Looking for some rare old films to watch? Other than Archive.org or YouTube–if you don’t mind wading through an ocean of fuzzy public domain copies and painful soundtracks–I can’t think of a better place to go than the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. It has a free online library of freshly-preserved films, everything from 1910s cartoons to 1940s documentaries. And I recently discovered that the site was also hiding a marvelous surprise–for me, anyways!
On their “Treasures from the American Film Archives” screening room page they the link for a 14-minute film called Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther (1939). The caption caught my eye: “Preserved by Minnesota Historical Society.” I, a native Minnesotan, thought: “Hold on! Cologne? Wait, was this filmed in that Cologne?”
Cologne, Minnesota, you see, is a little town only a short drive from where I grew up. You zip past cornfields and soybean fields and cow pastures for awhile, cross a highway, and there it is, with an old railroad line running through it and a pretty little lake along one side. I still live pretty close by, and last year I even considered buying a house there! And lo and behold there it was, the star of a pre-WWII amateur film. How could I not check that out?
Obviously some research was in order, too. I found out that Cologne was filmed by Dr. Raymond (Ray) Dowidat and his wife Esther, who had moved to the little town in 1937 after Ray completed his medical training. At the time it was a small German farm community (population 350!), and Ray would serve as its general practitioner for two years before heading to the Twin Cities. Before the Dowidats left they decided to make an affectionate documentary of life in peaceful Cologne, using a 16mm camera.
And my gosh, my gosh what a little gem they made–and I swear that isn’t just my bias talking! There was no sound of course, being an old-school amateur film and all, so the Dowidats came up with a clever workaround by showing Esther writing about Cologne in a diary and having her written excerpts serve as the title cards.
They had a remarkable knack for editing, simply filming each scene in sequence so most editing was “in camera.” The scenes flow so nicely and briskly, taking you from long shots of the town (clearly taken from up in the local feed mill!) to peaceful scenes of cattle grazing near the lake, to getting up close with the easygoing locals.
Despite being filmed at the tail end of the Great Depression, the farms and businesses in Cologne seemed to be staying busy. Shots capture farmers manning threshing machines in the nearby fields–the kind of machines you see moldering away in cow pastures today, or sometimes displayed proudly by someone’s barn.
We see men in their overalls at work in the feed mill (they can’t help grinning at the camera) and learn that the mayor “is also the village blacksmith.” A train approaches–we learn that “Cologne, on one of the main lines of the Milwaukee railroad, was at one time an important little railroad town. Now–” A joke shot shows the mayor’s standing with a stop sign, only to have the train whizz by. Ah, the fate of many former little railroad towns…!
There’s a surprising sophistication to the cinematography, the Dowidats clearly being film enthusiasts who had deciphered just where to place a camera. Some of the montages of farmers in the fields and the angles of the feed mill gave me little hints of Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and even Eisenstein’s portrayals of the proletariat. Only Cologne is naturally infused with simple, everyday Americana: shopkeepers in suspenders posing in front of stores with signs for hamburgers and Chesterfield cigarettes, smiling girls twirling batons in local firemen’s parades, workers enjoying beer at the local saloon at the end of the day, newly-filled feed sacks with bright designs waiting to be hauled away. A few of those same feed sacks, faded and stained, just might be lurking in piles of old fabric in some dusty antique shops.
Cologne is available thanks to the Dowidats’ daughter, who found the film stored away in Esther’s attic. She donated it to the Minnesota Historical Society, which was able to secure a grant to preserve. It currently has a soundtrack composed by Martin Marks, which uses vintage songs like the state anthem “Hail! Minnesota.” Happily, the film was so admired that the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 2001. The little home video of a humble rural community was given the same historical recognition as The Sound of Music, Jaws and Planet of the Apes.
So since I’ve decided to cover Cologne for Rural America In Film Month, you probably guessed I’d want to show you guys what the town’s like today. It hasn’t changed all that much! In fact, one of the reasons I was so excited about this film was because some of the buildings are there to this day.
It’s grown a bit from 350 people, but it’s still a small town. There’s a housing development on the other side of the highway now, otherwise the population would probably still be in the three digit realm!
Here we are on highway 284 that heads through town, also called Paul Avenue. You might consider it “Main Street”! It’s more developed than it was in the Dowidats’ time. Some buildings have been renovated and newer structures have popped up too:
Yes, the feed mill abides! A more modern mill stands on the original spot:
I was excited to see this shot in the film, because I recognized that cool brick house right away:
It still stands proudly along Paul Avenue.
Here’s another old-time charmer:
While walking downtown, this cool old well pump caught my eye. When I rewatched Cologne the other day, well I’ll be darned if that’s not the same pump in one of the shots!
The little lake on the northwest side of town is as idyllic as ever. The Catholic church is up the hill on the right. There’s more trees on the west side (which is left, just outside the frame), and there’s houses and a park where cattle used to graze. The house I wanted is on that other side there–if only it didn’t need an expensive repair…!
Now, I’ve spent many an hour meandering around Hollywood, looking for various filming locations and movie star haunts. But getting to see this humble location in that light–a place that’s practically in my backyard–was sure special.
The spirit of Cologne must’ve thought so too, because when I was down by the railroad tracks heading towards my car something magical happened. Now, I know the trains in this general county area very well, I lived a block from a railroad track for years and every train I’ve ever seen was one of those endless industrial ones hauling petroleum or grain. A horn sounded, and what should zoom by but a restored 1950s locomotive, with dining cars and all!
There it was, and then there it wasn’t, an old veteran of the Milwaukee railroad line Esther mentioned in her diary. And the familiar old town was peaceful again, as it was in the Dowidats’ day and as it hopefully always will be.