BUCKSPORT — Jane Donnell knows, from both professional and personal experience, the power that home movies can have in people’s lives.
Overseeing theater, distribution and membership services at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, it’s central to her daily work. The nonprofit’s mission, in part, is to “collect and preserve the film and video record of northern New England,” and many of the millions of feet of film stored in its archives were shot by amateur filmmakers covering family or small-town events.
Donnell recalls attending a Home Movie Day event in Portland one year (the event is global in scale and held annually in October) where the point was particularly driven home. The idea behind Home Movie Day, she explained, is to give people who may have old film in their attic, closet or basement — but who have no means to project it — a chance to have the film evaluated and, if possible, shown on a screen.
That day in Portland, a man in his 30s brought in film that had his parents’ wedding on it. Donnell said the man’s parents had divorced before he was old enough to have clear memories of them, and so seeing the film gave him a glimpse into a world he had never known.
“He had never seen them married,” Donnell said. “He had never seen them in love.”
Powerful stuff, to be sure. But Donnell said what happened next, however, was “one of the most poignant things that ever happened to me.” Another film began to play, with matter-of-fact narration from the woman who brought it in. When Donnell heard the woman mention “that wonderful Judge Fellows,” though, she almost fell out of her seat.
Judge Raymond Fellows was a former attorney general of Maine, Superior Court judge and later chief justice of Maine’s Supreme Court. He was also Donnell’s great-grandfather.
“I just about died,” she recalled. As the film continued, it cut to Fellows Farm — the family’s summer home on the southern tip of Verona Island, a place Donnell knew well.
“Who are you? What is happening right now?” Donnell recalled asking the woman. It turned out she was a friend of the Fellows family, and her films offered Donnell a glimpse of a man she knew of but had never met.
“He died before I was born, but my mother loved him so much,” Donnell said. “I get to do this for other people all the time, but to have the tables turned…”
It was a similar story that brought Donnell to Northeast Historic Film in the first place. In the early 1990s, former Bucksport Mayor David Keene told her about a film he had taken in to the then-young organization, featuring Bucksport High School sporting events.
Keene told her there was footage of her father playing football, and she remembers how intrigued she was by that news. It turned out Donnell’s mother appeared in the film, too, because she was the head cheerleader at the time.
Donnell remembers another event from the early days of Northeast Historic Film where footage featuring Stockton Springs high school students from the 1950s was shown. The subjects of the film, and their families, were invited to come and watch it on the big screen to see themselves from several decades earlier.
“There were people saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve made it so my parents are alive and when they were 17,’” Donnell said. “By then, I was like, ‘This is the greatest place I’ve ever seen.’”
When she graduated from the University of Maine, Donnell got a job offer at the Verso mill in Bucksport to work on a special project dealing with recycled paper. But before long, she got a call from Libby Rosemeier — now assistant head of school at George Stevens Academy, but then working with Northeast Historic Film — asking her to come work with the organization.
Though Northeast Historic Film is focused on moving images, it sometimes is given collections of photographs or slides, too. Donnell said she typically sends them to photo archivist Kevin Johnson at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, but sometimes there are exceptions. Such was the case a couple of years ago when Northeast Historic Film was gifted a collection of slides belonging to Roy Stairs featuring scenes of Bucksport (and a few of neighboring communities, too) from the mid-20th century.
Stairs was one of the lead committee members for the town’s sesquicentennial in 1942 (the program for that celebration gave Stairs “special mention” for his “excellent work”), and Donnell said she felt Bucksport should do something with the slides first. Executive Director David Weiss scanned the slides in to digital format “on his own time and dime,” Donnell said, and looking through them since has “been so fun.”
Though the slides were labeled with basic information, Donnell knew much more information could be gleaned about them: who was in them and what the buildings were, for example. So she began posting the images on the “You know you grew up in Bucksport, Maine when…” Facebook page, and got a great response.
One person would comment, and then another would pick up on that, with one person’s memories filling in or picking up where another’s had left off. Norma Patterson — Donnell’s second-grade teacher — spotted herself as a young girl in a shot of a parade from the 1940s, for example.
“I can recognize most of the kids marching along here!” Patterson wrote on Facebook. “I am the tall one with the wrong colored scarf in the front row.”
Indeed, while close to 20 other girls had yellow scarves, Patterson’s was forest green. More than a dozen other comments were posted on the same photo, discussing one of the stores visible in the background and how years later it burned down. And that was just for one image among the many in the Stairs collection.
“Social media is helpful in that way,” Donnell said. “It spurred these chain reaction conversations and helps keep the community history intact.”