Making of the Film
The Afton Historical Society Press published William G. Gablers book Death of a Dream in 1997. The images and text told the poignant story of the deserted farmhouses that dot the Midwest prairie and of a life that no longer exists. Not long after the book was published, the publisher approached Twin Cities Public Television with the idea of doing a film or video version of the book. After discussions an agreement was reached and producer John Whitehead was enlisted to head up the project.
Whitehead recalls, "From the time I actually signed onto the project until we began shooting was about two or three weeks." In that time, Whitehead studied the book and lined up a number of people to interview. The entire film took about nine months to shoot and edit. Whitehead describes the entire project as a "process of discovery" that he shares with his audience.
William Gabler, the books author, didnt want to appear in the film, however he provided the production staff with detailed county road maps marked with the locations of houses pictured in his book. When Whitehead and his crew went out on location in southwestern Minnesota, they discovered that many of the houses were no longer there.
At first Whitehead wanted to tell the story of one particular house. "It proved very difficult," he says. "We could find a house with a story, but it wouldnt be architecturally interesting. We could find one that was architecturally interesting, but the last people who lived there moved away 45 years ago and the stories were lost."
Whitehead eventually abandoned the idea. He decided that the film should tie together the disparate pieces of past and present, farming and home life, house and land. As Whitehead puts it, "This really wasnt a show just narrowly about architecture, or agriculture, or history. It was about all of them." But he also wanted to tell a human story.
He did a series of interviews with historians and scholars who knew the history of agriculture and society on the American prairie. He also interviewed older people who had grown up on the farms and knew first hand what life was like when the houses on the prairie were almost new.
Whitehead began to shape the film. "I realized how alive in the imagination this history was and how personal it was. And I knew that if we could get that sense of real lives living in real houses then the audience would get it. And so, that really became the roadmaptaking those interviews and building the show around them."
While interviewing historian Joe Amato at Southwestern State in Marshall, Minnesota, Whitehead became acquainted with Lisa Rainey, the college student who takes viewers out to some of the ruins and explores them as the camera follows. Rainey, who Whitehead calls a "real find," had done her senior thesis on the old farmhouses near her home in southwestern Minnesota.
Through Lisa, viewers have the vicarious experience of driving through a field to an abandoned farmhouse nestled in a grove of trees. (The small groves of trees are definite clues to the locations of farmsteads, because the prairies were treeless. Trees were planted to break the torrents of wind that rushed across the empty spaces.) Lisa leads viewers into the houses and allows them to sift through the remains of a past era with her.
One of the most spectacular events that Whitehead shot never made it into the final film. It was a whole sequence of a rural fire department burning a house down. In the southwestern Minnesota counties where the film was done, many of the old Scandinavian farmers will keep the houses on their properties, often at great risk of insurance claims, just because of the attachment they feel to the houses. When they do make the decision to get rid of a house, they often have it burned down as a test or practice for the rural fire department.
Vernon Lund, one of the "old timers" that appear in the film, was quite pleased to be interviewed about growing up on a farmstead. He also provided part of the musical soundtrack for the show. While being interviewed, Lund surprised the entire crew by pulling an ancient harmonica from his pocket and treating them to an impromptu concert. Everyone looked at one another and said, "Well, thats going to be in the final cut!"
While researching the documentary, the staff stumbled upon a film produced by the Northern States Power Company. The film, shot in 1924, was part of a project to encourage farmers to electrify their homesteads. In typical fashion, the film showed "before" and "after" shots of how electricity would change farm life. The "before" footage is probably the most accurate depiction of the early 20th Century that exists on film.
After filming interviews, shooting on location, and assembling additional footage and stills, Whitehead and his staff edited the film and contacted Steve Heitzeg to write the musical score for the documentary.
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