A gift awaiting unwrapping

Most Christmas gifts have been unwrapped by now, but chances are there is box of gifts remaining behind in (hopefully) a bedroom closet, awaiting someone to unwrap them—again.

I’m talking about a box of home movies. The motion picture record of your family’s past: Stories of weddings, birthdays, vacations and other special events that your parents, grandparents or uncles felt important enough to investment money and time into capturing and preserving for future generations.

The 8mm, Super 8mm and 16mm films, as well as the 35mm color slides, that these amateur cinematographers and photographers left behind are wonderful gifts that beg to be “unwrapped” every holiday season. Unfortunately, they are wrapped in antiquated technology. Working film projectors are difficult to find and expensive. By now, most film projectors stored with the films need a belt, lamp, cleaning and lubrication to bring them back to life. Further, attempting to project film on a projector that is dirty or won’t properly thread and transport the film can cause irreparable damage.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many families had their family’s films and slides transferred to VHS cassettes, assuming VHS would be around forever. That’s not been the case, and now families are discovering that VHS was even worse than film as an archival media (something videotape was never intended to be). And, as with the projector situation, finding a reliable VHS machine that won’t eat the tape is becoming difficult. If you had your films transferred to video tape, dig out the films today and have them transferred to digital media. Video transfers look awful due to the low resolution of the format and inability to make corrections to the original material.

To properly unwrap these home movie gifts, specialized equipment that photographs every frame on those long strips of film is required. And once the acquisition, or transfer, is done, those frames must be re-assembled in software to create the movie that can be saved to a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, as well as to a USB drive or hard drive/SSD (recommended for archival, HD use).

That’s what we do at The Feather Cottage. We are a boutique transfer service that offers state-of-the-art transfer services to consumers and businesses. We customize each transfer so it includes music and titles that identify who is in the film, when and where it was shot, and the dates. We physically clean the film before transferring and also perform digital cleaning of noise, scratches and other defects. Colors are restored and dark sections lightened to reveal the details that have been hiding in the shadows for decades. We work one-on-one with the client, and we do our work locally (northeast Ohio).

What we really do is preserve the gifts of the past. We make sure that the sacrifices of money and time  that our ancestors made in preserving memories on film are not lost to our carelessness and the passage of time.

In our day, most every phone and camera is capable of recording a video. YouTube’s millions of videos attest to the ubiquitous nature of video. But back in your grandparents’ day, making a “video,” actually a motion picture, was a costly venture.

A basic 16mm camera/projector kit cost around $400, as much as a car when the medium was offered to home movie makers in the 1920s. Unlike inexpensive video cameras today, the acquisition cost of the equipment was just the beginning. Film had to purchased and processed; a roll of 16mm film, 100 feet long, cost $13.09 for Kodachrome II with processing by Kodak in 1972. That would provide approximately three minutes of movies. Yes, just three minutes (now you know one of the reasons shots are so short on these old films!).

Super 8mm film in 1972 cost about $5 with Kodak processing. The 50-foot cartridge provided three minutes and twenty seconds of filming.

To put that into today’s dollars, that is roughly $65 for a roll of 16mm film and $25 for a cartridge of Super 8mm film and processing. Imagine if cellphones charged that much for recording a video!

The family members who came before you gave you a great gift, an expensive gift, when they went to the trouble and expense to record their story, your story, on film.

All gifts come with responsibilities on the recipient’s part. Most recipients disregard that responsibility, but I and others in my Baby Boomer generation were raised to accept those responsibilities when accepting a gift. You thanked the giver. You took care of the gift. You showed them and their sacrifice appreciation by enjoying it and making it last.

I encourage all recipients of these gifts, whether through inheritance or direct giving, to treat the gifts, and the giver, with the honor due them. Treat your family’s old families as if they were one-of-a-kind diaries, which they are. There is no other copy of your family’s films in the world, so take care of them and get them archived onto digital media while family members are still alive who can identify who is in the films and what is going on in them.

Your family’s films are gifts waiting to be unwrapped—again and again. Did you leave a gift unwrapped this Christmas? If you are ready to unwrap it, visit our Film Transfer Services page.

 

The Story Quilter’s Threads

I love a good barn.
My paternal grandfather had a lovely one, perched on a hillside of the farming village of Eglon, W.Va.
I recall him telling me that he and his wife, Maud, built the barn in the 1930s, when they married, moved to the land, built their home and started farming and raising a family.
Traveling to the farm as a child, I always went to the barn with my grandfather, where he kept a few beef cattle and an assortment of barn cats. The cats often got a few dinner-table scraps, which I’d enjoy placing in a bowl and then wait for them to come out of hiding for the food.

My grandfather, Russel Feather, farmed this hillside for decades. His barn is at the far right of the photo, taken in 2004. The farm has been trashed and it makes me sad to go by there and see the disrespect that the new owners have shown to the place, once my grandfather’s pride and joy.

The barn was a bank barn, with access to the pasture off the back, facing Route 24, which ran along the ridge behind the barn. The first floor, below bank grade, was block foundation and provided stalls for the cattle. The second floor and haymow were timber construction and provided storage for the revered tractor. Theframed part was sided with vertical wormy chestnut boards.
Aside from the smell of dusty hay and petroleum products, the most vivid memory of that barn was watching the way the sun played through the cracks in the siding. I played “peek-a-boo” with the sun as it traced its morning course across the barn siding, peaking in and out of the cracks and casting slits of yellow, dusty light onto the hay and cats.

Thus it was that I choose to open my feature documentary about barn quilts, The Story Quilter’s Threads, with a time lapse of a sunrise through barn siding. The barn is a circa-1900 German-built dairy barn owned by Dale and Margaret Toukonen. The segment was filmed on a Sunday morning in September. While the camera shot a frame every second for an hour, I worked outside capturing the stirrings of the horses and solitary sheep on this equestrian retirement resort, “Wind Horse Farm.” Aside from the horses owned by the Toukonens, the elderly horses on this farm were working horses, in a circus or on a race track, for examples, and are living out their days in the comfort and care of this Williamsfield Township former dairy farm.
I got know the owners through the Ashtabula County Barn Quilt Trail, the steering committee of which I am a member. The Toukonen barn was one of the first to receive an 8-by-8 barn quilt. Barn quilts are quilt patterns painted onto high-quality sign board. They usually tell a story, and in this case the story is that of the farm’s name and its branding symbol, enclosed by a quilt pattern.
The Toukonen farms’ story is one of several selected for The Story Quilter’s Threads, which focuses on southern Ashtabula County barn quilts. The barn quilt trail steering committee did not design it this way, but most of the barn quilts that are actually on barns and have a story connected to them, are in the southwestern section of the county.
From March to November of 2017, I interviewed barn quilt owners about their choice of pattern, quilting heritage and the story of the barn itself. They are stories from a bygone era, a time when a family could still make a living from the family farm, and when a man’s word meant something. Several of the stories are about loss and commemorating the life that was snuffed out by age or farm injury.
The landscape in Williamsfield Township, where much of this film takes place, is gently rolling and well watered, thanks to being near Pymatuning Reservoir and the swamps that feed it. Footage from the first aerial photography attempt for the film had to be set aside because the fields were soggy and crops struggling in July. A second attempt in early October was much more satisfying, with the sunrise over Pymatuning Reservoir and patchy fog providing a delightful greeting as we circled the Housel barn on Simons South Road.
The film received its premiere at The Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva on the Lake, Nov. 20, 2017. I offer it for sale on DVD at this website as a fundraiser for the Barn Quilt Trail.
Samples of The Story Quilter’s Threads can be found at The Feather Cottage You Tube Channel, along with the time lapse from the Toukonen barn.
What I didn’t plan on as I was setting up for the shot was the number of barn cats that would wander in and out of the scene over the course of filming it. They confirm the suspicion that much life occurs outside of our awareness because we simply don’t take the time to observe it. Our movement about the sun creates the arc, but we are so accustomed to taking still photographs using a 1/250th second slice of sunlight that we think of it as a static phenomenon.
The moving image, on the other hand, falsely reveals an organic being, the sun, arcing across our sky, when it is actually our spaceship that is making the elliptical journey. Both the arc and the compression of time are thus illustrations of something larger, the spinning of dusty arcs into days and threads into stories, The Story Quilter’s Threads.

A side note on Williamsfield Township. This area was hit by a tornado in November 2017 and three years earlier took a hit worldwide when it was declared “the most stressful neighborhood in America.” My experience here was completely opposite. It is a peaceful, lovely corner of Ashtabula County where Amish and Yankee farmers work side-by-side, barns are preserved and the farming heritage treasured. I hope the video captures a piece of that.

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!