From Stump to Ship

Forgotten Film to the Formation of a Film Archives


Excerpt from a paper by

Janna Jones, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Interdisciplinary Social Sciences
Associate Director, Learning Communities
University of South Florida

Alfred Ames, the president of the Machias Lumber Company in Washington County, Maine, purchased a 16 mm moving picture camera in 1929 and with the help of a friend, Dr. Howard Kane, meticulously recorded the labor of woodsmen and horses. They created a 30- minute silent film called From Stump to Ship.

Ames documented his workers sawing down trees; horses hauling great loads of logs though the woods; river drivers agilely running over logs in rushing rivers; the powerful current of the Machias River forcing thousands of logs to tumble and roll; men expertly clearing log jams at the head of the river’s falls; men in batteaus flying down river rapids; the proficiencies of mill employees cutting logs with a 48-foot bandsaw, and finally, the schooner Lucy Evelyn, loaded with more than two million laths, setting out to sea. In short, Ames not only documented his family business, but he also created a cinematic record of the lumber industry.

A Campaign Tool

Ames stated that he made the film to capture a quickly fading era in Maine’s history; however, he was also able to find a political use for it. Ames used From Stump to Ship to support his candidacy for governor.

As a rhetorical device used to demonstrate what the lumber business had done for the state (and presumably what his family business had contributed to Maine’s economy), Ames exhibited the silent film and personally narrated it, using a script that he and his nephew, Rufus Fuller, had written.

As persuasive as the film may have been to Maine audiences, it did not get Ames elected. “In this year, 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swept the country. Uncle was defeated,” Alice Fuller, Fuller’s wife explained, “and showed no more interest in the film and just put it away on the book shelf.”

A Family Donation

In 1970 the family donated the film to the University of Maine, Orono. Eventually, the can found its way to the office of the historian David Smith, a prolific scholar of the Maine woods.

“It came to me and sat on the floor in my office,” Smith remembers, “got buried under paper, all the stuff that’s in my office anyway. So, I found it one day and looked at it and realized that I had not only a historic document but one that was dangerous.” Smith assumed the film was nitrate. In fact, it was safety film, but his assumption led him to remove the film from the floor of his office. It was not until 1984 that the film’s potential as a historic document was discovered.

The Preservation of From Stump to Ship

The fifty-year-old film was in no condition to achieve its potential as a significant artifact of Maine’s cultural heritage when David Smith and Henry Nevison, a producer at the University’s public information office, began to work with it.

In June of 1984, Nevison met with Karan Sheldon to discuss the many possibilities and potential problems of a From Stump to Ship preservation project. Until they relocated to Maine from Boston in 1984, Sheldon had been at WGBH-TV and her husband, David Weiss, had been at various production houses. Their backgrounds as well as their eagerness to integrate themselves into the culture of their newly adopted state led them to agree to take on the From Stump to Ship project. They had no idea how a film about the lumber industry would soon change the course of their professional and personal lives.

The preservation and ultimate exhibition of From Stump to Ship required financial support that was not readily available. After Sheldon and Nevison’s initial meetings, there were months of detailed technical and budget planning. Participants David Smith, Henry Nevison, Edward Ives, professor of folklore, Jonathon Tankel, journalism, and Richard Judd, professor of history, the team submitted a proposal to the Maine Humanities Council.

Maine Humanities Council

Dorothy Schwartz, who had taken on the leadership of the Maine Humanities Council at the end of 1984, remembers that some council members were at first reluctant to fund the project. She recalls that their hesitancy was overcome when they saw five minutes of a sample tape of From Stump to Ship.

The project was an important one for the council, Schwartz believes, because it was one of their first projects that brought the humanities to the people of Maine. “While we didn’t know it at the time that we funded it, From Stump to Ship would ultimately have on impact on people from all socioeconomic levels in Maine.” Schwartz stated.

In April 1985, the Maine Humanities Council granted the From Stump to Ship project $9,632 with an in-kind match of $12,490 from the University. Shortly after obtaining the humanities grant, Weiss met with Bob Turner, the Bucksport Mill manager of Champion International Corp. Two factors undoubtedly helped convince Champion International to become the project’s sole corporate sponsor. Turner was able to view an early videocassette of From Stump to Ship, and Champion International owned the land that was depicted in the film. Turner arranged a $10,000 grant from Champion International and the project’s paper and printing costs.

The Voice

Ames’ script was recorded by Tim Sample, a Maine native, humorist, and professional narrator. So that viewers do not incorrectly assume that it is Ames’ voice that they hear in the film, text appears on the screen at the beginning of From Stump to Ship. “In this reconstruction,” the text states, “a narrator speaks the words Ames used when he showed the silent film.”

Premiere Mayhem

In spite of the many complications the project participants faced, by September 1985, only five months after the Maine Humanities Council funded the project, the film was ready for exhibition and invitations were sent for the premiere of From Stump to Ship at the University. On September 20, 1985, hours before the film’s debut, Weiss remembers looking at 600 empty seats, hoping that a couple of hundred people might at least attend, so that the auditorium would not look embarrassingly empty.

While the auditorium space would turn out to be a problem, it was not because it was too large. Rather, so many people came they had to create a second showing for the evening. “Eleven hundred people showed up that night. There were almost fist fights to get in,” Weiss recalled. “ I got grabbed by somebody who said he knew the Chancellor, and that he was going to hear about this. I mean it was just ridiculous. People just flocked to it, and they continued to flock to every showing.”

Nearly eight thousand people viewed the film over a five-month period. From Stump to Ship was exhibited as part of the Maine Humanities Council presentations in Orono and Portland and twenty small towns across Maine from October 1985 through March 1986. Eight hundred people, for example, viewed From Stump to Ship in the town of Machias–a staggering number considering the population hovers near 2,000.

At each film presentation, viewer guides and comment cards were given to audience members, and a project or local scholar spoke to the audience prior to their viewing of the film. In all but two occasions, Sheldon and/or Weiss traveled with the film, meaning that they saw an appreciable portion of their newly adopted state’s 30,865 square miles.

Evocative of a Time and Place

There is no single reason for the enthusiasm From Stump to Ship arouses in its viewers. The director of the Smithsonian’s Human Studies Film Archives and a founding board member of Northeast Historic Film, Pamela Wintle, believes that the film is tremendously popular because it captures a reality that resonates with Maine viewers.

“As long as the state of Maine exists, as long as there are woods, this will be a primary document for a way of life that does not exist any more,” Wintle said. “It helps us to come close to the flavor of the time–to know what the men looked like; to know how they moved; to even understand their faces. The film captures that Yankee toughness and that certain wry quality. It’s evocative of a time and a place.”

Ames’ text adds a critical dimension to the film, Wintle believes, for his words pay tribute to the human element of the lumber industry and help viewers connect with the film’s regional identity. “It’s just so unassuming,” she explained. “He names the people you see in the film, and he tells where they are from. He also uses the language of logging and because viewers have the visual context, the terms that he uses are understandable. And the ending of the film is incredibly poignant, as he reflects on the twilight of his career.”

Founding of Northeast Historic Film

Shortly after their work began on the From Stump to Ship project, it became obvious to Sheldon and Weiss that amateur film resonated with the people of Maine. Creating a documentary production company may have been a logical next step, but they were more intrigued with developing a regional archives.

“It would have taken one or two years to produce a documentary,” Weiss explained. “But that would have required ignoring the incredible wealth of film and video we knew was heading for dumpsters. We could save the material for 100 documentaries, or we could spend a year making one.”

“Moving images overwhelmed and dominated the twentieth century because of their effectiveness,” Weiss explained. “They are significant part of the historical record of the twentieth century. Of course people had recognized this long before we came on the scene, but they were operating on a national level. We realized that we could do this for the region.”

Films Were Being Thrown Away

They guessed there were many other film documents that were either publicly inaccessible or stored improperly. They also were aware that many people did not understand the value of amateur films and that many such films were likely to be thrown away, if they hadn’t been disposed of already. Having seen the effectiveness of From Stump to Ship, Sheldon and Weiss believed that a collection of moving images could also help to strengthen regional identity.

“We saw that people could really connect to a film that had been made for an entirely different purpose,” Sheldon said. “It wasn’t necessary to add an interpretation for it to have meaning for people. That was eye-opening for us.”

Yet, a collection of amateur, industrial, independent, news, and other films and videotapes cannot have meaning for anyone unless they are made accessible to audiences and placed in a proper context. Here lies one of the fundamental components of Northeast Historic Film’s success. The From Stump to Ship project helped Sheldon and Weiss to envision Northeast Historic Film as a conduit between films and audiences, and since 1985 they have found ways to unite viewers and amateur and regional films. Unlike many archives across the country, Northeast Historic Film seems to be guided by a respect for both films and audiences. Such a philosophy ensures that people in northern New England and beyond will have the opportunity to view moving images and connect with them in interesting ways.


Further Reading

"Records of Loss," by Janna Jones