Missouri family finds 1927 film of St. Joseph picnic

Monday, September 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Diane Hunt and her husband, David Hunt, second from left, sit with Robert Miller in front of a projection of the film David and Diane discovered in their house in south St. Joseph. The film, originally in 16-mm, plays like a silent film with title slides, and documents the Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. company picnic at Lake Contrary in 1927.

ST. JOSEPH — Vintage footage of a company picnic doesn't seem like it should be anything of importance to St. Joseph residents. Unless it's one of the oldest films ever taken in the city.

In a collaborative effort, two St. Joseph men are showing off a 1927 film of a Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. picnic at Lake Contrary. Beyond being a historic capture of the past, the film reel was lucky to have survived so many years in the interim from when it was printed until its discovery last month.

David Hunt and his wife, Diane, bought the house formerly owned by the Fishers, a family of Russian immigrants best known for donating a significant amount of money to the South Side Progressive Association, in 2006.

Walking through the house, Hunt said he knew there were a lot of items they were inheriting from the family.

"When we bought the house ... there was a lot of stuff left in the closets," he said. "There was nobody to give them to because the family didn't have children when the last one passed away."

Hunt couldn't guess what they would find when they actually rummaged through the old stuff.

"My wife ran across this film can, it was Kodak film 16 mm, and scratched into the lid it said St. Joseph picnic 1927.'"

Curiosity got the best of him and he took off the lid to see what could be on the film, if anything. Old film is known to only have a life of about 50 years.

"I carefully took off the lid, and you could smell the film deteriorating from its age," he said. "I picked it up and held it to the light and saw ladies sitting on a bench."

After talking with a few people over the course of 2 ½ years, Hunt met with Larry Flinchpaugh, a St. Joseph man known for finding 1954 footage of the city titled "This is Our Town," and Robert Miller, a member of the South Side Progressive Association.

They agreed the footage needed to be restored, if the film still worked at all. So Miller took it to the same person who restored Flinchpaugh's film, Steve Martin, owner of Accent Video Film Transfer Service in Overland Park, Kan.

Martin said he was surprised at the good condition of the film, but noticed its age was beginning to catch up with it.

"What happens is that when film starts to deteriorate, it becomes brittle. So if you run it in, it could come out the other end in pieces," he said.

In Martin's 47 years of experience, he said he has seen old films and this was one of the better ones.

"It was in excellent shape," he said. "It had hardly any scratches. It was very clean."

He said he thought there may be only one shot at transferring the film over to DVD. It was a moment of suspense for Miller, as the more than 80-year-old film was just as likely to tear up as it was to actually run.

"(Martin) told me there was a 50/50 chance it would play or shred," he said. "When it started playing, I just about fell over."

The film Miller is presenting is the first time it was played in a number of years.

The film is silent, with some title slides, and doesn't show much outside of random, mostly unnamed people eating, conversing and playing games. Yet it serves as an important capsule of St. Joseph's history when the city had an amusement park where people could gather and let loose.

At its first showing at East Hills Library in August, people young and old laughed, smiled and sat in awe of what some may consider a simpler time in St. Joseph.

Miller stood in front of the audience afterward and summed up his feelings on seeing the film for the first time.

"It was like Geraldo opening up the vault, but this time we actually found treasure," he said.

Plans for the DVD, beyond screenings and possibly donating copies to the South Side Progressive Association and a few libraries, are still being decided, Hunt said.

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