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Oldest Family-Owned Concessioner in the National Park System Receives New Ten-Year Contract

Grand Teton NP by Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams didn't limit his work to Yosemite. This image of Grand Teton National Park is from the National Archives collection of his work.

A variety of visitor services are provided in many NPS areas by private businesses under a concession contract. The oldest family-owned and-operated concession in the National Park System features a famous name, and was recently awarded a new 10-year contract. Do you know where it's located?

Few names are more closely associated with Yosemite National Park than that of Ansel Adams, the photographer whose landscape images are prized around the world. A Yosemite spokesman notes, "Images of Half Dome, Inspiration Point, and El Capitan made by Ansel Adams set photographic standards of the national parks that are still respected and admired today."

A brief biography of Ansel Adams by the National Archives notes,

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is one of the most celebrated photographers of all time. His images of the American landscape, and especially those of the American West, are familiar to millions.

At age 14, while on a family vacation, he took his first snapshots of Yosemite National Park. From that time on, Adams was captivated by the idea of recording nature on film. By the 1930s he began to achieve success for his visionary yet highly detailed photographs of western landscapes, especially those taken in Yosemite National Park. Over the next decades, Adams continued to work as a photographer, staging exhibitions and writing several important books on photographic technique.

He also became a champion of the conservation movement in the United States, speaking out for environmental concerns and serving on the board of directors of the Sierra Club. Today, Ansel Adams's photographs remain immensely popular, "conveying to millions," according to his biographer, "a vision of an ideal America where nature's grand scenes and gentle details live on in undiminished glory."

In 1941 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes asked Adams to take photographs of the American West for a series of murals to be installed in the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, D.C. The murals were never completed, but 226 of Adams's signed original prints were later added to the National Archives holdings and can be found among the records of the National Park Service.

You can view a few of those images on the website for the National Archives.

Ansel Adams died in 1984 at the age of 82, but his work lives on and is featured in the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park. That business was recently awarded a new ten-year concession contract to allow it to continue to operate in the park. The Gallery is located in a historic building in Yosemite Village, where Ansel Adams lived and printed some of his iconic photographs.

“We are pleased to offer this concession contract to The Ansel Adams Gallery. Art and photography are incredibly important to Yosemite, and all national parks, and there is no greater example than the work of Ansel Adams,” said Acting Yosemite Superintendent Dave Uberuaga.

The business has been operating in the park since 1902, making it the oldest family-owned and- operated concessioner in the National Park Service. Math whizzes among our readership will quickly note that makes the operation over a hundred years old, so it was started before the noted photographer was even born. What's the story?

The website for the Gallery includes a brief history of the business, which began "when a landscape painter and political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle by the name of Harry Best took an excursion in 1901 to Yosemite Valley to camp and paint." Best fell in love with a young woman working as an assistant in one of the photography studios in the Valley; they soon married, and the following year Harry and Ann Best received a permit to operate a studio business in the park.

Their first location was in a tent; the original Studio in the Old Yosemite Village was constructed in 1904. Harry and Ann Best ran their business during the summers until 1926, when they moved to the Valley full-time. The Best Studio was described as the "social center of the Valley," and among those who spent time there was a young photographer named Ansel Adams.

Adams married Virginia Best, the daughter of Harry and Ann, in 1928, and the wedding was held in the newly constructed Best Studio, located in the "new village" in Yosemite Valley. Ansel Adams had published his first portfolio the previous year, and the company history notes that "the Studio and Ansel had a symbiotic business relationship: Ansel providing high quality photographic material that appealed to visitors, and the Studio providing an outlet for his work and on-going financial support to a struggling artist."

Virginia Best Adams inherited the family business when her father died in 1936, but she had already been operating it for several years. In 1971, Virginia and Ansel Adams "turned the company over to Michael and Jeanne Adams, their son and daughter-in-law. During this time, the name of the business was changed to The Ansel Adams Gallery to reflect the primary focus of photography, and the powerful legacy that Ansel had in photography and environmental conservation."

According to information from the park, "In addition to selling Ansel Adams photography, the gallery also rents photographic equipment, sells photographic and art supplies, park-related publications, and authentic American Indian handicrafts. The gallery also provides instruction in photographic and artistic methods and complementary visitor education programs."

There's been a long-running debate about the pros and cons of any commercial enterprises in Yosemite Valley, but regardless of your opinion on the subject, there's little doubt there's a deep connection between Ansel Adams and the park.


Oldest family-owned-and-operated concession is Hamilton stores.......I thought. Yellowstone N.P.


Oldest family-owned-and-operated concession is Hamilton stores.......I thought. Yellowstone N.P.

They lost their contract in 2002. It would also be debatable which one was older. The original Best studio supposedly predates Hamilton Stores.

Good question!

The new contract issued by Yosemite is to "Best's Studio, Inc. doing business as The Ansel Adams Gallery," so this enterprise can certainly claim uninterrupted ownership in the same family - and technically under the same name.

Some quick research on Hamilton Stores wasn't definitive, but it looks like that operation started in 1915, well after the Best Studio in Yosemite. As y-p-w points out, Hamilton's company was sold to a larger corporation in 2002.

I believe Verkamp Curios on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was the oldest until it closed its doors in 2008; started in a tent in 1898 it would have predated both Best Studio and Hamilton Stores.

Jim Burnett:

Some quick research on Hamilton Stores wasn't definitive, but it looks like that operation started in 1915, well after the Best Studio in Yosemite. As y-p-w points out, Hamilton's company was sold to a larger corporation in 2002.

My reading is that they simply didn't get their concession contract renewed. I'm not sure if they had to "sell off" their assets, although previous contracts might include language on "improvements" paid for by the concessionaire and compensation should the contract not be renewed. I thought that earthquake safety work at Old Faithful Lodge (as well as future work at the Ahwahnee Hotel) were paid for with federal funds because the buildings are NPS owned.

I wonder how this works out. I was under the impression that the majority of concessionaire facilities are owned by the NPS and are operated under contract. I'm not sure how this worked out over time. At an earlier time, I'd think that a lot of the concessionaires theoretically owned their "improvements" and eventually NPS bought them out via eminent domain when funds became available. I've heard of some which are inholdings (Furnace Creek Inn/Ranch at Death Valley) or where somehow private companies were allowed to own their facilities (Jackson Lake Lodge at Grand Teton).

I've only seen Yosemite through Ansel Adams photos. That would be a great summer trip to go to Yosemite to see it all first hand, and to visit the gallery. I know it's such a beautiful place.

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