Fred W. Farrar: Black Hills Pioneer Photographer

Last Updated by Brian Gevik, Text by Mark Slocum - Director of the Minnilusa Historical Association and Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum & Learning Center - Rapid City on

fred farrar self portrait

“Self-Portrait: Hunting” Circa 1905 taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center.

Part historian and part artist, Fred Farrar chronicled the Black Hills from the turn of the century through the depression of the 1930s. He was one of the few invaluable pioneer photographers, working with glass plate negatives out of a mobile darkroom. His collection of photographs records the transformation and urbanization of the American West with themes like the cowboy, the Native American, the soldier, transportation, mining, lumbering and town building.

farrar's dark wagon

“Fred Farrar’s Dark Wagon Overlooking South Rapid City” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center.

Fredrick William Farrar was born August 11, 1885 to John Joshua Farrar and Mary Elizabeth Hunt Potts in Cherokee, Iowa. At the age of two he arrived with his parents in Rapid City. While places like Lead and Deadwood were considered cities with brick paved streets, Rapid was still a cowtown with boardwalks and dirt (sometimes mud) streets.

lakota camping

“Lakota Family Camped near Rapid City” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

As a young boy, Fred’s mother read him James F. Cooper’s, “The Last of the Mohicans” which had a huge influence on his love for nature and Native American culture. This lead to Fred frequently visiting Lakota camps on the south side of Rapid City. Fred was always welcomed and he would often bring sugar or other items to trade for bows and arrows they made for him.

black hills pioneer family

“Black Hills Pioneer Family” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

Fred’s interests also included hunting, fishing, riding horses, playing piano, singing and photography. From an early age, Fred photographed people, events, and scenes. He would sometimes work all night to get photographs ready to sell at McNamara’s Book Store. On Sunday’s he would often hike up Hangmen’s Hill in Rapid City to photograph townsfolk who loved purchasing portraits from him. 

hangman's hill

“Young Men on Hangmen’s Hill, Rapid City, SD” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

sdsmt football player

“South Dakota School of Mines Football Player” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

Fred attended Rapid City High School and the South Dakota School of Mines and had many adventures with friends Dick Mansfield and Sam Price. They were known for their pranks, which included falsely claiming they had found a gold mine and spreading a story that they had discovered a new substance lighter than air called atmospherium. One incident involving the three was recorded in the May 3, 1905 edition of the Black Hills Weekly Journal. The “incident” occurred when a cold South Dakota winter caused frozen pipes from the main line to the Mansfield residence. The solution the group came up with was to rig up a boiler to force steam into the pipes in hopes they would thaw. They had been working several hours when the contraption suddenly exploded. Fred, who was acting as “lead engineer” on the operation was thrown 15 feet in the air and suffered from terrible scalding burns. Luckily, none of the other men were hurt. But the boiler ended up shooting 400 feet through a neighbor’s shed, or so the Journal reported. Fred recovered from the incident with some scarring from the burns. 

tom sweeney

“Rapid City Businessman, Tom Sweeney” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

Throughout his life, Fred, had several jobs including carpentry and selling Christmas wreaths, but he'll be remembered for his incredible photographs of Rapid City and the Black Hills. His portraits range from local historical figures to unidentified residents. Some of the most powerful photos are of unknown subjects. Many capture the essence of thge era and the human experience, both joyful and tragic.

crossing the creek

“Crossing the Creek” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

railroad wreck

“Wreck on the Chicago and North Western Railroad” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

Fred Farrar photographed every big event in early Rapid City history including parades, fairs, the circus and the largest event of the year from 1898 to 1910, Stockmen’s Days. The South Dakota Stock Grower’s Association meeting took place annually in April and was set for all the ranchers to come buy supplies and do business in Rapid City. Cattle commission men would come from Omaha, Chicago and Sioux City. Everyone from residents and ranchers to Native Americans from the reservation would come together take in the sights and participate in the celebrations.

riding the loop

“Riding the Loop” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

auto race

“The Auto Race at the Rapid City Fair” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

horse race

“Horse Race at Stockmen’s Days” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

wheelbarrow race“Lakota Women’s Wheelbarrow Race During Stockmen’s Days” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

Fred Farrar’s legacy leaves us with images of what life was like in the Black Hills around the turn of the century. We can experience Rapid City’s early days through his eyes, not only the shaping of a town but the people that built and lived it.

rapid city fire department“Rapid City Fire Department (Now the Firehouse Restaurant)” taken by Fred W. Farrar. Image Courtesy of the Minnilusa Historical Association Pioneer Collection at the Journey Museum and Learning Center

Fred Farrar passed away in 1975 at the age of 90 in Chadron, Nebraska and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Rapid City. He had 5 sons, and one daughter, Mary Farrar, who preserved the collection for many years. Mary curated a traveling exhibit of his work in Chadron, Nebraska in the early 1980s and several images appear in Dave Strain’s book “Black Hills Hay Camp: Images and Perspectives of Early Rapid City”. Mary passed away in December, 2015. Fred’s granddaughter, Dede Farrar, inherited the collection and donated it to the Minnilusa Historical Association and Pioneer Collection at The Journey Museum and Learning Center in 2017. The collection consists over 2,500 negatives, photographs and ephemera and will be available to view online in July of 2019 at http://www.journeymuseum.org

 

Listen to an "In The Moment" radio interview with Mark Slocum, Director of the Minnilusa Historical Association and Pioneer Colletion at the Journey Museum in Rapid City