Old Films Get New Life in Maine
By James Duffy

In the winter of 1929 Alfred Ames,
owner of the Machias Lumber
Company of Washington, Maine,
purchased a 16 mm camera and
spent months documenting his
company’s logging operations.  
The result was a short, silent film
entitled, “From Stump to Ship.”

Ames showed the film locally, and would stand on stage and narrate from a script
to an audience. Although the film was very popular in its day, Ames could never
have fathomed his film would be the beginnings of a regional film archive that
would also help spark a revitalization of the ailing downtown area of Bucksport,

In 1986, David Weiss and Karan Sheldon, two film historians, received financial
assistance from a local paper mill company to restore Ames’ film.  They planned
to have an actor recreate the role of Alfred Ames on stage so it could be presented
as it was originally. “It was our first project.” said Weiss.  “We were going to
show it a few times and then give a copy to the state of Maine.”  

What happened was quite unexpected, Weiss said.  “Our first showing had over
1100 people.  We ended up showing the film 25-30 times with an average
attendance of 400-500.”  What happened after that was even more surprising: the
couple were flooded with contacts from people about other old films they had in
their possession – a wide range of clips and images ranging from industrial films,
television news footage, commercials, and documentaries about northern New
Englanders.  “Thousands of people contacted us about old films they had, and
we got the idea of creating an archive.”

That led to the creation of Northeast Historic Film, a non-profit organization that
collects and preserves moving images that relate to the history and culture of
northern New England.  “We have a television commercial from 1962 put out by a
company called, ‘Life Pack Survival Kits’ that asks, ‘How well could you survive
a nuclear war?’” said Weiss.
 “We also have a documentary that shows a civil
defense drill in which the entire city of Bangor was evacuated.”  He sees
increased interest in Cold War era footage since 9/11 because it shows how
people experienced and coped in a fearful and uncertain time.

In order to have room to house all these films – and a place to show them – the
organization bought the Alamo Theatre in downtown Bucksport in 1992.   The
building – a 120-seat theatre built in 1916 -- is the second oldest cinema in Maine
and was closed as a theatre in 1956. While it had gone through various lives as a
supermarket, health center and community center, it was abandoned when
supporters of the NHF purchased it, and was badly in need of revitalization.  
Until 1999, it was used mainly as a home for the organizations growing archives.  
Since then, after much work and community support, it has screened feature films
and now includes a museum and a study center for visitors to the archives.  

In 2003, NHF opened a three story Conservation Center attached to the Alamo
Theater.  It provides temperature and humidity controlled storage space for the
growing collection of film and video.  A grand opening for the Conservation
Center is scheduled for June 12, 2004. The collection now holds more than 5
million feet of film and 2,000 hours of videotape.

The archive provides many learning opportunities for grade school students and
educators as well.  Weiss said that Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire all
require the teaching of local history to their students.  He said teachers often have
trouble finding resources because there are no textbooks geared to that subject.  
“Most schools have copies of our tapes,” he said.  Topics range from ice fishing to
the lobster industry.  He also said students who take tours of local paper mills
can learn through NHF how the mills looked fifty years ago.  

Weiss says NHF is moving toward creating a virtual study center, so students
will be able to access their website and download moving images. He said Karan
Sheldon, whom he is married to, is organizing that effort.  He sees it as a very
important part of the NHF mission.  

“I think it is culturally important.  The twentieth century was dominated by mass
media…there is all of this visual stuff,” he said. Weiss said that media literacy
gives young people skills to cope in the modern world:   “I saw a bumper sticker
that said, ‘kill your television.’  I had mixed feelings (about that).  I understood it,
but it does not have to be that way.  Television is just the messenger.”

The history NHF preserves resonates with people because they are so connected
to it, Weiss said.  “What I attribute it to is the opposite of broadcasting, it is
narrowcasting.  It harkens back to something that has a direct impact on people.  
What we are able to collect and preserve is more relevant to people’s personal
histories.”  Weiss believes that is why Alfred Ames’ “From Stump to Ship” was so
popular over fifty years after it was made.  “The logging industry has had an
immense impact on people for generations.”   

While the creation of the theatre and archive was the goal, the revitalization of the
old theatre had a positive effect on the ailing downtown Bucksport, Weiss said.
Today there are restaurants, a pharmacy, professional offices, and a book store.  

Downtown is now considered to be thriving, and a nearby marina has been
developed.  “The town has renovated the riverfront and that has made a whole
new atmosphere.”

To learn more about Northeast Historic Film, visit their website at
Alamo Theatre:
In the 1920s & Today
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