Historical Society seeks old films, videos

Minigrant supports digital conversion through Dorchester Video Preservation Project

CAMBRIDGE — Do you have old films or videos of Dorchester County collecting dust in your attic or basement? Bring them to the Dorchester County Historical Society.

The society recently received a minigrant to support the Dorchester Video Preservation Project, an effort to convert old videos and film to digital media archives. A member of the historical society, Frank Bittner has a professional background in the use of old radio and audio/visual equipment. Speaking June 13, he said TV stations and other media outlets are trashing old videos across the country for lack of space, and resources and equipment to convert them.

“It’s a shame because we can read in books and we can look up old Microfilm newspaper archives of what happened, but our only motion picture with sound reference, we’re throwing it away,” he said. “One good thing about today is you can store thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of video on a book drive on your shelf that takes up one inch worth of space.”

And that is exactly the intent of the Dorchester Video Preservation Project.

One of the first videos to be archived is named “The Face of Cambridge 1940,” according to Mr. Bittner. He said it was preserved by Ken Thomas Jr., of Thomas Funeral Home in Cambridge. The old video features many scenes from Dorchester, including one of the first National Outdoor Shows. It also shows winter oystering on the Choptank River, with ice frozen solid enough to support cars dragging their catch behind them. Another scene shows children frolicking in front of the old Mill Street school in Cambridge, which is now vacant and boarded up.

“They’re teaching tools,” Mr. Bittner said of old videos. “They don’t do any good sitting in attics or on shelves.”

Once “The Face of Cambridge 1940” is fully restored, Mr. Bittner would like to host an event to honor Mr. Thomas for preserving the film. He would like to sit down with Mr. Thomas to hear his thoughts and record his knowledge of the video.

Dorchester Banner/Bob Zimberoff
From left, Frank Bittner and Erick Windsor, display a Sony U-Matic Videocasette Recorder June 13 at the Meredith House, part of the Dorchester County Historical Society Heritage Museum and Gardens. The two are working with the Dorchester County Public Library, and other members of the historical society, on the Dorchester Video Preservation Project. Anyone with old family or other films and videos from Dorchester are asked to call the historical society at 410-228-7953.

Mr. Bittner is also working with Erick Windsor, a young tech and history enthusiast; Ann Phillips, society director; Frances Cresswell, director of the Dorchester County Public Library; and others to convert old videos from the library’s archives.

Working on another historical society project in 2003, Mr. Bittner said he discovered, “lots and lots of tapes … sitting on the floor all stacked up,” at the library. He was told that the tapes were a collection from the Cambridge-South Dorchester and North Dorchester High School video clubs. Mr. Bittner said the collection dates from roughly 1978 to 1982.

“One of their activities was to document, record and preserve examples of county life and events — marches, parades, football games, building dedications, church choirs,” Mr. Bittner said. “This is amazing Dorchester County history.”

For years, he wanted to do something with the old tapes, and now he finally has the opportunity. Mr. Bittner is hoping to connect with former members of the old video clubs.

“It would be invaluable for them to come in and talk to us,” he said.

To convert the old high school videos, he is using a Sony U-matic Videocassette Recorder from the 1970s that he described as, “the grandfather of Beta machines.”

Mr. Windsor has a personal collection of records and audio tapes that predate audio cassettes. He met Mr. Bittner roughly five years ago.

“I’ve been interested in electronics, and preservation and history, for a while,” Mr. Windsor said June 13. “I actually met Frank at the historical society, and he took me under his wing. He taught me how to service these old machines, and taught me how to do repairs. … I gained an understanding of this equipment.”

Mr. Bittner also has knowledge of older film projectors and recorders, such as the 8MM format.

“Hopefully, we’ll get other folks who are interested in preservation, who are excited about these things,” Mr. Bittner said. “I certainly would love to teach sound and recording and the things that I learned in my life.”

Ultimately, the goal is to collect and digitize as many old films and videos as possible.

“The historical society should be considered by all residents of the county as the central repository of our history,” Mr. Bittner said. “If they have boxes of old photographs or films — church pictures, group pictures, downtown buildings — throw them in a box and call us to come pick them up. Let us decide what should be saved. So much of our history is being thrown out and going to landfills.”

To share old videos, films, pictures or other historic pieces, or to express interest in helping with the Dorchester Video Preservation Project, call the historical society at 410-228-7953.

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