Donation of Film Documents Historical Sites and Ohio History Center Construction

Donation of Film Documents Historical Sites and Ohio History Center Construction

By Lisa Wood, Audiovisual Curator

Imagine how excited you might be to not only find, but also be able to watch home movies of your family that you did not know existed. That is how Ohio History Connection staff felt when donors Chris and Bonnie Duckworth generously offered motion picture films dating from the 1930s to the 1960s with footage of sites managed by the Ohio History Connection, a major exhibition and construction of our current headquarters, the Ohio History Center at the intersection of I-71 and E. 17th Ave. in Columbus. Motion picture footage of historical sites is an invaluable tool for research. Being able to see not only how sites looked, but also how people interacted with the built and natural environment in those locations is a boon for historical research.

They are silent, mostly black and white, 16mm films that depict sites of archaeological, historical and natural significance across Ohio. The films from the 1930s were produced when the Ohio History Connection was known as the Ohio Archeological and Historical Society, while we were called the Ohio Historical Society when the latest films were created in 1963 and 1968. Sites pictured on the 1930s film include, but are not limited to, the Newark Earthworks, a ceremony at Buffington Island, Fort Ancient, Fort Laurens, Fort Recovery, Kelley’s Island, Logan Elm, restoration of the Miamisburg Mound, Mound City, Schoenbrunn, Serpent Mound, Rutherford B. Hayes’ estate Speigel Grove, and Zoar Village. Work to reconstruct mounds and build structures at sites is seen on the films. I asked my colleague Dr. Brad Lepper about the significance of the films for studying the archaeological sites. Dr. Lepper provided this insight:

These films are tremendously valuable for studying the history of these
historic places. They reveal important insights into how they have been
restored, maintained and interpreted and help us assess how well the sites
are preserved. The films of Mound City, Seip Mound, Great Circle Earthworks,
Octagon Earthworks, and Serpent Mound are particularly important, since
these sites are on the United States Department of the Interior’s Tentative
List of sites to be considered for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage
List. The films show the mounds prior to or just after they became Ohio History
Connection sites and the views of the surrounding landscapes provide tantalizing
clues to what these places may have looked like at the times they were built.

Researching Historical Films
When describing and cataloging older motion picture footage film historians look carefully at the type of film, information recorded on film boxes, cans and reels, the credits at the beginning and end of films, and captions on film footage. If the film has sound or a written script that we can follow that is very exciting. However, the reality is that we do not have all of the information that we would like to have about many earlier films. Researching and fully describing historical films is often an ongoing process.

All of the films in this collection have minimal information written on their containers and all are silent footage. Fortunately the film taken at sites has captions and also many signs visible in the footage that identify the locations. The type of film and visual clues in the frames, such as the clothing people are wearing and the kind of cars driving by, as well as knowledge of our institutional history assist us to estimate the dates.

Just one film in this collection, Beautiful Dreamer that documents the organization’s 1963 exhibit of Lily Martin Spencer artwork, has extensive credits telling us the people and groups who created it. Most names in the credits identified the person’s role in the production, except for the name William Marshall. Chris Duckworth, who as well as being the donor of the films is also a former employee, was able to tell me that Marshall was the designer of the exhibition. Mr. Duckworth also provided insight into this line in the Beautiful Dreamer credits “a feature of Ohio: The 17th Star.” He remembers watching episodes of the educational series Ohio: The 17th Star in school and found an article advertising other episodes of the series in the OSU Lantern. As WOSU-TV is credited, this film was meant to be aired on television and had a script and soundtrack recorded separately. How exciting it would be to find one or both of these!

One film in the collection that is just 100 feet in length and runs for less than 4 minutes has no credits or captions on the film nor signs visible in the frames to identify the location or describe the action. Written on the film box is “Tearing Down Building and Taking It to the Park Dept.” This cryptic statement does not tell us where the building is or what it is. Chris Duckworth thought this could be the cottage in which President Ulysses S. Grant was born when it was dismantled at the Ohio State Fairgrounds and eventually moved back to its original location in Point Pleasant, Ohio. Watching the film myself I saw a man in a hat, trench coat and distinct mustache who appeared to be giving directions. I also noticed that the building being moved was not a large structure as pieces were being loaded by workers onto just a few trucks. The whole scene looked familiar and I believed Mr. Duckworth to be correct.
I searched the Ohio Memory digital library and also photographs of our historic sites in the archives for images of the Grant birthplace being moved. Sure enough, the still photographs and the motion picture footage were clearly depicting the same event. The man in the hat with the mustache was Erwin Zepp, director of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society, overseeing the move. In addition to confirming what we suspected, the still photographs also told us the Grant birthplace was moved on February 24, 1936.

Rare Footage of an Architectural Icon
The brutalist design of the Ohio History Center (originally known as the Ohio Historical Center) often inspires strong reactions. People often love it or hate it, but people also ask “How did they build that?” One of the shortest films in the collection, and the only color film, is 3 minutes and 57 seconds of aerial footage shot from a helicopter. It provides an aerial view of the Ohio History Center construction site and surrounding neighborhood. With traffic racing by on I-71 and downtown Columbus in the distance the view eventually closes in on the rising building. While architect Byron Ireland had the vision, it took the ingenuity of engineer Peter Korda to build the system of poured concrete and steel cables and beams that holds the building upright. The elevated view in this film is one of the best views of how this system was constructed and helps architects and engineers to answer the question of how the building works.
Film Deterioration and Digitization
All film is subject to wear and tear each time it is played on a projector and also to chemical deterioration that is inherent in the materials from which it is made. The original films in this collection are in relatively good condition for films from their era, but too fragile for frequent viewing. In another gracious gift, Chris and Bonnie Duckworth also provided digital files of each film that make it possible for us to watch without risking damage to the original films and to share them with everyone online.  Check out the film footage on the Ohio History Connection You Tube channel (see below for specific links). If you have any questions about this collection or other films in the collections of the Ohio History Connection Archives & Library, you can contact the curatorial staff by e-mail at [email protected].

Ohio Archaeological and Historical State Parks, Part Two

Ohio Archaeological and Historical State Parks, Part Three

Ohio Archaeological and Historical State Parks, Part Four

Ohio Archaeological and Historical State Parks, Part Five

Moundbuilders & Buffington Island

Beautiful Dreamer

Ohio Historical Center Construction

Construction of Shelterhouse, Newark

Moving Ulysses S. Grant birthplace at Ohio State Fairgrounds

Posted December 22, 2020

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