It had almost become a habit. The October rush. For two years running, we would rush to get application materials in to various local cultural councils. These were for grants to support production and screenings of another episode of our documentary series, “Hit and Run History: The Columbia Expedition.”
But this year was different.
This year, your local band of historians and filmmakers decided to let someone else get a turn. I cannot say enough about this program.
Every year, local cultural councils, supported in large part by disbursements by the Commonwealth’s Massachusetts Cultural Council, receive applications from local individuals and institutions for community based arts and humanities projects. In my many discussions with MCC staff, I learned that there are two key components.
One is there must be an opportunity for the public in the granting community to access the project. This is not to commission a painting that will then hang on the wall of someone’s private library. The other part is, naturally, that the money is to cultivate the grassroots. It is to nurture and encourage people within their community to pursue their talents.
Two years ago, in this very column, I discussed our own efforts to take an obscure chapter of local history and bring it to the world. Armed with only a MacBook Pro, video equipment borrowed from the Cape Cod Community Media Center (with the barest idea of how to use it), and my decade and a half of research and writing on John Kendrick and the Columbia Expedition, Matt Griffin and I probably didn’t look like the most promising candidates.
On that first day of production on a warm, sunny September day, our audio with Mary Malloy, PhD of the Sea Education Association was coming in much too strong. Next, with Thornton Gibbs of Wareham who had led countless tours of Captain Kendrick’s house, the sound was just right. Wrapping the day up with Ben Dunham, former chair of the Wareham Historical Society, the playback volume was so low that we had trouble making out what he was saying.
No wonder that of the 10 local cultural councils we applied to in the first year, only three funded us. This despite our filming in their towns, talking with local historians and commitments to not only hold screenings, but to broadcast to tens of thousands on the local access channel. More often than not, the rejection cited our lack of experience in filmmaking. We realized however, that these were paper rejections. They were based on resumes, not on the importance of the story, work samples, or an understanding of what filmmaking has become. So we set out to prove those three towns right, and the other seven wrong.
The following spring, as promised, we began screening our first installment. Not only in the towns that funded us (Marshfield, Wareham and Chatham) but in the ones that didn’t (Orleans, Harwich, Edgartown, to name a few). We did so because we felt this was an important local piece of local history, and the people of that town shouldn’t miss out just because their local cultural council didn’t believe we could pull this off. And thank God we did.
The original uncut interview with Thornton Gibbs, in his 90s, ran over 40 minutes. He passed away a couple months after we spoke. Captured on tape was his complete account of a tour through the last home John Kendrick knew on this side of the continent.
With our second episode, we were able to fulfill the promise of the first, take that seed money and actually follow Kendrick across the Atlantic to Cape Verde. And using that same Yankee ingenuity, when adversity struck in the form of an epidemic of dengue fever there, we were able to turn the situation around by bringing an aid worker with several boxes of relief supplies to a hospital there. In so doing, we added a new element of journalism when our editor Alex Schwantner shot, edited and uploaded a video of our visit to the overcrowded hospital. Not only were we making a good film, we were doing good. That just would not have happened without that grant money to start us off.
And following on the heels of that, with 10 more cultural council grants the second year, we held the screenings and made the broadcasts to hundreds of thousands in Eastern Massachusetts that led us to our current web series on WGBH today. We can now use the platform of this PBS-powerhouse to fundraise for Hit and Run History’s continuing journey on Kendrick’s seven-year track -- as well as plenty of more information on all the supporting players.
This is a local cultural council success story. We hope you show the same foresight for the round of promising, untested applicants whose requests are currently before you. You gave us a hand up to the next level, which exactly how the process is supposed to work. And we Gumshoe Historians, we scrappy band of intrepid Cape Codders, thank you.
Hit and Run History is now the centerpiece of WGBH’s history site, wgbh.org/history.
Read this and Andy's other columns at The Cape Cod Chronicle.