Part Promotion, Part Travelogue: With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College

As part of learning more about With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, I sought some reading about the early U.S. film era, from around 1900-1915.

Not surprisingly, documentary histories tend to skip this era. While it follows the Lumière brothers’ experiments, it still predates the landmark Nanook of the North (1922), Grierson’s “documentary” definition (1926), and even Hollywood’s emerging dominance. This era’s best-known film is probably Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), a prototype of the popular western genre that I have tortured more than 20 classes and more than 2,500 students with (and no, not exaggerating that number).

This period, though, was a boon for both fiction and nonfiction films, which often played in theaters on the same bill. Without the documentary or fiction labels that we use today, though, the nonfiction films had other names, including educational, scenic, industrials, topicals, and travelogues.

It is this latter type that Woodbury University professor Jennifer Lynn Peterson examines in her book Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film. Her book offers a thematic analysis of the travelogue, which she defines “as nonfiction motion pictures that represent place as their primary subject.” She situates these films within cultural, industrial, and other contexts of the time.

My post here concerns what I learned from the book and thus does not offer a formal review, though you can find some reviews here and here. I am more interested in what this book tells me about that era and how it informs understanding With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College specifically.

One useful lesson is the basic conventions of these films — what did they look like? Since a print of the film most likely no longer exists, this question is important. Peterson describes the travelogue as series of shots switching between scenery and people. Titles appear between to explain the shots, but no narrative glue unites them. Instead, “The stand-alone quality of the shots is another of the genre’s most notable formal elements,” Peterson writes.

Another useful lesson is the place of these films within the emerging industry at the time. The Selig Polygraph Company is credited for making the film, as companies receive the credit. The idea of auteurs had not yet emerged at that time. Similar to the Production Code era three decades later, these early films faced questions about their respectability and their potential dangers to audiences. Peterson writes how the industry sought to become more respectable in light of these criticisms. Nonfiction film in particular served as part of this cultural uplift. (See Moya Luckett’s Cinema and Community for a more sustained discussion of progressivism specifically relating to Chicago.)

The final useful lesson is the importance of the train in film production during this era. “Railway companies were some of the most important early sponsors of travel films,” Peterson writes. With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is about a train trip throughout North Dakota, and The Great Northern Railway Company provided equipment for that journey.

Travelogues created a strong connection with popularizing the U.S. West to the U.S. East, showing the former as a place for recreation and for settlement. Train companies, the fastest form of transportation at the time, “encouraged the promotion of the West on film beginning in the 1890s, and in the 1910s, they enlarged the practice by subsidizing numerous film productions and initiating a major tourism promotion campaign using the slogan ‘See America First,'” Peterson writes.

Drawing on Peterson’s comments, we can guess that With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College mostly likely offers a series of scenes about the students and their activities on the special. Intertitles probably explain the images.

The presence of the train companies within early film perhaps explains The Great Northern Railway Company’s donation, not to mention Selig’s production of this film.

But the notions of travel and uplift become more complicated within this film. Travelogues typically show “somewhere else,” allowing viewers to “travel” without leaving their theater seats. Even when representing the West, these films showed national parks and western cities as modern and domesticated, inviting visitors to come see for themselves.

With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, however, stays within North Dakota. The state joined the union in 1889, just 24 years prior to the special, and the college was founded in 1890, just 23 years prior to the special. Staying within the young state’s boundaries made sense for reaching potential local students. Though changing quickly, most people still lived in rural areas at the time, but trains allowed greater opportunities to travel, including possibly leaving home to attend school nearby.

So instead of showing the possibilities of travel elsewhere, this film showed the possibilities of education. In that regard, it serves as part of cultural uplift and progressivism. This purpose suggests that it belongs less to a travelogue and more to the promotional film. Peterson writes, “[I]n the early film era, the boundary between promotional and nonpromotional content was unclear.” Loosely constructed though it most likely was, the journey becomes a frame for the promotional message for the college and perhaps even the train industry.

Peterson’s book was immensely useful and insightful about this period. Her passion for the subject beamed from many sentences. Her clear writing incorporates critical theory but does so in an accessible way and does not get bogged down by it.

Not Just a “One-Horse Institution:” Following the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College

With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is a 1913 film produced by the Selig Polyscope Company and was distributed by the General Film Company.

Aside from IMDb’s basic details, not much easily accessible information exists about this film. I am curious to learn more, but where to begin? After searching some larger online archives and coming up empty handed, I looked into the college itself.

North Dakota Agricultural College is now North Dakota State University, located in Fargo. NDAC started in 1890 as a land-grant college. The Morrill Act of 1862 gave U.S. states land to develop colleges for educating wider sections of the population in argicultural and mechanical arts. Though many of these universities still operate today, not all highlight their status as a land-grant institution.

NDSU maintains a special collection with artifacts of its own history, so I contacted the people there and asked about the film. While Archives Associate John Hallberg had not heard of it, he did a search within those archives and found some student newspaper (The Spectrum) coverage and a yearbook spread about the event that the film likely documents.

The event was called the “Student Life Special Train.” Perhaps like today’s chartered busses and limos, trains were booked for special events at the time. In 1911, for example, the Western Governors’ Special brought governors from Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Oregon to visit Midwest and east coast states to promote business and other connections.

According to a news story, “Never before in the history of this country has such an enterprise as this been inaugurated.” The journey covered 4,000 miles to 21 cities in 20 days. Along with the dignitaries, five train cars featured exhibits showcasing these western states’ resources. The train also carried “a barber, tailor, stenographers, [and] typewriters for those of the newspaper men who accompany the train and special stationery for the governors.”

The next sentence in that same newspaper story caught my attention: “Motion pictures will be made showing the departure of the special from St. Paul, and the films will be displayed over the prominent American vaudeville circuits.” What was the name of that film, who produced it, where was it shown, and what did people think of it? Questions for another post, I suppose.

The Student Life Special Train appears modeled after the Western Governors’ Special Train. While the IMDb description claims the film traveled “throughout the great Northwest,” it actually traveled throughout North Dakota, visiting more than 30 cities in four days in February 1913. The cars included a dining car, a coach car, an observation car, a sleeper, and two baggage cars. The Great Northern Railway Company provided the equipment.

NDAC students planned and ran every part of the trip. As the student newspaper proclaimed, “This is a train of the students, for more students, by the students.” Home economics students prepared the meals in the dining car. The coach car included motion pictures operated by students. The baggage cars featured exhibits such as state geological maps from the Geology Department, fertilizer exhibits from the Chemistry Department, and candy from the Home Economics Department. At various stops, other student groups, including the Cadet Band, Crack Squad, Dramatic Club, College “Y” Quarter, and the orchestra, performed.

Several special guests accompanied students on this trip. A staff correspondent of the London Times and Telegram, Marguerite Curtiss, joined them from London. Lloyd McDowell, who rode on the Western Governors’ Special, also came along. A film company representative also came for the trip — in this case a Mr. Buckwalter from Selig.

Despite a snowstorm — it was a North Dakota winter, after all — the trip appeared to be a success, even with a $78.27 deficit.

Much enthusiasm surrounded the trip, not surprisingly in the student newspaper as both the trip and the paper were run by the student council. One story offered exalting language similar to the Western Governors’ Special: “The students of the North Dakota Agricultural College are preparing to launch out on an expedition, such as has never before been attempted by an educational institution.”

But what was the purpose of all this? According to the student newspaper, it was to raise awareness about the mission and benefits of the college. One newspaper story began, “Few people appreciate the mission of an Agricultural College.” In other words, the special train was a publicity campaign for the college “to do away with the notion that the Agricultural College is a one-horse institution.”

For me, all of this background helps with answering two general questions: It suggests possible film scenes, and it explains the film’s purpose. And, of course, it raises more questions than it answers.

Adventures in Chasing Old Documentaries

Documentary production in the United States often appears bicoastal. On the east coast, the documentary corridor seems to run from Boston to Washington, D.C. On the west coast, it seems to run from San Francisco to San Diego.

This loose classification has its problems, of course. Documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films is firmly rooted in Chicago and its vibrant media scene. AppalShop in Kentucky gives voice to rural cultures and their challenges. Other documentary organizations and festivals accomplish similar purposes in other pockets of the country.

Documentary production more specifically and media production more generally have never been that geographically centralized. In the early years of film experimentation and pre-Hollywood, around 1895-1915, media production happened across the country. Unfortunately, these regional histories remain underexplored.

Which brought me to a question: What about North Dakota?

Several contemporary documentaries offer different pictures of the state. Welcome to Leith examines what happens when a hate group moves to town. The Overnighters is set against the backdrop of the shale oil boom and its affects on labor. Jesus Camp explores an evangelical youth Christian camp that used to be located in the state.

But I sought older titles, and an internet search uncovered the 1913 documentary With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College. The IMDb page included a trade publication’s description:

One of Selig’s informing educational pictures, showing a notable trip of the students of the North Dakota Agricultural College on a trip through the great Northwest. The students show their practicability in caring for every detail on this trip.

Selig refers to The Selig Polyscope Company, which began in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, and at the time was one of the largest makers of films. The page also mentions the distibutor, the generically named General Film Company.

The time period offers some other hints about the film. It is certainly in black and white. It has a short run time, perhaps ten minutes or less. Most likely, it is a travel film or a scenic, with a series of scenes instead of a developed, character-driven narrative.

Sadly, the original film is probably gone. I did try the Internet Archive, Prelinger’s Archives, and The Library of Congress, but, so far, no luck.

And with that, the chase is on.

Exhibit Highlights 50 years of Kartemquin Films History

“Kartemquin Films: Democracy through Documentary, 1966-2016” is a retrospective highlighting 50 years of Kartemquin history. The exhibit is available at Expo 72, 72 E. Randolph St., Chicago. I had the chance to check it out when I visited the windy city a couple weeks ago.

Centered around themes of craft, community, and change, the curated items represent the organization’s history and ideologies, not to mention documentary history more generally.

Kartemquin Films is committed to social documentary filmmaking in the cinéma vérité traditions. People and their stories drive their films. Emotions, particularly empathy, engage audiences to understand the complexities of the lived realities represented before them.

The following John Dewey quote, which appears on the exhibit’s wall, says it better than I do:

“Artists have always been the real purveyors of the news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.”

Dewey’s ideas inform and inspire throughout the exhibit and the organization’s history. In his University of Chicago thesis paper titled “Cinéma Verité in a Democracy,” co-founder Gordon Quinn cites another of Dewey’s books. One exhibit visitor picked up on the importance, writing a note that stated, “My favorite piece in the exhibit is Gordon’s copy of Dewey’s book with underlined statements that defined his life.”

Two key questions engage exhibit visitors, asking for their written responses on notecards. The first question asks, “Is the personal political?” — a question emerging from sociologist C. Wright Mills’s ideas in the 1950s and amplifying during the social movements in the 1960s. This question pushes a huge turn in documentary production during the 1960s and 1970s. It continues within Kartemquin’s films, and others’ films, even today. On the board, one person wrote, “Is water wet?”, to emphasize what they saw as an “obvious” question.

The other question asks, “Are you happy?” in reference to Kartemquin’s second film Inquiring Nuns (1968). Taking cue from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, Inquiring Nuns follows Sisters Marie Arné and Mary Campion as they ask people in Chicago this very same question. On the board my favorite written response was, “Like Chicago weather, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will change, just stick around.”

The 55-film catalog serves as the exhibit’s centerpiece. By picking up a postcard bearing a QR code, viewers can check out clips from every film across the decades, including 2016 releases Raising Bertie and the upcoming Unbroken Glass.

Not surprisingly, the iconic Hoop Dreams receives particularly detailed attention, with marketing materials, educational materials, archival photos, press coverage, film reels, and the original project proposal. One panel shows the discarded design mock-ups for the film’s theatrical release poster, which reveal part of the struggle the organization undertook to ensure their social messages came through even though mainstream marketing focused more on the overcoming-the-odds story. I had the chance to peruse those Hoop Dreams boxes, and the documents therein further detail the extent of this struggle.

The exhibit also shows connections to documentary film history, particularly through changes in equipment and technology. The famed Camera #1 is on display right in front. The camera shows the ingenuity and flexibility needed when it came to using and adapting equipment toward storytelling goals. One picture reminds us what editing used to be like before AVID and Final Cut.

Quirky gems appear throughout the exhibit, such as a 1980 “thank you” letter from Nicaragua for the gift of an Auricon 16mm camera Kartemquin donated to the Sandista government to “document the revolution.” A taped-up office chair was the seat from which Kartemquin co-founder Jerry Temaner wrote the organization’s founding “Cinematic Social Inquiry” manifesto. Buttons promote films and related social justice movements. There is even information about the mid-1970s distribution efforts via Haymarket Films, a short-lived offshoot company named for the 1886 labor demonstration that was bombed, elicited gunfire, and resulted in multiple deaths. The Haymarket events represent a significant event in Chicago’s labor history as demonstrators sought an eight-hour workday. One photo that I did wonder about showed a man holding a large snake. No text accompanied the photo to explain.

While many cool and interesting things appear in the exhibit, my favorite image appears in the Hoop Dreams section. It is a sketch of a basketball player shooting the ball over an Oscar statue into the bucket. A single T-pin holds it to the wall, and no caption or quote appears to explain it. The image refers to the controversy over Hoop Dreams not earning an Oscar nomination despite its immensely popular reception.

The framed version of this image hangs in the second-floor bathroom in the house on Wellington Street. It accompanies a framed quote from Britney Spears — “Sundance is weird. The movies are weird — you actually have to think about them when you watch them” — and the usual bathroom etiquette signs. To me, the image and its placement say so much about Kartemquin, their perseverance, and the sense of humor needed to persevere as long as they have.

The exhibit runs through August 20. Admission is free. For more information about the exhibit and the schedule of gallery talks, see www.ktq50.org/exhibit.