109-Year-Old Rode’s Camera Shop Burned Down in Kenosha

Photography News

Rode’s Camera Shop, a 109-year-old camera store, burned down last week during rioting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sparked by the shooting of 29-year-old African-American man Jacob Blake by a police officer.

The store first opened in 1911 and became a fixture in the community for over a century as a place to buy camera gear and get photos processed in the lab. The business was owned by the Rode family until eight years ago when it was purchased by business partners Paul Willette and Tom Gram. Gram had worked at the store for 41 years prior to taking over.

“This was just a building, but people’s memories were inside. That’s what is killing me,” Willette tells Kenosha News. “A woman had just come in Monday and brought in a photo of her grandparents in elementary school, wanting it to be restored. I left it on my desk. Now it’s all gone. Our customers lost family memories.”

As camera sales shrunk in recent years, the store was able to stay in business thanks to its photo lab and services.

“We didn’t make a ton of money doing this, but we loved it. We loved our customers,” Willette continues.

“We understand the protests, but why destroy these businesses?” Gram tells Kenosha News.

President Donald Trump visited the burned-down camera store on Tuesday during his tour of Kenosha.

President Donald Trump stands with former store owner John Rode and his family at the burned-down building. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

The camera store is also at the center of new controversy today related to the role it played in Trump’s tour. It was reported that the co-owners had declined President Trump’s request to be part of the visit and photo op.

“I think everything he does turns into a circus and I just didn’t want to be involved in it,” Gram tells WTMJ.

“I said no, thank you — I didn’t want anything to do with President Trump,” Willette tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If it were any other president I would, but not this one. I can’t begin to describe my frustration with him. I politely declined coming down there. I didn’t want to be part of that fiasco.”

After Gram declined, President Trump brought in former owner John Rode III (seen in the official White House photos above). Rode still owns the property, but the president is being accused of being deceptive by introducing Rode as “owner of Rode’s Camera Shop” and referring to it as Rode’s store.

“I just appreciate President Trump coming today; everybody here does,” Rode told reporters gathered at the building. “We’re so thankful that we got the federal troops in to help because once they got here, things did calm down quite a bit. And our city police and sheriff and fire departments are awesome. They worked harder than you can believe, 24/7.”

Gram tells WTMJ that he’s disappointed that Rode’s views were presented as those of current ownership.

“I think he needs to bring this country together rather than divide it,” Gram says. “I think there’s a lot of good people in this community and to say that only law enforcement is correct is not the message we need to hear right now.”

While Gram, 64, says he’ll probably retire earlier than he had wanted to, Willette, 50, tells Kenosha News he’ll be dusting off his resume to “find out what it’s like to look for a job in this economy.”

The duo is also hoping to perhaps keep the photography service side of their business going, but the century-old Rode’s (as the community knew it) is likely gone for good.

Image credits: Header photo by Google Street View

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