Obscure Films: “Cologne: From The Diary Of Ray And Esther” (1939)

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?”

The opening shot.

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.

Sources:

https://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/t1-cologne-from-the-diary-of-ray-and-esther-1939

https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/

https://www.mnopedia.org/thing/cologne-diary-ray-and-esther-film

10 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “Cologne: From The Diary Of Ray And Esther” (1939)

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this presentation. This site has a habit of “presenting the unique” and
    unique perspectives of things not unique.

  2. Film Found also on youtube 🙂 (I tried to watch on filmpreservation, but it did not work here in Europe). Nice to see life as it was (indeed parallel with Vertov is interesting, or also with Berlin, the symphony of a great city). I love the scene in the saloon (but not sure turtle soup would be my prefered one). Thanks also for the pictures that show how it has changed (or not)

    • You’re so welcome!

      Snapping turtles are still common around here, despite their ancestors sometimes ending up as soup. Last summer I saw one big enough to use as a coffee table! O_o

  3. Wow. This is a gem. And I know it’s special for you, being right there in your own back yard. What a delightful community and a nice looking place to live…. And the people look so pleasant and likable—and so relaxed; in fact, I feel relaxed myself just from watching it . 🙂 I wonder how much German or Dutch was spoken there at that time?

    Yes, the Dowidats definitely had the touch at filmmaking. And the well-chosen music that was added just made it. Thank you for the beautiful photos. It’s really nice to see some of the same things there—most especially the well pump. 😀

    This is really a special and unique addition to your rural month theme. I truly enjoyed that little trip back in time to such a charming place.

    • Yay, I’m so happy you liked it! That well pump must’ve wanted to be famous, here it was right next to the road and I never saw it until last week!

      Seeing actual fellow Minnesotans from times gone by is a reminder of just how packed with stories all these towns are, even the littlest ones. Great stories and lots of characters.

      Btw, Esther looks a lot like my grandma did when she was young!

  4. What a great post! And how exciting to find a film that features a town you know so well. I wish I could uncover one of Geneva, Ohio. Thanks for sharing your find and for the hint to check out the National Film Preservation Foundation site. I’ll return the favor and give you a link to explore, too: https://www.bfi.org.uk/bfi-national-archive/watch-archive-collections ( this is the BFI Film Archive collection that holds thousands of old films and they got a great collection of Edwardian footage, too ).

  5. Hey Lea, great post. I found something you might find interesting as a fellow Minnesotan. On EBAY if you do a search for the “Tower theater” “under newly listed” you will find a seller from Spain listing photos of the Tower theater lobby in St Paul from the 1920’s. Go to the “see his other items” link to see all the photos, there are like twenty two of them.What really struck me was all these displays were created and painted by a amazing artist and on some of them you can see his signature. You can see the displays were created using his own art talent and some cut poster pieces. Sadly many studio produced posters no longer exist today but this shows that there were independent produced advertisement posters created for local theater across the US and what a shame they were just chucked into the dumper. I would love one of these for a wall in my house.

    • I found all those pics, and you’re right they’re awesome! And show a lot of dedication, that’s a lot of posters to churn out week after week. The Harold display was my favorite.

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