A demure box logged in the Alaska State Library Historical Collections in Juneau has produced long-lost films of a Kenai Peninsula history conference.
The films, taken in 1974 as part of the history conference held in honor of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia, had long since been buried. The organizer for a planned history conference in April 2017, Shana Loshbaugh, stumbled across them by chance while perusing the library’s collections on Kenai Peninsula history.
“I looked at the online catalog of what they had … and I put in Kenai as a search term to see what they had,” she said. “The description was fairly brief and cryptic … the description they had online didn’t even say it was film.”
The 8 ½ hours of film show well-known local residents discussing the area’s history, including Kenaitze linguist Peter Kalifornsky, former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor Stan Thompson and Soldotna co-founder and homesteader Dolly Farnsworth. The 1974 conference also brought speakers from outside the area, including historian and Orthodox nun Mother Victoria and Alaska historians Morgan Sherwood and Claus Naske.
Loshbaugh, a historian and student of the Russian language, said it was interesting to watch the talks because many aspects of Alaska were different back then. Members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe were just beginning efforts to revive their language at the time, she said, and now classes in Dena’ina are regularly taught at the Kenai Peninsula College.
Through research about the 1974 conference, Loshbaugh learned that the event had been filmed but not what had become of the tapes. It turns out the person who had filmed the conference worked at one of the peninsula’s schools and about nine years after the conference sent the tapes to the historical archives, saying in a letter that the school no longer had the equipment to play them, Loshbaugh said.
The tapes are on a now-archaic type of film that was common in the mid-1970s, said Damon Stuebner, a film specialist with the Alaska Historical Collections who worked on restoring the film. However, it was too degraded to play at first.
Magnetic tape naturally degrades over time. As the polymers within the film break down, pieces break off and stick to the heads of the player, destroying both the tape and the player in what is called sticky shed syndrome, he said. Magnetic film is also lubricated to prevent static, and the lubricant can also degrade over time.
“The magnetic layer of the video tapes will stick to the heads,” Stuebner said. ”And as it continues to play, that will physically peel off and stick and peel off the tape and shed off on the heads.”
However, film restorers are able to temporarily rescue the tape using a low-level heat treatment to readhere the polymers and relubricate, a process sometimes called baking, he said. Stuebner baked the tapes at approximately 100–150 degrees Fahrenheit, which allowed them to be played, he said.
It was also somewhat fortuitous that he could play them at all. The half-inch open reel tapes take a very specific type of player, and the one Stuebner has is fairly old. The automatic tape feeder is also broken, he said. Stuebner had to hand-feed the tape to play it.
“I have a video repair company looking for parts for me, and … the manufacturers no longer make the parts for this anymore,” he said. “I feel very lucky to have been able to play these tapes.”
The baking is only a temporary fix, but it allowed him the chance to play and record the tapes onto a digital format. Some of them were clearly empty, but Stuebner said he was able to rescue all the recorded content for Loshbaugh.
He said he was able to adjust some of the contrast, but the restoration isn’t perfect.
“It is still going to show a lot of its flaws from where there was normal wear and tear on the video tape and there was starting to show places where there was tape decay,” Stuebner said.
Loshbaugh said she has been trying to identify the people in the tapes and reach out to them to let them know that she’s found the footage. She said she’s reached some of those who are still alive but is still trying to reach others.
It wouldn’t be practical to play all 8 ½ hours of the tapes at the 2017 Kenai Peninsula Historical Conference, scheduled for April 20–21 at Kenai Peninsula College, but Loshbaugh said she’s hoping to edit it down to a highlights reel to show. She’s watched all of tapes, and for the people she couldn’t identify, she plans to release stills from the films to ask the public for help.
“(The discovery of the films) was very serendipitous, and people are very excited about it,” she said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.