Behind the insulated steel doors of the refrigerated vault at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, warm memories persist. Hurricanes, home weddings and high school homecomings. Horse teams working in the winter forests, steam rising off their hot bodies into the frigid air. Ships being launched, presidential visits and little girls playing in their birthday-party dresses.
For 30 years, David Weiss has been in the business of preserving memories like this — via film. Not just of historic events and iconic activities, but the modest, domestic stuff of everyday life.
Weiss lives in Blue Hill and founded the nonprofit Northeast Historic Film in 1986 with his then-wife, Karan Sheldon. He currently serves as the organization’s interim director. NHF accepts moving-image materials from across the northeastern states, with the mission of preserving them and improving public appreciation of the regional history and culture they so intimately depict.
“We have more than 10 million feet of old film footage and thousands of hours of video,” Weiss said during a recent tour of the organization’s Main Street facilities. The professional staff at NHF collects, protects and archives all kinds of moving images, from newsreels and marketing films to the recorded proceedings of public meetings.
But Weiss has always had a special interest in the humble home movie. Home movies and other amateur images account for almost half the footage in the NHF collection.
That focus likely stems from one of Weiss’ earliest projects, the production in 1986 of “From Stump to Ship,” a popular, 30-minute movie, now in VHS and DVD formats. It uses original footage and a voice-over script from 1930 to document winter logging operations in Maine, the spring log drive down the Machias River, millworking scenes and the loading of finished lumber and shingles onto a sailing schooner bound for New York City.
“That was all just home movie footage,” amateurly shot with an inexpensive, hand-held movie camera, Weiss said. Such cameras came on the scene in the early 1900s and quickly became nearly as affordable and popular as the analog VHS recorders of the 1980s or the smartphone digital recorders in widespread use today.
“Everyone had a movie camera,” Weiss said. And that means that in many Maine households boxes of old family movies and other footage are squirreled away in attics, closets and barns. They date from the early 1900s to the 1970s and later. Some families gingerly bring these brittle filmstrips out from time to time and tinker with the aging projectors needed to show them. Other families have no idea they even exist, or what to do when they come across them.
A few years back, David Williams and his partner, Judy McGeorge, who live in Ellsworth, were sorting through some old family belongings when they came across a box full of old films.
Many had been shot in the 1920s and 1930s and showed various family gatherings, some in the longtime family home where Williams and McGeorge now live. Others were filmed at the family’s nearby summer cottage and other locations in the area.
In one film, a group of little girls dressed in white party frocks, with big bows in their hair, play in the rooms of the lakeside cottage. Several are attended by uniform-clad “nurses,” or private nannies. One of these little girls grew up to become Judy McGeorge’s mother, who has now died.
“That world doesn’t exist anymore,” Williams said. “But back then, among people with some money, it was just a way of life.”
Recognizing that the fragile old films had personal value for their extended family, they took them to Northeast Historic Film and had them transferred to VHS tape. Then they donated the box of old reels to the NHF archive, adding to the organization’s large and growing collection.
David Weiss said people should never assume their home movies will be of no interest outside the family.
“Don’t make assumptions about what will be valuable,” he said. While he’s always especially interested in regional scenes that show history being made, vanishing ways of life or famous people, there is importance in the everyday images of home, community and work as well. Events like multigenerational holiday gatherings and formal meals already have a certain historic quality to them, he said.
Even footage of personal travel in foreign countries has significance.
“We have a wonderful collection from a former state official who spent time in Shanghai,” he said. And Adelaide Pearson, the globe-trotting founder of the Rowantrees Pottery in Blue Hill, travelled in India in the 1950s and came back with some of the earliest color film images of Mohandas Ghandi, now included in the NHF collection.
Public access to donated home movies can be negotiated on a personalized, case-by-case basis, Weiss said. At a minimum, he asks that families permit on-site access for research purposes, but the organization prefers to have full licensing rights for documentary, commercial and other ethical uses.
To learn more about donating your home movies and movie equipment to Northeast Historic Film, or about the organization’s other activities and services, visit http://oldfilm.org or call (207) 469-0924.