Saving an Adirondack outdoorswoman's home movies
by Daniel Eagan
By the shortest route it’s almost seven miles to the summit of Dix Mountain, one of the 46 High Peaks over 4,000 feet. It’s not a journey that you take lightly. Eight years ago, on August 13, 2006, Jeff Truelove climbed all that distance for someone else.
When he reached the top of Dix, Truelove scattered some of his great-aunt Fessy Washburn’s ashes over the summit. She had tried to climb the 46 herself, but age and illness got in the way. She died 13 peaks short of completing her goal. When she consulted with her family, Truelove volunteered to help complete her journey.
“Fessy” to her friends, “Aunt Sis” to her family, Mary Elizabeth Fessenden Washburn was an original. A scientist, genealogist and bird-watcher, she was an adventurer who loved the outdoors—the Adirondacks, but also the Finger Lakes, Europe, Asia and Antarctica.
More important, Fessy documented her travels in photographs and ﬁlms. Some of these survive, a record of a time and place we might barely recognize.
To help preserve Adirondack history, the nonproﬁt organization the Adirondack 46ers is making Fessy’s movies and photographs available to the public. Assisted by the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) and the work of Colorlab in Maryland, about 10 minutes of Fessy’s 8mm home movies were restored and digitized.
Fessy’s ﬁlms are part of a campaign to ﬁnd and protect movies before they disappear. Funded by Congress, the National Film Preservation Foundation awards grants to groups like the American Alpine Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club to restore collections like the Thorington Mountaineering Films (1926–33). Instead of being neglected or discarded, these historically signiﬁcant, one-of-a-kind movies can resume their place as part of our cultural heritage.
Many of the NFPF grants go to feature ﬁlms, such as John Ford’s recently discovered 1927 backstage romance Upstream, or to documentaries like Let There Be Light, about psychologically troubled veterans during World War II. But according to NFPF director Annette Melville, the works most at risk include more ephemeral items like home movies. “While less famous than their Hollywood kin,” Melville writes, “these are irreplaceable records revealing how Americans lived, worked and dreamed. It’s our nation’s history through the eyes of the people who made it.”
Dwight Swanson, of the Baltimore-based Center for Home Movies, adds, “Home movies are sometimes the only ﬁlm record of a person, place or event that might otherwise be forgotten. They show us how life was lived or at least what the ﬁlmmaker felt was important, interesting or beautiful enough to merit documenting.”
Fessy Washburn recorded tourist spots including Whiteface’s summit, Wilmington’s High Falls Gorge and Buttermilk Falls near Long Lake. But she also ﬁlmed more intimate moments: canoeing along the shores of Lake George, setting up camp, and glimpses of rivers, mountains and wildlife surrounding her. Unfortunately, we’re no longer sure of all the locations in the excerpts or even the identities of the companions she ﬁlmed.
Born in Columbia, Missouri, in 1914, Mary Elizabeth Fessenden became interested in photography at a young age as a way to spend time with her father, Edwin Allan Fessenden. Fessenden was the head of the engineering department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, until his retirement in 1940. Fessy went to Cornell in 1932 at the age of 18 and earned pocket money there by developing ﬁlm and printing photographs for her friends.
After graduating in 1936, Fessy went to work at the Ansco Division of General Aniline and Film Corporation (later GAF) in Binghamton. Led by Herman H. Duerr, the sprawling lab employed some 80 chemists devoted to photographic research. One of Duerr’s interests was a color process for motion picture ﬁlm developed by Ansco’s partners at Agfa in Germany.
Duerr and his chemists helped reﬁne what became Ansco Color, a ﬁlm stock that could be processed in the ﬁeld, not just in a lab. Ansco’s 16mm stock became a favorite of the armed forces during World War II. It was used to photograph the liberation of concentration camps in Germany and the raising of the U.S. ﬂag on Iwo Jima.
At the end of the war, the company shifted back to the civilian market, offering Ansco Color in several formats for both still photography and motion pictures. As an Ansco employee, Fessy had access to Ansco Color 8mm stock well before it became available to the public. She used it to document several trips she took in the Adirondacks, starting in the late 1940s.
During college, Fessy became a devoted bird-watcher, a hobby that brought her outdoors. She led canoeing and camping trips on Lake George and the Saranac Lakes. Later she began tackling the High Peaks.
She also fell in love with Newell Washburn, a surgeon she met on a bird-watching hike. They married in 1955 and set up “Red Wing Cottage,” a vacation home on Cranberry Lake. They also traveled through Canada and Europe together. When Newell died, in 1969, Fessy continued her journeys, visiting Asia and Antarctica.
Fessy pecked away at the 46, but she spent just as much time on the trails around her Binghamton home. She was a founding member of the Triple Cities Hiking Club, formed in 1947, and for many years was the treasurer of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. She was also active in the Naturalists’ Club of Broome County, leading a weekly “Weed Walk” around Binghamton. She recorded nesting birds for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas, volunteered for the Vestal Conservation Commission and was regent for the Tuscarora chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Fessy’s dry sense of humor made her a favorite among a wide variety of friends. Describing a two-day climb of Allen when she was in her 70s, she said, “When we ﬁnally made it out, I just collapsed on a rock and ate rice.”
Her niece Elizabeth Truelove remembers how Fessy painted her living room to resemble the outdoors, with brown ﬂoors, green walls and blue for the ceiling. Fessy was, Elizabeth recalls, “a beautiful woman, with crystal blue eyes. But she was quite a character. When Aunt Sis visited my grandmother in her old Victorian home in Troy, she always slept on the sleeping porch. Always. Sometimes on a hammock and sometimes a cot, but always outside.”
Fessy corresponded with 46er historian Grace Hudowalski during her climbs, but had to give up the Adirondacks in 1985. “She had severe osteoporosis, she became very stooped,” Elizabeth says. “It became hard for her to hike. And then she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to be near her sister and nieces and nephews.”
About a half-hour of Fessy’s home movies of the Adirondacks survives, as well as an extensive collection of her slides and still photographs. Fessy edited 100-foot rolls of movie ﬁlm together, onto reels, and stored them in metal containers—as it turns out, a recipe for disaster. Film can shrink, curl and warp. Subjected to temperature ﬂuctuations, it can deteriorate, ﬁrst into a sticky goo and ultimately into dust.
Fessy died in 2004, but through her movies and photographs we can learn something about this strong-willed and fascinating woman and the places she loved.
The Adirondack 46ers are on the lookout for movies about the Adirondacks. They can be contacted via www.adk46 er.org. Learn how to preserve your home movies at the Center for Home Movies’ site, www.centerforhomemovies.org.
See Fessy Washburn’s Adirondack home movies here.
Daniel Eagan is a 46er, former co-editor of Adirondack Peeks magazine and a freelance writer who has contributed articles about movies to The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazines. He lives in New York City.