Category Archives: Filmmaking

Elmer Backlund

I met him about 15 months ago, when I interviewed Elmer Backlund and two other A&B Dock employees for an Ashtabula Wave story.

Elmer brought a surprise to that meeting at Norman Millberg’s house: The log he had kept while machine foreman on the dock, 1975-1982.

Elmer recorded the arrival and departure times of every freighter that pulled up to the dock’s Hulett unloaders. Not only that, he noted how long it took to do the unloading, the delays that occurred due to electrical, mechanical and railroad car shortages. He even made note of how much time the crew devoted to lunch, and occasionally where they got take-out (Perkins).

One of the most interesting visits recorded in this piece of handwritten history is the entry for the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final visit to Ashtabula Harbor. Indeed, it was the last time the Fitzgerald would deliver a load of ore to any Great Lakes port. After leaving Ashtabula, the Fitzgerald took on a load of ore at Superior and disappeared in the storm of Nov. 10, just six days after its visit to Ashtabula.

Elmer says he talked to the first mate of the ship at great length the night the boat was being unloaded. The first mate had little good to say about the vessel’s condition; rivets were failing throughout, but the owner had tried to coax another season out of the freighter before sending it to dry dock for repairs.

These stories were captured on video in February, when I interviewed Elmer, Norm and “French” Lesperance for a new document about the Hulett unloaders at A&B Dock.

Why such a film, and an exhibit at The Lodge and Conference Center? First is the book, an incredible piece of Great Lakes maritime history. Second is the story of the Hulett unloaders, invented by a Conneaut man. These machines were so huge, their power demands so intense, each dock company had its own powerhouse to provide the direct current power consumed by the motors.

Further, the A&B Dock was the first installation of the third and final generation of Hulett unloaders. The A&B Dock machines also were first to use a Larry car system for weighing and transferring the ore to the cars. Further, the cars were moved by a system rarely used at other docks, where a narrow gauge railroad ran next to the standard rails and a small locomotive pushed the cars along. At Ashtabula, however, a continuous cable was  used to move the cars, which were pulled onto the cable by grippers.

The dock also need shovelers, bulldozer operators, oilers, bridge operators and laborers. Their stories are preserved in this new  documentary.

Before I left Elmer at his assisted living home, he presented me with the journal. I was stunned by his generosity. After using it for the filming of the documentary and exhibit at The Lodge, it will be donated to the Ashtabula Marine Museum. It belongs there, along with the patterns from the Huletts, the metal identity plates and models of these amazing machines.

Elmer has been very ill, in and out of intensive care. On Easter, I will visit his room at Saybrook Landing, and I hope to find him there and give him my gift, the story of his story, a story I am honored to commit to the Internet, hard drive and optical media. I call it “The Boat Book.”

‘Finnished’

The past three months I have been involved in a documentary film project about the immigration of Finnish workers and their families to Ashtabula Harbor.

It’s been a grueling task, particularly the past two weeks as I’ve edited hours of interviews and B roll down to one hour. Being a one-man production, I’ve had to shoot, record, edit and even project the film, which could have been twice as long and still just begun to scratch the surface.

There were great stories that didn’t make the cut because of the lack of supporting B roll, that is the stuff that gives viewers a break from the talking heads that we’ve all come to expect from documentaries. But overall, I feel the film does a good job of telling the big story and sharing some of the anecdotes that illuminate the corners of the massive tale.

I was particularly fortunate to connect to Sue Benedict, a fifth-generation “Finndago,” that is half Italian and half Finnish. That is a pretty common combination in Ashtabula Harbor as the Finns lived on the west side and the Italians on the east. And occasionally they crossed the bridge, fell in love and there you have it.

Back to Sue. She had wonderful photographs of her family, was a great interview on camera and assisted me in the midst of her mother’s radiation treatments. She even cranked up her late uncle’s Victrola and played one of the 78 rpm records of a Finnish song her great grandfather used to sing to her.

I also was able to get May Colling to agree to an interview. May is the official historian of Ashtabula Harbor and has lived on West 8th for most of her life, more than 90 years! She’s sharp as a Finnish knife and helped give the film a solid foundation.

I’ll never forget the evening I spent in Lauri Maki’s sauna. I filmed Lauri originally because he and his wife owns the fish market and restaurant. But when I heard he has a sauna (pronounced sow-na) in his garage, my ears really perked up. Would he allow me to film it? Yes!

The star of that section of the film is the Maki’s cat, Daisy, who has the most expressive face and movements of any cat I’ve ever met. Love it!

Making a film is incredibly hard work. I have probably put in 80 hours of comp time and holiday time from work in the past week. My computer equipment simply is not up to the task of rendering HD video, and it has been a really painful, sleepless week of getting this thing to a point I can present it publicly. So many times the rendering has crashed five hours and 55 minutes into a six-hour render.

Those things waste valuable time when you are deadline. Only someone who has slept in two-hour shifts while babying a render only to find out that there was a mistake in a title card or a misplaced clip knows what I’m talking about!

There are many things I would have done differently, if I had the time and resources. There were midnight computer crashes when I lost hours of work (never trust Premiere’s backups) and I felt like just forgetting it all. But I remembered the SISU segment, the guts and determination that the Finns had and that enabled them (with a little help from beer) to work at the docks and on the railroads and build a community, harbor and life for themselves.

I’m not Finn; mostly German, some French, Swiss, too. But thanks to self discipline and determination, “We Lived on Oak Street” will be screened on Wednesday. It is about their SISU, and mine, and the way we somehow get things done with the resources we have and make the most of life, regardless of what it hands us.

I was handed some great stories, and I hope the “Finnished” product does them justice.

You can order a copy of the video on DVD and support my purchases of hard drives, cine lenses and microphones by sending $15 for each DVD to Carl Feather, 1355 Sherman St., Geneva, OH 44041. Honestly!