PB Oakley

September 4th, 2020

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

A young man in a suit and tie

Young PB Oakley

We often reference PB Oakley as a source of photographs for Geneva, but what about the man behind the lens? Oakley himself was not from Geneva, but would end up spending a bulk of his life here. He was born Platt Benson Oakley in Norwich,  New York on November 27 1894 to Clarence A Oakley and Augusta Benson. He would marry his wife Helen Chadwick in 1917 in Mexico just months after enlisting in the army. At the time, Oakley was an advertising manager for Norwich Publishing Co. but, after enlistment, would be sent overseas to France and Italy to fight in World War 1. (Oakley tried to become a Marine, but was rejected due to his height)

Oakley would work for a Senator for a short time before moving on to journalism with The Norwich Sun and Telegraph, Leslie’s Weekly, and finally for the Syracuse Herald. He began contributing to papers during the Norwich arson case in 1914 and was commended for this work in the Binghamton Republican-Herald. He also started being recognized for his amateur photography, winning some awards for his pictures.

a man climbing over a barbed wire fence

PB Oakley crawls through barbed wire fence in the line of duty. Note his camera in his right hand.

After returning from Europe, Oakley continued with his journalism career, working for the Syracuse Post and Syracuse Journal. This job would lead him to become part of the Geneva Daily Times staff as a photographer and reporter. He continued to work for the Syracuse papers even after they merged into the Syracuse Herald-Journal in 1939. Oakley would build his own home in 1925, 187 LaFayette Ave, and lived there until his death in 1982.

His interest in crime did not wane. A letter from the Geneva Police Commission in 1930 reveals Oakley had a part in aiding the suppression of a prisoner’s riot at Auburn State Prison in December 1929, though it does not reveal how. He was the Ontario County police reporter for years, boasting that his files contained about 32,000 negatives by 1977. He even served as Deputy Sheriff of the county upon election in 1943. His interest ranged from local news, like the MacDougall Milk Strike (Waterloo), to national news, like the Lindberg baby trial which he reported on from inside the court room.

man wearing glasses and a suit and tie

PB Oakley

Oakley was involved with numerous local organizations including the American Legion, Ark Lodge, Elks Club, Geneva Rotary Club, and the Seneca Auto Club. After his retirement from the Syracuse Herald-Journal in 1971, he continued to write for the Geneva Daily Times. His regular features were “Remember When” photographs, which highlighted various historical events or landmarks, and “Right in Your Own Backyard.” The latter became the foundation for a book he wished to publish consisting of 160 stories that occurred while he was a reporter, some of which had already been in the Finger Lakes Times; while we have the manuscript, the book itself was never published.

Soldiers marching down a dowtown street.

The Labor Day Parade down Seneca Street on September 7, 1942 , was Geneva’s first parade of World War II. Photograph by PB Oakley.

Oakley’s recollections in 1977 included those on the construction of the Sampson Naval Base, a controversial subject in Geneva. He remembered merchants and residents holding protest meetings, “Geneva was a nice, cultural town and the people didn’t want it changed.” The interviewer wrote that Oakley was “hinting that the community thought the base would adversely affect the city.” Looking back, Geneva benefited incredibly well from Sampson, and when it was gone most folks protested the closing; the loss of income from the sailors and later from the airmen had a devastating effect on Geneva’s economy.

People dancing in front of a band

Dancers doing the twist, location unknown. Photograph by PB Oakley.

But Oakley documented it all, from crime to marriage, buildings to people, we owe a lot of gratitude to what was once his amateur hobby. Oakley’s photos cover decades of Geneva’s history which we’re still discovering today.

9 responses to “PB Oakley”

  1. frank burt says:

    Did Oakley build with his hands his home at 187 Lafayette? Just curious, I live there

    1. Becky Chapin says:

      I got the information from his obituary which says that he built the home with his own hands in 1925.

  2. Charles Bauder says:

    Great article. Learned a great deal about PB that I didn’t know. I believe that he also did photographs for the ABC board for liquor license.

    1. Becky Chapin says:

      He must have done, some of the cataloged sheets say “for ABC” in the inscription.

  3. David Phillips says:

    P.B. Oakley was my grandfather Truman Platt Oakley’s uncle. I have PB’s dog tags and a couple of his Police badges. Deputy Sheriff Ontario County and Police photographer Ontario County. If your organization is interested in these items, please let me know.

    1. Anne Dealy says:

      That is very interesting. I will send your message on to our curator John Marks and he will be in touch.

  4. Michael McNerney says:

    Are all his photos and negatives cataloged?

    1. Anne Dealy says:

      I will refer your question to our archivist to answer.

    2. Becky, Archivist says:

      Complicated question. There is a 14,000+ negative collection that was originally donated to us which I finished cataloging recently. However because he was so proficient in his photography, many of his photos appear throughout our entire collection. As such, not all of his photos are cataloged though I am currently working on creating finding aids for the rest of our archival collections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *