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Oregon Trails: Viewmaster

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KERBY, Ore. — Who doesn’t remember the Viewmaster? But did you know that that famous toy has its roots in Oregon, particularly Southern Oregon? It all started in 1938 when the president of the sawyer picture postcard company ran into Portland photographer Bill Gruber at the caves. Gruber was taking stereo photos, and they started talking.

Dennis Straher at the Kerbyville Museum describes their interaction:

“Literally, after dinner, Mr. Gruber went up to Mr. Graves room and they sat down and tossed around some ideas and Mr. Gruber gave Mr. Graves permission to take his prototype back to Portland. And uh, he showed it to their board of directors and they said, ‘You know what? It really looks like something we want to invest in!’ So, literally on a handshake, no paperwork. No signed contract. Anything.”

So, from a chance meeting at the caves, an idea was hatched to create a viewer that within a couple years became a legend. Seven pairs of 16 millimeter photos in a circular disk that looked almost 3-D when viewed through the Viewmaster viewer.

“It would hinge open and in the center was just a little round device where you would lay the reel right inside, and then uh, close it back up and then you would literally just look through,” said Dennis Straher.

Later models allowed users to drop the disc in at the top. When World War II came along, and film was hard to come by, sawyers struck a deal with the U.S. government to produce half a million viewfinders like this to help with training of soldiers and sailors.

“They said, here’s the deal. If you can make clay models of enemy planes and enemy ship, then we can use the reels for training gunners and um range finders,” said Dennis Straher.

These are some of the discs that view master produced, and the viewer that was used. The viewers survived and later became the familiar Model C, the one that millions of people around the world are probably most acquainted with. Later the company was sold to German chemical and film company GAF, then later to Tyco Toys.

“The inventor was an Oregonian,” said Illinois Valley Historian Roger Brandt. “The company that put it into production was an Oregon company. And the place where they met was Oregon Caves. View Master is known around the world, but it is an Oregon Product from the beginning to where we see it today.”

For your grandparents and maybe your great grandparents, this was the closest thing to a view master. Stereo views of scenes of all sort of things from all around the world. But about the time World War 2 came along, it was the Viewmaster that took the country and the world by storm, and this year marks its 75th anniversary.