, wide suspenders, and work boots, and he keeps his cap pushed back from his forehead so thin tufts of straight white hair fall out around the edges. His motto is, "If I want something, I'll make it if I can." He's made several jackets for Princess to wear in the winter. He's decorated them with patches featuring slogans characteristic of his quirky sense of humor: "Ex Lax," "Try it, you'll like it," "I'm a little stinker." He makes plastic name tags and plastic key chains. He's rigged up his cane with a flashlight that points down at the sidewalk for when he walks Princess after dark. Because he's hard of hearing he's also rigged up the shop door with a mechanical device that trips off a recording of Christmas carols when the door opens.
Woehl was raised in Chamberlain, South Dakota, where his love affair with photo equipment began in 1939, when he took a photo class while working on a Civilian Conservation Corps camp there. During the war he built base camps in Alaska, where he says he continued to "goof off with cameras." Then the Army moved him to Georgia to be a demolition instructor, which explains the Christmas carols. When he was released from the Army, he came to Chicago; he opened his store in 1955. He also began selling his photo equipment on Maxwell Street.
"He's a good source because he recognizes collectible cameras," says Jim Berglund, a customer and friend of Woehl's. Berglund calls himself a "serious amateur" and says he has a room at home full of stuff he's bought from Woehl. On Saturdays Berglund arrives at Woehl's place mid-morning and the two experiment with Woehl's cameras. One photo Woehl has stashed in a book shows Jim Berglund standing beside Jim Berglund outside the store. Another, taken by Berglund, shows Woehl's torso facing the camera, attached to a lower body walking away from the camera. "He's an interesting guy," Berglund says, chuckling at the photo. "That's why I hang around with him. We brainstorm, we invent things."
The two generally hold their brainstorming sessions over breakfast on Sunday, when Woehl returns from his weekly trip to Maxwell Street. Though Woehl still goes there at 6 AM every Sunday, he doesn't take his wares anymore. He does take a shopping cart, an aluminum step stool, and a camera or two. The shopping cart is for his prospecting finds and the stool is for standing on to capture a better photo. "You get up on top of that and you're above the ground; it keeps your pictures from being flat across."
Woehl says it's too much trouble to drag all his stuff to Maxwell Street anymore. "When you made a buck selling down there, you earned it." Now he waits for people to come to him. "On some days four or five people will come in all at once. Some days no one comes in," he says. But what he doesn't know is how many people pause outside his window, maybe on their way to the Get Me High, and wonder if there really is photo equipment in there, behind the stacks and piles.
Woehl's is open 11 to 6:30 Monday through Saturday (except for Wednesday, when it's closed), and 11 to 2 Sunday. The number is 276-2280.
Things Click When This Photography Buff Gets To Inventing
October 01, 1991|By Ron Grossman.
Mix equal parts of Thomas Edison and pack rats like Sanford & Son, and you pretty much have Ed Woehl.
Sixty years ago, a grade school teacher back in South Dakota had already spotted that. She could see that sitting quietly at a desk doing lessons wasn`t Woehl`s thing, which made it tough keeping order in the one-room schoolhouse she ran. Yet give him a few scraps of wood, some rusty nuts and some bolts, and there was no telling what his inventive hands might produce.
``On a trip home, I saw Miss Graham just before she died,`` said the 72-year-old Woehl. ``She said: `How`s my little Edison? What kind of
contraptions has he been dreaming up lately?```
A first-time visitor to Woehl`s shop might ask a similar question. More likely, the visitor would assume that neither plan nor intention could possibly have shaped this place. Ed Woehl Photo Supplies (and miscellaneous enterprises: A window sign says, ``We Make Keys``) occupies a sidestreet storefront in the Bucktown neighborhood on Chicago`s Northwest Side.
From the floor up, nearly every horizontal surface is piled high with heaps of objects whose only common denominator is that all were produced by some long-ago assembly line. The only exception is an easy chair reserved for Princess, a coal-black mutt who greets newcomers with the cautious eye of a big-city shopkeeper.
Were it not for the sign outside, the place might be mistaken for a museum of the Industrial Revolution whose funding must have dried up before cataloging could be completed and exhibits properly mounted.
Threading through those castaways toward the display counter momentarily restores your bearings. It is lined with cameras and other photographic equipment, as are glass shelves on the wall behind.
Traveling camera buffs phone for directions, so they can visit between connecting flights at O`Hare International Airport. Photography students at local universities are tipped off to the place`s riches by their professors. For Woehl`s pack-rat instincts have focused longest on photography.
Mixed in among his other collections are cameras and enlargers, some of which are as old as he is. Underfoot and on shelves are dozens of vintage movie projectors, some dating to the era of silent pictures. One display case is reserved for types and sizes of film Kodak discontinued years ago. To Woehl and his special clientele, nothing about the magic of photography ever goes out of date.
Yet the minute you decide the place does qualify as a camera shop, your eye spots a long strand of twisted electrical wire running from one wall to another near the ceiling. Hanging from it are several dozen canes.
``I got fascinated by canes a while back,`` Woehl explains. ``So I decided to put a display of them in the shop. Wait, I`ll show you one of my own design.``
He disappeared into a back room, then emerged carrying a Rube Goldberg contraption that was, indeed, built around a cane. A long pole had been lashed to the cane, and an umbrella mounted on the end of the pole. What better way to protect a pedestrian from a sudden rainstorm? Woehl observed.
Similarly practical considerations led him to equip the device with a bell and an automobile`s rearview mirror, while his aesthetic tastes dictated that a tiny camera, whose shutter can be tripped in midstride, be mounted to the cane. Wandering through Chicago, capturing neighborhood landscapes on film is Woehl`s enduring passion, he explained.
Sadly, city life grows rougher with the passing years. So his cane is also fitted with leather holsters, one of which holds a flashlight (to spot potential muggers), the other a first-aid kit (should one fail to spot brigands in time).
As no one has ever asked to buy one, production of the Woehl Walking Stick has been limited to this prototype, he noted. But no matter. To Ed Woehl, the thrill of invention is more important than the ringing of cash registers.
He recalled that he caught the photographic bug while a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The corps was a Depression-era government program that put unemployed young people to work on environmental and building projects. Members were also provided with after-hours recreation programs, and the South Dakota camp where Woehl was stationed offered a class in photography.
``The first time I developed a roll of film, it was magic to me,`` Woehl said. ``From that day on, I`ve always perferred working in a darkroom to sitting in a bar.``
A unique angle
During World War II, Woehl taught photography at an Army base in Alaska, and after V-J Day, he came to Chicago, where a brother and sister of his were living. He went to work in a machine shop but continued doing photography in his spare time, sometimes processing film until 2 in the morning. In 1951, he opened his camera store. In addition to offering a standard array of late model cameras, he also started buying and selling used and vintage models.
He discovered that the city's basements and attics are a treasure trove of older equipment, tucked away by former enthusiasts who gave up the hobby. Some of those old cameras might have been banged up or allowed to rust, but given Woehl`s magic hands, it was a snap for him to put them back in working order. The knack, he notes, is a family inheritance.
"My grandfather was a homesteader who built the farmhouse I was born in,`` Woehl said. "Dad used to drag old cars home from a junkyard and get them to running, so we'd have a way of getting to town."
Sometimes, Woehl would find himself with a camera that was beyond restoration, even though some parts were still usable. So he experimented with mating, say, a lens from one camera to the shutter of second one, then splicing those parts to a film transport salvaged from yet another camera. He got so good at his craft that he could take bits and scraps of several camera lenses and assemble them into a fish-eye, wide-angle lens-a task usually performed by computers and high-tech optical equipment.
In all, he built nine cameras, each neatly labled as ``Woehl No. 1,``
``The Woehl-e-Flex,`` etc. Some of Woehl`s creations are as small as a standard snapshot camera. Others are as bulky as the big view cameras with which school photographers take class portraits.
All of Woehl`s cameras, though, share one characteristic: They produce a negative whose width is three or four times greater than its height. Those specifications correspond to Woehl`s special taste in photography.
No sooner had he arrived in Chicagothan his eye was drawn to a similarity between his boyhood home and his new one. Beyond the Loop`s skyscrapers, Chicago is as resolutely flat as the plains of South Dakota. Having grown up with one such horizontal landscape, he found himself irresistably drawn to the big city`s variety.
So for 40 years, Woehl has been tramping Chicago`s streets and bringing home photographic souvenirs in the form of those long, narrow images he prefers. Setting Woehl No. 6 or No. 8 on a tripod, he will record a neighborhood`s contours, seeing an infinite variety of urban beauty in ordinary street scenes others might dismiss as boring and repetitious.
``I`ve been recording Maxwell Street ever since coming to Chicago,``
Woehl said. ``I love the street, and not only because there is so much to photograph. I also buy and swap cameras with the pushcart merchants there.``
For years, Woehl`s life has revolved around an unvarying schedule. Mornings he ``makes his rounds,`` as he puts it, ferreting out old cameras and making photographs. He spends his afternoons in the store, which also houses his workshop and a tiny living quarters. He never married, thank goodness. Few women would tolerate the studied chaos that seems to be the psychological catalyst for his personal brand of creativity.
Instead, Woehl has shared his life with a series of canine companions, of which Princess is the latest.
A bronze plaque on a counter notes:
Ed Woehl and Princess Proprietors