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.

The Fate of Documentary

A now-deleted article in the New York Press raises some gloomy questions about “the fate of documentary” and “the precarious position of documentarians.” The article provides some interesting perspectives on documentary, but I wonder if they are too narrow in their viewpoints. In many ways it is skewed toward reinforcing the dominance of mainstream fiction-based production, or at least the appearance thereof, and documentary’s position as “the other.”

The article begins with mentioning the early innovations in motion pictures, such as through the experiments of Edison and, of course, The Lumière brothers. The author claims, “the earliest films were all documentaries.” While these early pieces did record and project the phenomenon of motion, they fall short of becoming fully realized documentaries. Instead, they are a mark in the development of the form. They are documents, not documentaries. These pieces show us something, but they do not make any further assertions beyond the spectacle, beyond the novelty of the technology. They do not make much impact or sense beyond that.

From those early experiments come the rise of narrative production and the dominance of the motion picture industries. According to the author:

But the expense of film stock and the enormous popularity of the infant fictional film invariably led to the creation of movie stars and the entrenched studio system, where every variable from setting to theater projection could be easily controlled for maximum efficiency and a substantive return on investment. Documentaries were relegated to wartime newsreels and exotic travelogues.

Newsreels and travelogues certainly existed, yes, but what about the work of Robert Flaherty? Pare Lorentz? Leni Riefenstahl? Dziga Vertov? John Grierson? Esfir Shub? Walter Ruttmann? Alberto Cavalcanti? Joris Ivens? Or Hollywood directors who moved to documentary production during World War II, such as Frank Capra and John Huston? And those journalists who moved into television during the 1950s? Not to mention all the educational production and distribution of the 1940s–1970s? And the collective productions of the 1930s? Makers found ways to pursue documentaries with mainstream industry support and cooperation, with government support, and with independent means. These makers’ relationships with industries and the documentaries they created were much more complicated than just “being relegated” to those options.

The article continues with the ideas that videotape (and you could add in here the development of cheaper technologies) helped revive the form. Part of this idea appears in the histories of documentary development, in that the new technologies did enable significant changes.

But two assertions are disturbing to me at this point in the piece. Here is one:

But viewers were not too keen on the experimental films of the ’60s.

This point needs to be much more specific. Which viewers? Which media? Which experimental films? If we are talking documentary specifically, some mainstream media — particularly television — did struggle with the cinéma vérité styles of Robert Drew and others in terms of integrating them into television in ways that drew and engaged audiences. (Happy Mother’s Day is an example here.) But what about the intense explosion in documentary-making that happened during that era and so many of the titles that since have become canonical? Concert documentaries can use a celebrity connection to bolster their popularity (Dont Look Back, Gimme Shelter, and, of course, Woodstock), but what about Salesman, The Endless Summer, Harvest of Shame, In the Year of the Pig, The Battle of Newburgh, and other social interest titles? Some of these appeared on television, and some of these appeared on film. Were these and other titles really that unpopular?

And here is the other assertion:

In the end, it took the creation of reality television programing to revitalize the genre.

Really? An American Family (which goes unmentioned) was a fascinating idea that since has become a foundation for so many other shows, but “reality” programming began in the 1950s with television and the 1930s (maybe even the 1920s) with radio. Several scholars point to the innovations of Alan Funt as part of this development. Television’s Candid Camera started on radio as Candid Microphone. Also consider the game show Queen for a Day.

Media industries may have found a way to streamline production and package reality, but reality programming did not “revitalize the genre.” If anything, it narrowed one part of the documentary form into a pretty box with a pretty bow. Those industries found a way to make cheap productions for mass consumption, something they have been doing since networked radio. Many more innovations of the form happened outside reality programming. For one example, the 1960s and 1970s saw the development of the autobiographical documentary, a strong precedent to Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and others working in that style now.

(Before you think me elitist, know this — I do watch and like some reality TV: “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Restaurant Nightmares,” “MasterChef,” some “Idol,” some “America’s Top Model,” and bits and bobs of some others. I do think reality television belongs under the umbrella of documentary, as it is just one manifestation of the form, among many.)

The article continues with pinning the recent rise of documentary on twin arcs of Michael Moore’s success and the growth of reality television through “Cops” and others. Arguably, Moore has had some amazing success, particularly financially, but he also has been quite a divisive figure. Does that make him the standard to follow? Do people want the same success that Michael Moore has achieved? Is “success” really all about making money? Are there other ways of measuring success? What about those makers who want to make a difference as their primary goal? (Hat tip to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills for their recent success with the changes in the cases of the West Memphis Three.)

Also, what about educational distribution, with many of the powerhouses there founded by makers themselves, such as New Day, Cinema Guild, Women Make Movies, and others?

The remainder of the article delves into the limits of documentary distribution and offers some interesting ideas. It mentions how few people achieve the Michael Moore level of success, how the festival route to distribution favors the few, and how the Internet offers democratic distribution possibilities (or impossibilities). It highlights the local production community in Brooklyn, as well. It further brings up the conundrum of maintaining a voice or message from the documentary throughout the distribution process.

With the hybrid distribution deals of today, some makers go for a combination of PBS exhibition on television and online, Women Make Movies educational distribution, and self consumer distribution. The mainstream ideas of distribution barely hint at the complexities of distribution for documentary, then and now. For some makers, these outlets provide a way to get their messages out without having to concede their visions or messages.

The article concludes on a mixed note:

Unfortunately, right now many films are getting lost between production to consumption. It is uncertain what the future of distribution — web and otherwise — will bring for documentary filmmakers, but one thing is clear: documentary will still survive.

I guess what catches me about this overall piece is the undertone of how documentary is in — jeopardy? danger? something? — of getting lost somewhere. The article’s subhead, with its reference to “precarious positions,” cues that idea somewhat. The final statement’s assertion that “it will survive” also cues that tone. But is the situation really that dire, and are mainstream distribution and success like Michael Moore’s really the ultimate goals?

That goal might be the case for some, but not for all. Documentary is an amazingly flexible, versatile and innovative form, and its makers and believers have been remarkably creative in applying it and bringing it to audiences. The mainstream presence is new, and it will become part of the documentary history as we move through the changes over time. The mainstream presence certainly expands the documentary conversation, but it is such a small part of the rich form with an even deeper and more nuanced history. Not to mention, an even deeper and more nuanced present.