eBay buy uncovers Durham history

jwise@newsobserver.com March 19, 2012 

When Durham film collector Tom Whiteside bought “Tobaccoland USA” on eBay a few weeks ago, he didn’t know what he was getting.

Turned out, he got a surprise.

“I just knew it was going to be tobacco. I didn’t know it was going to be Durham,” he said.

What he had bought was an all-but forgotten and almost lost piece of local history: a 17-minute segment from a 1939 documentary about tobacco growing and manufacturing in Durham. In particular, the movie documents the tobacco-farming Van Buren Ellis family as they go through a year from seed bed preparation to celebrating after harvest.

Winston Ellis, 82, remembers it well.

“I had a lot of fun doing this,” he said.

One morning last week, Ellis and his friend Ernestine King sat down for a screening in Whiteside’s living room. Ellis watched the plowing and the planting, the buyers and the barbecue, the curing and the congregation singing at Ellis Chapel church.

“That was wonderful!” Ellis said when it was over. He hadn’t seen himself on screen since 1940.

Books and movies

“Tobaccoland USA” was commissioned by the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. and produced by the March of Time newsreel company in 1939. It premiered Thursday, Feb. 29, 1940, at the University of North Carolina and Duke University, then played Friday and Saturday at the Carolina and Regal theaters.

Admission was free, courtesy of Liggett & Myers, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

“They played it along with another film that was about (bandleader) Fred Waring producing a radio show,” Whiteside said. “It was called ‘Pleasure Time.’”

What became of the movie afterwards, Whiteside would like to find out.

“I looked up as much as I could about the film,” he said. “I haven’t found much.”

Searching the Internet turns up references to what is apparently a second version, made around 1950 and featuring a tobacco family in Virginia, as well as vintage postcards from “Tobaccoland USA” and a book of the same title.

The book also came out in two versions, both of which are in the Durham Public Library’s North Carolina Collection. They are magazine-size and format, one copyrighted by Liggett & Myers in 1950, featuring the Virginians, and the other copyrighted in 1940 and filled with still pictures of Durham, the two universities, tobacco auctions and the Ellis family at work and play.

It turned out that, about the same time Whiteside started researching “Tobaccoland,” Winston Ellis was doing the same thing and their paths crossed through the Duke Homestead State Historic Site – where staffers had heard of the film but never seen a copy.

Country gentleman

In early 1939, Winston Ellis was a 9-year-old boy in an extended farming family. Van Buren Ellis, patriarch in the film, was a cousin of Winston’s grandfather and young Winston spent a lot of his time with his kinfolk, especially when the March of Time arrived.

“I guess they chose (Van Buren) because he was the most prominent” of the county’s tobacco farmers, Ellis said. “He was what you call a country gentleman. He couldn’t drive, he had a driver, and he’d dress up and put his collar on, (when) he’d come to town.”

Hanging around the filming just to see what went on, Winston got to know a producer – he recalls the name as “Phillips.”

“I was with him almost all the time he was filming,” Ellis said, and got to ride around in Phillips’s “wood-grain Ford wagon he kept his equipment in, cameras and such.”

He got to be in one scene, too, eating watermelon with other boys, but the scene was so brief he couldn’t tell which boy he was. But he spotted his childhood Sunday School teacher in one scene, his sister in another and a cousin Hazel in a sequence filmed at church.

Whiteside’s segment begins with the church choir singing, but quickly moves onto the farm to introduce the Ellises. They’re described as a self-sufficient folk – “In a pinch, the whole family could get by without ever leaving the farm,” says the off-screen narrator. “They even make their own soap.”

Then on to cutting wood, burning over seedbeds to sterilize the soil, spreading fertilizer and setting the seedlings out by hand over 261 acres – A lot as tobacco farms go, and all paid for, too.” The year moves on through spring and summer, when the company buyers come to check the crop and it’s time for the barbecue.

“For years, the Ellis family barbecue has been the biggest summertime affair in almost all of Durham County,” said the narrator.

“I like the way they’re chopping the barbecue with hatchets,” said Whiteside.

Then through harvesting, curing and selling.

‘Game of games’

“The end of the tobacco season is a time for relaxation.” Scenes change to family get-togethers, and football games complete with campus dances and a game-eve bonfire blazing 30 feet into the air.

“The annual Duke-Carolina game. ... Every year 50,000 people from every part of the U.S. gather together for Tobaccoland’s game of games.”

It was, after all, 1939. (Duke won, 13-3.)

The complete film, Whiteside said, probably ran about 30 minutes, “That was kind of a standard time.” He’s hoping to find a complete copy, somewhere, preferably one he can afford to buy.

HBO owns the March of Time archive, he said, and if it has a “Tobaccoland” HBO would charge for copies by the second.

In the meantime, he’s looking for more information and planning to screen the movie in one of his Durham Cinematheque events at Durham Central Park this summer.

“That was a good film,” said Winston Ellis. “You got a gold mine there.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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