22-On the trail of Belle B. Chase

In today’s episode we’re following in the footsteps of early artisan photographer Belle B. Chase, as her 50+ year career takes her across the U.S. and around the world.


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Mrs. B.B. Chase, Denver Post, September 1904
Mrs. B.B. Chase, Denver Post, September 1904
1887 Harper Kansas City Directory
1887 Harper Kansas City Directory

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Transcript

You’re listening to Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols.

Support for this project is provided by listeners like you. Visit my website at p3photographers “dot” net for ideas on how you, too, can become a supporter of the project.

Welcome to Photographs, Pistols & Parasols, the podcast where we celebrate early women artisan photographers.

I’m your host, Lee McIntyre.

Although we start today in Kansas, we’re actually going to be traveling the world to follow the trail of Mrs Belle Bybee Chase.

For more information about any of the women discussed in today’s episode, visit my website at p3photographers.net. That’s letter “p”, number “3”, photographers “dot” net.

*****

Belle Bybee was born in Lexington, Illinois in 1863.

Her family moves very early on to Kansas, and she actually grows up in the town of Bluff Creek, Kansas.

It’s in Kansas where she starts doing photography, and by 1885 she’s already an experienced photographer.

She opens a photography studio in Harper, Kansas, partnering with a man named John Burgener.

After a very short time, though, that partnership dissolves, and the two of them wind up running competing studios there in Harper, Kansas.

In 1886, though, just the next year, she actually is giving up photography and doing a homesteading claim in Barbour County, Kansas.

But then — I guess that doesn’t work out, because in 1887, she’s back in Harper, again running her own photography studio, one of two in town, the other still being run by her former partner, John Burgener.

Now at that point, there are some announcements in the paper that — on the one hand she’s thinking of moving to Leadville, Colorado, and opening up a photography studio there.

Her father apparently was now in Leadville, Colorado, so maybe that’s what prompted her to say that.

She also talks about, well, maybe she’d moved back to Bluff Creek, Kansas, and open up a photography studio there.

That was her hometown, where she grew up.

But before either of those things can happen … well, the next thing you know, she’s married to a photographer named D.B. Chase.

That marriage takes place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and together they moved to Denver.

Before I continue with more of their lives together, I want to first just take a moment and talk a little bit about this photographer, D.B. Chase.

He had a Kansas connection, too, but by the time he marries Belle, in 1888, he’d actually been in Colorado and that vicinity for many years.

He was in Trinidad, in Pueblo, also in Denver, and of course he had the studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Now, his father, John Chase, had a photography studio in Atchison, Kansas.

But hemoves to Colorado for his health in 1875, and establishes his own photography studio in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1876.

But John Chase, D.B. Chase’s father, dies in 1878.

After he dies, D.B. Chase — who, again, has been living in Trinidad (not in Pueblo) at that point and running his own studios — so when John Chase dies in Pueblo, his widow, Lydia Chase, takes her young son Frankie, who’s a teenager, and moves back to Atchison, where they had come from in Kansas.

But D.B., he stays in Trinidad, Colorado.

At this point —1878 — he’s married, he’s got a wife named Ella, a young family, and he’s running photography studio there and elsewhere.

As I said, ultimately including [running a studio] in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Unfortunately, D.B.’s marriage ultimately falls apart, though.

And he and Ella Chase get a divorce in 1888.

Which is why he’s unmarried and able to marry Belle Bybee in 1888.

Now, D.B. Chase had been around for quite some time with his photography studio, and after he marries Belle, it’s clear that she’s working with him.

But in the city directories, the studio never gets officially rebranded, it’s always still listed as just the Dana B. Chase Studio.

But in the Denver city directories, there’s an odd quirk that I don’t find in other city directories, where the spouses names are never listed.

So in some city directories, you would get for Dana B Chase, “(Belle)” in parentheses, to indicate that that’s his wife.

But you don’t see that at all in the Denver city directory.

So Belle doesn’t get a separate listing in the directory.

But the studio – at least the output of the studio is rebranded.

It’s not “D.B. Chase” on the photos anymore, it’s now marked as the “Chase Studio”.

And I think that the “Chase studio” designation indicates that both Belle and D.B. are running a studio together in Denver.

Now, while the photography work goes well and the Chase studio prospers, the marriage does not go so smoothly.

In 1897 Belle files for divorce, and it is granted in April of 1898.

There is an interesting set of articles in the Denver Post in 1898, around the time of the divorce hearing, which at first say that it was claimed that Belle filed for divorce when she caught D.B. Chase fooling around there in the studio in Denver with a woman named Fannie Smith.

There’s a retraction of that, saying that there was no evidence presented at the hearing to indicate that that actually happened.

But that was the allegation, apparently, and when Belle is granted her divorce, she’s actually granted everything that was associated with that studio.

D.B. is still around, and in 1898 he is listed in the Denver city directory as living in a boarding house.

But now it’s Mrs B.B. Chase who is listed as being the proprietor of the Chase Studio

The one other thing I want mention about D.B. Chase is that he was actually a very popular photographer in his day.

Before his marriage to Belle, he did a lot of pictures in Santa Fe … in Trinidad … in Pueblo, Colorado, of Native American.

If you look on the Internet, you’re going find a lot of websites that have his photos, which are beautiful.

But you are going to find some erroneous information about him.

In 1901 there’s an article in the newspaper that I’ll explain more about in a minute, but in passing 1898 it mentions that B.B. Chase took over that Chase studio only after D.B. Chase died in 1898.

But in fact, he did not die in 1898.

It’s just not true. D.B. Chase actually gets remarried in 1899 … to a woman named Fannie Smith.

Yes, the woman that was mentioned in the divorce hearing in 1898.

Anyway D.B. Chase marries Fannie Smith in April of 1899, and they moved to Salt Lake City, where D.B. opens up a very successful photography studio.

He has not died, and therefore Mrs (B.B.) Chase takes over the studio after the divorce, not after D.B. Chase’s death.

But that erroneous information does come from the 1901 Denver Post article, because it is portraying Mrs B.B. Chase as one of the new fangled modern women who are very successful in business.

She’s held up as an example of someone who is really successful, and it’s mentioned that she takes over the studio and has success after her husband dies.

Which is really kind of bizarre, because he didn’t die, they got divorced.

But in any case, D.B. and Fannie Chase have moved to Salt Lake City, and they’re living in Salt Lake in the early 1900s.

Now interestingly, Fannie Chase was also a photographer.

And unfortunately the marriage with D.B. does not work out for Fannie, either.

And so when Fannie and D.B. get divorced, there’s a notice in the paper in Salt Lake that says that she’d actually gone off a couple years before, she’d gone to California to visit people and she never came back.

In fact, she stayed in LA and set up a photography studio business herself there.

Now, Fannie ultimately gets awarded $40/month alimony as long as she remains unmarried.

And she does remain unmarried for awhile, but then in 1913, she marries a man named Joseph Strang, and after that, she operates as a photographer in LA as Fannie Strang.

She may have waited until 1913 to get remarried, because it would appear from the record that D.B. Chase actually dies in 1912.

At least, I found a D.B. Chase who dies in 1912 in Los Angeles.

But that makes no sense to me, because why would he have gone to Los Angeles, which is where his estranged ex-wife Fannie was.

Did she agree to take care of him when he was sick?

Or is this the wrong D.B. Chase?

I don’t know.

But it does look like D.B. Chase from Denver and Salt Lake ultimately dies in 1912 in L.A.

Fannie, though, continues to run that studio in LA.

And yes, Fannie Chase Strang is another early woman photographer, and yes she should be covered here on the podcast at some point.

But her full story has to wait for another day, because today we’re really focused on Belle B. Chase, and I need to get back to her story.

Now, when we last left Belle, she was in Denver, having just divorced D.B., getting the studio and taking over.

She’s the toast of the town, very successful owner/operator of the Chase studio.

All of her output is now labeled “Mrs BB Chase”; she’s actually fully rebranding everything.

And so even though that 1901 article celebrates her success, it is interesting that it doesn’t really acknowledge the fact that she’s been a successful photographer for many years, even before she married to D.B.

But the 1901 article is correct, at least, in saying that Mrs Chase is a very prosperous photographer there in Denver.

She also as some point in the next couple of years opens up another studio in Boulder, Colorado. I actually have a cabinet card that was produced in that location by her, but I don’t have much information about that studio.

Her primary location continues to be Denver, and that’s where she’s doing her photography: taking photos, and also training people.

She and D.B. actually trained people, of course; one of their students back in the early 1890s was George Vreeland.

I talked about in the last episode, because George Vreeland was the son of Mrs Vreeland, the wonderful photographer from McPherson, Kansas and many other spots in Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma.

But after Belle is on her own, she continues to take on students, and trains people how to be photographers so they can set out and start their own studios as well.

One thing that does seem to change after divorce, though, is that Belle starts to get noticed a lot in the social notices.

You didn’t see that when she was married to D.B.

But once she’s “Mrs B.B. Chase”, well, she does appear in the social notices, and she’s quite popular, the toast of Denver, I’d say.

Things go along really well for a few years.

I mean business is booming.

And then suddenly, in the fall of 1904, things take an unexpected turn.

First comes the news in September of 1904 — given in an exclusive interview with Mrs B.B. Chase in the Denver Post — that there’s news that she is selling her studio and moving to Cape Town, South Africa.

She says in the article that friends have convinced her to try opening a photography studio there.

There’s actually a great photo of Belle B. Chase with that article, and I’ll include that in the episode notes.

It’s always fun to get to see a photo of the actual photographer.

But the biggest news that comes in late 1904/early 1905 comes via the Denver Post in another exclusive interview, which is published on January 1, 1905.

It’s about an event that takes place that very day.

It seems, she’s moving to Cape Town not just to open up a photography studio, but also because she’s getting remarried!

Let me read you a little bit of that article because it’s quite fun on many levels:

It’s an interview with Mrs Belle B. Chase about the “new adventure” she’s about to take:

From Cape Town South Africa to Denver, a distance of over six thousand miles, Charles Frank Chase traveled for a New Year’s gift, and he says he will get what to him is the most priceless treasure on earth. This evening, in the presence of only a few intimate friends, Mr. Chase will take for a bride Belle B. Chase of Denver, and thereby bring to a delightful climax an unusual romance which has extended over two years.

The article goes on to say,

Mrs Belle B. Chase is one of the foremost professional women in Denver. For some years she’s conducted a photographic studio on 16th near Curtis street, and is regarded among the people of her profession as the leading lady photographer of America.

About two months ago, as told exclusively in the Post, Mrs Chase announced that she had disposed of her business and would go to Cape Town. She did not give the least indication of her approaching marriage, and even her dearest friends never guessed her secret.

Therefore, yesterday, when announcements were delivered in the mail, the tidings came like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, as thrilling fiction writers say!

Now, let me just pause for a moment.

The idea that her friends didn’t really know what was going on … well, it’s possible … but in fact in December of that year Charles F. Chase applies for a passport, and on the passport application he says that he will be accompanied to South Africa by his wife, Belle B. Chase.

The thing is, that application was witnessed by a Miss Etta Potter.

Miss Etta Potter actually worked for Belle B. Chase.

So, there were some people close to Belle Chase who did know that she was going to be marrying this Charles Frank Chase.

In any case, let me continue with the article. The sub head says:

Tells of Love Romance
So this evening the wedding ceremony will be performed by Reverend George B. Vosburgh of the First Baptist Church in Mrs Chase’s chambers, 910 16th Street. This will end Mrs Chase’s reign over the quarter she has long occupied. She will at once turn over her business to some Boston people and leave Denver on Monday for a trip around the world. Cape Town will be her future home.

OK, let’s just a pause for a moment here.

I don’t know about the “Boston people”, but the person who winds up running her studio is F.E. Post.

He buys the studio.

And he has actually been in Denver for many years, so maybe he originally came from Boston, but he’s been in Denver for quite awhile.

The article continues:

With a laughter that ripples and a becoming blush, Mrs Chase told a visitor today about her romance “Surprised everybody, didn’t I?” she said, “Even surprised myself!” she continued. “One sad experience made me think there were no good men left in the world, and I really believe I’ve got the last one in Mr. Chase.”

She continues, “Oddly enough, our names are the same, although we are in no way related. I met Mr. Chase about two years ago. He was on a tour around the world at the time, and brought a letter of introduction to me from his sister, who I knew in the east. I can’t say it was a case of love at first sight, although we did find much in common from the very start. He spent several days here, and when he went away we maintained an uninterrupted correspondence. Well, one day his letter asked a pointed question, and I wrote back, ‘Yes’.”

The article concludes:

Charles Frank Chases in the drug importing and jobbing business in Cape Town. He exportsraw material from Africa for a large New York manufacturer, and in turn imports into Africa the manufactured product. He is reputed to be very wealthy and will fill up a beautiful home for his bride in far away Cape Town when the bridal trip is ended.

I just love that article!

It’s so over the top about the romance and the unexpected nature of Charles Frank Chase coming from South Africa to claim his bride.

Now, in addition to the things that I’ve already pointed out, there’s one other interesting thing that I’d like to just take a moment to discuss.

Mrs Chase is quoted as saying “Oddly enough, our names are the same, although we are in no way related.”

Really?

Well, in the words of Paul Harvey … now for the rest of the story.

Because you see, it’s not so much of an odd coincidence after all.

Do you remember back when I talked about the death of Dana B. Chase’s father, John Chase, back in 1878? I mentioned that after his death, John Chase’s wife, Lydia, moved back to Atchison, Kansas, with her youngest son Frankie.

Now, Frankie’s full name was Charles Frank Chase.

And so, despite Belle’s claims in that article that I just read to you, it turns out that Charles Frank Chase, the man that Belle marries in 1905, is actually none other than Frankie, that younger brother of D.B. Chase, Belle’s first husband.

Seriously.

Now, it look a little bit of tracking it down and piecing it together, but my husband, Chris, and I are confident that we have a paper trail that proves this.

It’s really neither here nor there – I mean, it was certainly Belle’s [prerogative to claim otherwise.

Maybe it made for a better story in the Denver post?

But it is intriguing to wonder why she made such a big deal about the fact that her new husband was certainly, most definitely, not at all related to her first husband, when in fact they were brothers.

Anyway, the studio was sold to a man named F.E. Post, and Belle and Frankie go off to South Africa, leaving at the end of January 1905, arriving in Cape Town on May 1, 1905.

After that, they live in Cape Town, she [working] as a photographer, he as a pharmaceutical representative.

Until 1911, when Frankie is off on — I guess — a business trip to Rhodesia, and he dies there of peritonitis in October of 1911.

Belle lives as a widow in South Africa for the next year and a half but then in 1913 she applies for a passport and permission to return to the United States.

She doesn’t list an occupation on her passport application, but over the years she’s been living in South Africa, she’s consistently listed herself as a photographer on various consultate certificates.

Anyway, she returns the US in 1914, and on the passenger manifest she says she’s headed to Denver, Colorado.

Now, it’s not clear what she’s planning to do in Denver in 1914.

And in fact, I lose track of her … the trail runs cold for a few years.

I like to think that she come back and goes traveling, visiting old friends … maybe some family members…

One person she might have visited could have been the woman who was listed as the next of kin on one of those consular certificates back in 1911, a woman named Mrs Mary C. Plumb.

Doing a little digging revealed that Mary C. Plumb was born Mary Chase; as it turns out, she’s a sister of Frank and D.B.

While Frankie and Belle are living in South Africa, she’s the one listed as the next of kin to contact in the United States in case of their deaths.

Interestingly, Mary C. Plumb turns out to have been one of the pioneering woman doctors in Oakland, California.

She received her medical degree way back in 1886.

It is really intriguing that I’ve run across yet another early when physician.

I really wouldn’t have suspected that there were that many, but it’s been amazing how many I keep running into as I’m doing this research [on the early women photographers].

Anyway, around 1917, Belle settles down in LA and opens up a photography studio there.

She runs that studio for a few years but then she leaves LA.

The trail goes cold again for a couple years, until she pops up working at a photography studio in Honolulu.

Now she’s there for a couple of years in the middle of the 1920s, working for a man named Richard Post.

Back in 1905, she sold her Denver business to a man named F.E. Post.

But “Post” is kind of a common name, so I don’t know if there’s any connection there or if it really is just a coincidence.

After a couple years in Honolulu, she moves back to LA.

She never seems to run her own studio again, but she does work for other studios, as both a photographer and a retoucher.

In 1936, at the age of 73, Mrs Belle B. Chase, the widow of C.F. “Frankie” Chase, dies in Los Angeles.

*****

There are still some more small details I’ve uncovered about Belle B. Chase, more of her ads, even some ads for her hiring help for her studio, including not only a photographer, but also a janitor.

But there’s still a lot left for her story that really needs to be tracked down some day.

I first ran across Mrs B.B. Chase when I bought a handful of cabinet cards by her for just a couple of dollars at an antique store.

I’ve really been fascinated with the story that’s emerged from all the records that I’ve uncovered about her online.

I mean, here’s a woman who started her photography career in the early 1880s, and was still listing herself in the city directory as a photographer 50 years later!

In the episode notes for today, I’ll post some of those ads that I mentioned, as well as some examples of beautiful cabinet cards that she produced.

As usual, that information will be over in the episode notes on my website at p3photographers.net.

That’s letter “p”, number “3” photographers “dot” net.

Remember, you can always drop me an email at podcast “at” p3photographers.net

Or connect with me through Facebook at facebook.com/p3photographers

Support for this podcast is provided by listeners like you.

Check out the website to find information on how you, too, can become a supporter of the project.

I have to say finding that crossover connection between Mrs Rosa Vreeland’s son, George, and Mrs Belle B. Chase — well that was quite fun to find.

I mean, who would have thought that a young man from McPherson, Kansas would wind up studying photography with Belle and D.B. Chase in the early 1890s, and that man’s the mother would be a phenomenal early women artist and photographer in her own right.

Anyway, next time we’re gonna leave Colorado behind to head a little further west.

Until then, I’m Lee McIntyre, and this is Photographs, Pistols, & Parasols.

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