NOTE – The following passage was originally written in 1998. This article was published in CASCADE PANORAMA the newsletter or the Cascade Photographic Historical Society in their January 1999 issue.
I have made some modifications to the original article, but, for the most part, have tried to keep this passage true to its original form.
I am a descendant of August Semmendinger, an early camera maker. For the first thirty years of my life I knew little about August Semmendinger and had never seen any of the cameras he made or any of the four patents that he held.
The following is a summary of how I came to find, and own, a Semmendinger Camera of my very own.
My search for a Semmendinger camera began in my childhood. As a child, I was always fascinated when our family would be together and my grandparents would tell stories about our family history. When visiting Grandma and Grandpa Semendinger, references were made about my Great Great Grandfather, August Semmendinger (with two m’s), who was a camera maker in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Unfortunately, outside of the fact that he was somewhat well-known in his time, not much information about August Semmendinger made it to the present day. Sadly, in 1979, my Grandpa Semendinger passed away. I was eleven years old. With Grandpa’s passing, many of the family stories about the Semmendingers were lost.
As I grew up, I looked more and more to hearing these stories, and recording them. I became, over time, the family historian. I asked many questions. I also did as much research on my family’s heritage as I was able.
In my research, I came across an article that stated that the United States Patent Office was able to send copies of any patent they had on file. After reading this, I inquired and asked for any paperwork they had on August Semmendinger. There was some supposition in the family that August Semmendinger had owned a U.S. Patent. A short time later, a large envelope arrived in the mail containing copies of three of August Semmendinger’s patents. (I later learned he had a fourth U.S. patent.)
Later, when my Grandmother was moved to an assisted living facility, I became the possessor of the family documents from August Semmendinger. There wasn’t much. This mostly included a few old letterheads. In spite of this, I still did not have a great deal of information about August Semmendinger or his camera manufacturing business. Each of these were small steps in my quest to learn more about my ancestor.
In our quest for more family history information, my father and I would travel to areas in Bergen County, New Jersey that might provide answers to some of our questions. We visited the old cemetery in Edgewater, New Jersey that is located in the shadow of the former Alcoa plant. The cemetery was in disrepair when we visited it. We found some family headstones, but could not locate August Semmendinger’s.
The previous was the sum total of my research on August Semmendinger until I purchased a computer and discovered the Internet. This was when the Internet was in its infancy.
And then, one day I typed “Semmendinger” into a search engine. I was shocked, and then thrilled, when I found an actual web site that housed photos of one of August Semmendinger’s cameras. For the first time in my life, I actually saw what a Semmendinger Camera looked like.
I immediately e-mailed the owner of the website to inquire about the camera. I asked him if he was willing to sell the camera, he was not, or if he knew of any other Semmendinger cameras. He told me that he knew of only one other Semmendinger camera in the world, and that it was in Europe. Still, I was enthralled, I now knew there were old Semmendinger cameras out there; how many, I did not know. I began to dream of one day owning one of my own.
A friend recommended eBay, an on line auction service, to me one day. (Note – remember, this was written in 1998!). Through eBay, I started to search for all sorts of collectibles, but I never imagined I’d find a Semmendinger camera there. I did start to learn about camera collectors though.
In August, 1998, I stumbled upon the homepage of Pacific Rim Camera. Since they sold antique cameras, I decided to e-mail them asking if they had any Semmendinger Wet Plate cameras. I also asked if they knew of anyone who could help me in my quest to possibly purchase an original Semmendinger camera.
Pacific Rim Camera advised me to email a collector named Milan Zahorcak because he was “very involved in that type of market.” I immediately followed this advice and e-mailed Milan sharing my story and quest with him.
I was surprised to learn that Milan knew a little bit about the Semmendinger camera. I was getting warmer. Milan noted that a friend of his actually owned a Semmendinger Camera, but that it wasn’t for sale.
At this point, I was thrilled just to know that two Semmendinger camera existed in the USA. While I knew I could not purchase either of them, I continued to hope that there might be more out there.
Soon after came the shocking news I had been waiting for. On Monday, September 21, 1998, less than a month after I originally contacted Pacific Rim Camera, I received an e-mail from Milan stating that he had just found a Semmendinger camera at a camera show in Vancouver, Canada! I was shocked, excited, amazed, thrilled and in awe of the possibilities. The bigger surprise was yet to come – Milan Zahorcak offered to work out an arrangement for me to purchase the camera. I could not believe what I was reading!
I asked Milan many questions, and shared with him my fears of purchasing an expensive piece of equipment from 3,000 miles away. Milan answered all my questions and alleviated my fears. I told my father of the possibility of owning a Semmendinger camera. He offered to pay half the cost of the camera. We were thrilled. I e-mailed Milan and told him we would buy the camera.
Milan was so helpful and trusting throughout this process. In fact, he looked over and cleaned the camera and explained every aspect of it to me. Milan mailed the camera before I even wrote the check to pay for it. He seemed to be as excited as I was to be part of bringing a Semmendinger Camera back to its original family – albeit, over 100 years later.
I sent the check, and waited for the days to pass.
The camera arrived shortly after. My parents came over to witness the unveiling with my wife and children! It was a big event in our family. Milan included directions on how to unpack and assemble the camera. Step by step, very carefully, we opened, unpacked and put together the Semmendinger camera. It was awe-inspiring. There, in my house, through the magic of this new Internet, was a camera made by my great-great grandfather sent to us by a new friend 3,000 miles away.
For Milan Zahorcak to take a risk and send a camera from Oregon to New Jersey based on a few e-mailed comments shows how wonderful people can be. Milan took a financial risk in sending the camera to a person he did not know and quite possibly would never meet. Yet, he did it to help someone acquire a most valuable piece of family history.
Still today, I owe a great deal to Milan for all his help and kindness.
I believe when you work hard to be kind and sincere, people, most often, return those sentiments to you. There are times when we can make our own happy endings through hard work, perseverance, and kindness. This was one of those times.
My quest to learn more about my family’s history continues to this day. Every now and then we find surprises; a passage about August Semmendinger in an old book, an old advertisement in period catalog, and occasionally even a camera for sale. To keep all the information about August Semmendinger and his cameras in one place, I created the web page about him (www.semmendinger-camera.com). It’s a hobby and a passion to research, discover, and learn about the small histories of the people that came before us, and in their own ways, helped make us who we are today.
I cannot wait for the next discovery!