Durham County

Digitized films from Duke show side of Triangle towns that few have seen

A still from a 1937 H. Lee Waters film shows a young boy in Clayton. The film is one of dozens recently digitized by Duke University Libraries.
A still from a 1937 H. Lee Waters film shows a young boy in Clayton. The film is one of dozens recently digitized by Duke University Libraries. DUKE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES

In the age of social media, H. Lee Waters’ old films seem somewhat familiar.

They show random people doing random things in front of a camera. Some smile – others don’t – as they walk to and from church, leave school or waltz down streets in rural North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Waters shot his films to show to the people he captured with his camera. The “See Yourself in the Movies” business venture attracted large crowds at local theaters.

The films feature several towns in the Triangle, including Chapel Hill, Clayton, Smithfield and Fuquay-Varina, among others.

Now, nearly 80 years later, a digitization effort by Duke University Libraries has drawn a younger audience to the films, which offer a rare glimpse of life during the Great Depression. They’re a window into an era many have seen only in still photographs.

After collecting about 106 reels of film starting in the 1980s, Duke finished digitizing many of the movies last year and published them on its Digital Collections website in January.

The films, which feature more than 50 communities, can be found at www.library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hleewaters.

Lisa McCarty, curator of Duke’s Archive of Documentary Arts, said the Waters collection, online for only a month so far, already is the most popular digital collection to date.

“The popularity stems from folks in North Carolina looking for their hometowns, and they want to see what it looked like during that time,” McCarty said. “Some folks who were in the films are still alive or are descendents of people. Others want to see what the downtowns looked like.”

In the Clayton film, for instance, Waters captures students walking to school, local businesses such as Wall’s Shoe Shop, a dog walking down the street on its hind legs and lots of men wearing hats.

“It gives you a connection to the past and possible family members and friends,” said Clayton historian Pam Baumgartner.

“Looking at the businesses was amazing to me,” Baumgartner said. “I enjoyed seeing what they were wearing and what they were doing.”

Clayton’s Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library has its own copy of the Waters film, but Baumgartner said Duke’s film is far clearer. She thinks that will help people more easily identify subjects in the films, a pastime of residents for years.

The Waters family donated films to Duke, as did towns and local historical societies that bought the reels from Waters later in his career.

The Fuquay Springs Quester Chapter No. 1134 sent its copy of the Waters film to Duke years ago, said Shirley Simmons, volunteer director for Museums of Fuquay-Varina.

Simmons said the Quester chapter sold a VHS version of the film in 2000 as part of a fundraising effort. The museums have had a DVD copy since 2009.

“We’ve gotten really amused at all the young kids who are now discovering it through Facebook and online,” Simmons said.

While most of Waters’ films were shot in black and white, some are in color. All the films in Duke’s current digital collection are silent.

A moneymaking venture

After shooting footage in a town, Waters would return to his native Lexington and process the film. He’d return to the town two to three weeks later and charge residents 10 to 25 cents to see the movie, said Waters’ biographer, Tom Whiteside, a Durham filmmaker and historian.

Whiteside said Waters saw the films as a moneymaking venture. By capturing as many people as possible, he knew his subjects would come to watch themselves on the big screen.

And he was right.

Waters’ log books, also part of Duke’s digital collection, show he typically made $80 to $150 at his screenings. He made $87.30, for instance, during a screening of the Clayton reel at the former Wades Theatre in 1937.

Duke’s digital collection represents about half of the 118 communities Waters visited. Some of the other towns, not featured in the online collection, include Apex, Pittsboro, Sanford and Wake Forest.

Whiteside said that while most “See Yourself in the Movies” films often are boring, with posed scenes, Waters’ style of filming as many people as possible made his work more interesting.

“He was often really just kind of wildly swinging the camera around,” Whiteside said.

A photographer by trade

Waters, who died in 1997, spent most of his life working as a studio photographer in Lexington, where he also took photos of liquor stills for the sheriff’s department and of segregated lines to the movie theater.

“He captured life as it was and as it happened; there is no editorializing,” said Catherine Hoffmann, curator of the Davidson County Historical Museum in Lexington.

His photos are included in several displays at the museum, and Hoffmann said the county is opening an H. Lee Waters Photography Gallery this spring.

While commercial photography was his main interest, the films were a way to earn a living when families weren’t spending money on studio time during the Depression.

In addition to the films he shot in North Carolina, Waters also traveled to South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. The film he shot in Kannapolis was placed on the National Film Registry in 2004.

Waters made more than 250 films in all, and Duke hopes its collection will grow as more people or groups realize they own one of his reels.

“It’s a phenomenal historical resource,” Hoffmann said. “He shot downtown areas, schools and factories. As a body of work, it’s outstanding.”

Dunn: 919-553-7234, ext. 104