Oscawana on the Hudson River--January 1939

William (Bill) Belknap, Jr. was born into a world of lakes, greenery, and remarkable women. His parents separated when he was a small child, leaving Bill in the loving and capable hands of his mother, Jane Starke Belknap, half-sister, Eleanor Gunther Starke, and grandmother, Flora Cole Jackson. The extended family lived on Jackson's verdant estate at Oscawana, some thirty-eight miles up the Hudson River from New York City, and spent summers in the Adirondacks. The situation was idyllic from Bill's perspective, offering endless opportunities for exploring.

Left to Right:
William Belknap, Jr.
Great-grandmother Cole (Bill's Great Grandmother)
Flora Cole Jackson (Bill's Grandmother)
Jane Laura Jackson Starke Belknap (Bill's Mother)
Eleonore Gunther Starke Battey Frank (Bill's Half Sister)
Fraser or Bo Battey (Bill's Nephew)
George Starke (Bill's Half Brother)

When Bill was ten years old, his mother took him on a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. There, surrounded by vestiges of ancient Mayan culture, the inspired boy pressed his Brownie box camera into service. A few years later, Bill decided to learn everything he could about photography, largely driven by his interest in archaeology: he perceived that archaeologists needed good pictures. Jane Belknap was supportive of her sonís efforts, and when they moved to Hollywood, California, she provided Bill with a darkroom setup, his first. Such experiences substituted for formal education, Bill having ended his school career after the eighth grade.

Mexico [ca. 1939]

Boulder City [ca. 1939]
(Photo from Grand Canyon/Boulder Dam Tours, Inc.)

In 1937, the Belknaps moved again, this time to Boulder City. The fledgling community was established in the Nevada desert, born out of a necessity to house some 3,000 workers hired for the construction of Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam). Jane Belknap had an interest in Grand Canyon--Boulder Dam Tours, Inc., the first Lake Mead concessioner, conducting land, air, and water tours. Bill, still a teenager, did publicity work for the company, which included taking photographs of the dam, the town, Lake Mead, and Grand Canyon.

Fran Spencer and Hopi boy with baby burro

Bill found an abundance of opportunities awaited him in the Boulder City region. He fell in love with the southwestern desert country and its inhabitants. Hopping behind the wheel of his venerable station wagon, he made extended solo trips to the Grand Canyon, and the Hopi, Havasupai, and Navajo lands. He established life-long friendships with several people he met during these travels. Of greatest importance was his introduction to Grand Canyon resident Frances Spencer, the daughter of Frank and Mabel Spencer, who worked for the Fred Harvey company at the Hopi House on the south rim.

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