Canadian collector stumbles across local Backus, Hackensack video history
A film reel with footage of a 1941 football game between Backus and Hackensack has spurred an investigation
In 1941, the area looked very different. This was long before the Pine River and Backus school districts merged, and before the Walker, Hackensack and Akeley schools joined to form one district.
As such, both Backus and Hackensack had their own schools and their own football teams, and on one unknown day that year, someone at a game between the two teams recorded those players. Not much else is known, but vintage home footage collector Francois Arseneault wants to know more.
Arseneault, a photographer from Vernon, British Columbia, has thousands of reels of home footage that he has collected over the years. Much of what he has was recorded by average, everyday people, though occasionally he gets real gems for his collection, including family footage from former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Mahlon Pitney, who served from 1911-1922.
"I've been a cameraman, videographer for my entire career of over 35 years now, and I've always had a fascination with 16 millimeter motion picture film," Arseneault said.
His interest started in the 1970s in school when teachers would occasionally project films in class. The rare films that weren't boring sparked his interest, so he learned to be a projector operator, which led to buying his first camera, practicing photography and videography and ultimately collecting home films.
"It sort of happened by accident," Arseneault said. "I came across a stack of 16 millimeter films that were going to be tossed in the rubbish pile. I thought, no, you can't do that, but they said, 'It's not important, it's old stuff. Nobody cares any more.' Those words really stuck in my head."
Recently, Arseneault bid on footage being sold at an auction in Illinois, and won. Using high tech digital converters, he quickly turned it from 16mm film to a digital recording, after which he did minor edits to stabilize the footage, fix speed issues with the playback and smooth things out a bit.
Then he watched the footage in all its glory, to see what he could learn about it.
A sign on the outside of a building in the footage identified the location of the football game as Backus High School. Other signs, shirts and text in the footage revealed that the other team was from Hackensack High School and that some of the footage was in other places like a resort or campground in Walker.
Using clues from the film such as license plates, as well as markers on the reel, Arseneault was able to determine that the film itself was from 1941, and so was the footage. Then, as he does with the films that catch his attention, he decided to reach out to people in the Backus and Hackensack communities.
"I've had some of these reels where I have spent a day and a half, two days or three days analyzing them to the point where I decided to see what other people can figure out," Arseneault said.
Arseneault reached out for help learning about the film subjects for several reasons. He's not just a film collector, but a preservationist, an archivist and, in a way, an amateur anthropologist. To him, the footage is a study of the lives of the Backus community as well as that time in history.
It shows how the students were enjoying themselves before a tumultuous time in history; it shows them eating hot dogs and baked beans and drinking Coca-Cola. It even shows the cars their parents were driving in addition to fashion choices.
"I've got nothing to gain from this financially, it's just more than a hobby. I do have another motive," Arseneault said. "Many of my friends and colleagues are school teachers here in Canada. With the pandemic hitting us in March and my work drying up at the time I thought, 'What if I produce some little pieces that I have here and turn them into little mini episodes and potentially some of my school teacher colleagues could use these as training aids for a class or lecture?'"
On a personal level, Arseneault is curious about what was yet to come for those people in the film, especially with World War II on the horizon and some of those featured close to drafting age.
"In a year's time your country enters the Second World War," Arseneault said. "So, these teenagers, how many of these boys signed up? How many of these boys went overseas? How many never returned home? I find the value and importance of these films to be much more than just entertainment, but also historical."
Arseneault's research is more difficult because it is unlikely that most of the people in the video are still alive.
"The youngest of these kids will be in their early 90s today if they're still alive," Arseneault said. "And then sometimes the deeper the research is, it ends up resulting in somebody saying, 'That's my grandfather. You know, that's my great-grandfather, that's my father.' That to me is is so enjoyable and so rewarding, and being able to connect people with their past. And that's one of the reasons why I do this."
The footage immediately caught the attention of Backus locals who quickly shared links to it with others. When they found out about the footage, members of the local history group Heritage Group North couldn't help but be excited.
"At first I thought maybe it was a John Rohr film that was given to someone in Backus, but some of his films are really grainy," said Bev Kramp, with HGN. "That one was so sharp and clear. Then it led to the question of who in Backus would have been able to afford a camera to do that? The whole thing about this film is exciting, but it creates so many questions."
Arseneault's goals with archiving and preserving footage like this are very much in line with HGN's own goals locally. If it weren't for 2020 gathering restrictions, the group had been gathering documents, yearbooks and other records of the area's educational history for its annual "Lost Pine River" event, with this year focusing on Pine River-Backus School and other area schools that once would have been located within the current school district.
"We were going to have the event at the actual school and serve lunch at the school," said Annette Houg, with HGN. "That would be a really nice place to show the film."
Arseneault has said he is willing to speak to HGN about having his footage included in the event.
HGN members have already started looking to find out what they can about the footage. They quickly realized that it is possible the footage could have been a very early film from John Rohr, who had begun filming slice of life news reels for his theaters located in several communities since 1935.
HGN has footage from Rohr that includes footage from Backus of several events, as well as footage from athletic games from area communities outside of Pine River.
Unfortunately, though HGN has been collecting yearbooks from Pine River and Backus, they do not seem to have yearbooks that would have photos of the players in these games. Fortunately, the Backus Area Old Timers used to release an annual newspaper called "Backus Area News," which recounted stories from Backus' history.
Among other things, they included yearbook photos of the graduating students of 1941, 1942, 1943 and more, meaning someone with a sharp eye could compare the photos to those in the videos and possibly make a positive identification.
Otherwise, the best bet for learning more about the film is to share it with people who might recognize one of the players. Sharing the video might unlock other information about the locations or events.
"There's all these clues. In this footage you just have to identify what the clue is and then try to learn from it," Arseneault said. "So it's really a lot of fun."
Arseneault suggests that anyone who views the video and sees something they could add should include their thoughts in the comment section of his YouTube video, because that not only allows him to see the information, but allows the rest of the community to also see and possibly build on it. Tips may also be submitted to the Echo Journal. A followup story may be possible if enough information is uncovered.
On a related note, Heritage Group North is still working to digitize yearbooks for the Pine River and Backus schools. Currently, the group has grant funding to pay for all but $2,000 of the digitization process, but they are also still looking for more Backus High School yearbooks, including for 1941 and surrounding years.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.