The Man Who Made Stillwater Smile and Say ‘Cheese’

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Story by Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society:

A collection of John Runk’s films and photographs are available through WCHS.

His photographs are still used today and are among the most popular at the Minnesota Historical Society. He was a businessman, a lumberjack and an inventor. His name still is recognized throughout the St. Croix Valley even though half a century ago. He is John Runk.

Runk was born on May 10, 1878, in a little log cabin outside of Menomonee, Wisconsin. He was the second of seven children, and at age 5, he and his family moved to Nebraska, looking for a better life. The family tried to farm, but the soil was so dry, the family started back to Wisconsin. Upon coming to the lumber city of Stillwater, Minnesota, Runks father, John Sr., found work, and the family settled in the St. Croix Valley.


Washington County Historical Society

John Runk

He started work at age thirteen, in a foundry, making cores at the Minnesota Thresher Company in downtown Stillwater, for fifty cents a day. Following the Thresher Company, Runk worked in machine shops, at the St. Croix Boom Company, on log drives and in the pineries. He built dams, trapped, hunted and fished, as well as loading railroad ties on boxcars.

His creative side included making wire jewelry, such as pins, rings, necklaces, and so forth that he would sell at fairs and carnivals.

Runk began his professional career as a photographer in 1899 when he set up the “American Eagle Studio,” with a photo of an eagle as his trademark. He started his business out of his home at 1710 North Main Street. He later moved closer to town at 110 North Main Street, and by the late teens, Runk was at 235 South Main.

Runk had a mechanical eye. He always was looking for ways to improve things, or for new inventions. On November 8, 1921, he registered a patent in the United States for an invention known as the “Kleantone,” which improved the sound of phonograph records. He also had it patented in Canada. He also invented things in the photographic field.

He devised a camera, which would do almost every kind of photography, including portraits, out door views, enlargements, reduction and general photography. It took Runk many years to perfect this camera, but it ultimately led to the creation of his historical collection.

Runk became the first photographer in Stillwater to use electric lights in taking portrait photos; the first to use cut-films instead of dry plates; and the first to use tinting in his work. Runk took many photos of the most interesting scenes in the St. Croix Valley.

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Runk’s greatest contribution to this community was his passion for his historical collection. Runk not only took photographs of the area, but he also collected photographs from people. He made a specialty of reproducing old photographs of people and places. Runk announced to the public that to everyone who would bring in to him a suitable picture which he could reproduce, he would make a new picture for the owner, also returning the old, while putting a copy of it into his collection. This system was extremely successful.

By 1937, Runk’s collection numbered 435, and he donated the first set of the John Runk Historical Collection to the Stillwater Public Library. However, Runk, a very meticulous man, had made special asbestos lined metal boxes for the correct storage of the photographs. He also drew up a trust agreement with the library, then later on with the Minnesota Historical Society. Included in the agreement, is a portion titled “Injury to Photos from Insects.” Runk went on to name which insects are harmful and then gives a formula on how to get rid of them.

Runk said at the time of his first donation that it was only the beginning. He was right. The very next year, 1938, Runk had added another 187 photographs to the collection at the library, making a total of 622. By this time, he had moved his studio to 221 East Chestnut Street in the downtown of Stillwater.

Late in his career, Runk made movies. This was just a hobby he once explained, but many of the films were great demand and Runk would pass them around to various organizations.

By 1964, John Runk’s health began to fail and in October 1964, John Runk died.

John Runk’s passion became his life’s work. He spent most of his extra money on producing one of the most complete photographic histories of any area in the United States. Runk never intended on making a profit from his collection. “I’m not interested in making a pile of money out of this, but it’s my contribution to the city I’ve called home for so many years.”

Thank you, John Runk.

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