A Town in Focus
Warner’s Historical Society Produces Documentary on 40 Years of Town History
By Kim J. Gifford

I feel as though I’ve moved into a community not knowing anything about the place except the terrain, and began to meet the people and learn about the politics, the businesses and the gossip,” says George Packard, a Warner writer and video producer. The community that Packard has moved into is Warner in the years after the Civil War.

Making a movie
Packard is the director of a project to produce a unique, historical documentary movie set in Warner. The movie — titled “This Morning Broke Clear: Warner, N.H., in the Wake of the Civil War” — covers the period between 1860 and 1900, a tumultuous era marked by the aftermath of the Civil War and the town’s efforts to define itself in light of accumulating debt and a declining population.

Although the documentary specifically addresses Warner’s history, the events are representative of those going on in other New England towns during this period. “It could be any other town,” says Packard.

These dramatic changes were one of the primary reasons Packard and the Warner Historical Society chose this era for the documentary. Another reason was the wealth of largely unexplored material the historical society had from this period.

“We have a very rich collection of material and ephemera from that period. This movie gave us a chance to look at our collections in a different way,” says Rebecca Courser, former president of the Warner Historical Society and the documentary’s research director. Also on the project is Marcia Schmidt Blaine, an assistant professor at Plymouth State University and the documentary’s project historian.

Several organizations as well as local individuals and businesses are helping finance the $25,000 documentary, scheduled for completion by the end of the year. These include the New Hampshire Council on the Arts, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the New Hampshire Humanities Council, among others. “We began the planning and grant writing for the movie in the summer of 2004, and began actual research in January 2005,” says Packard. The movie will later premiere in Warner and be available on DVD in early 2007.

The Women in Town
The principles chose early on to create a movie in the tradition of Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War.” It will rely on still photographs and a narrator to drive the action. Rather than on-screen commentary by historical experts, more than 20 off-screen actors — most of them townspeople — will read from original letters and Packard’s 70-page script. Packard has also created a fictional character named Jennie to serve as the narrator.

“One of the first things we did was try to identify some of the key people in town. The idea was to make a move that was based on the stories of the people as much as possible. We took a risk because we didn’t know at that point how many stories there were and to what degree they were told through the diaries and letters in the historical society,” says Packard.

Initial research, unfortunately, yielded few complete narratives. As a result Packard chose to create Jennie as a composite of several women writers who were living in town at this time. He decided to focus on a woman, as the historical material of this time period tends to be thin on women. “Men were louder and got in the newspaper more,” Packard says. “One of the main reasons for using a woman as narrator was to counterbalance the overwhelming men’s voices.”

This was a time where women were taking a more active role in society. “Women were involved in the social aspect of Warner’s history. Although given the right to vote in school elections, there did not seem to be a groundswell of support for woman’s suffrage,” says Courser. “There were women that farmed with hired help, women who earned their keep through the written word and women taught school in Warner’s 24 school districts. Women participated and held office positions in the Grange, the various Temperance organizations and, of course, the Ladies Aid Societies. Women worked as seamstresses, tailors and a few opened their own millinery shops in store buildings on Main Street. Women did not publish articles in newspapers about their viewpoints or print leaflets to distribute around town about their political beliefs, so it is more of a challenge to figure out what women were thinking and feeling.”

Local actress Mary Morris will play Jennie, whose fictional story involves a return to Warner in 1910 to settle her family’s estate. Like many of her era, she grew up and left the town. She settles down at the beginning of the movie to read her memoir, and as she reads refers to actual photographs and letters from the historical society’s collection.

People are people
“I was in no way prepared for the level of detail that you have to go into for something like this,” says Packard. “I was utterly naïve. I expected to sit down with a dozen or more diaries and weave together a narrative. Nothing could be further from the truth. It really came down to reading every word in hundreds of documents. Otherwise, you may miss the one line or two that gives you the reality rather than your own projection.”

As illustration, he quotes a line from the April 4, 1890, edition of the Kearsarge Independent: “the running of ice trains the past few weeks has given an aspect of business to our quiet little borough…”

“You put one little detail like that against everything you picture about the community. I didn’t realize there were trains that trucked ice cut here to other towns until I read that. Suddenly I see wagons hauled by horses or oxen and blocks of ice loaded onto train cars, four or five men working, the sounds of the locomotive backing up. All this from a little thing like that,” says Packard. When possible, Packard tried to work visions like this into the script through authentic photographs, but when these were not available many scenes had to be relayed through narrative.

It’s possibly a first in the Granite State. “We don’t know of any other community-based historical documentary movie projects that have produced a feature-length film covering several decades of a town’s history,” says Packard.

Packard hopes that the documentary will leave viewers with a better sense of the way Warner’s early citizens lived their lives. “It’s always a tendency of people to romanticize the past; that’s universal. Everyone has the sense that, years ago, times were so much simpler and rosier,” he says. “What I hope this movie will do is give people in the Kearsarge region a better sense of how our great grandparents lived a life just as complex and, in some ways, more sophisticated and richer in their social interactions than we do now. Things were different, very different, but what was not different were the people — how they felt, their emotional lives.”

In her 13 years as a working writer, Kim J. Gifford has covered topics on just about everything you could imagine, including the kitchen sink, literally! When she’s not out on assignment, Kim is likely to be found teaching memoir writing at Lebanon College or catering to her precocious pugs, Buffy and Vader.

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