Silent movie discovered that captures Nacogdoches in 1938

Published on Wednesday, 19 February 2014 10:15 - Written by

A rare piece of Nacogdoches history has been unearthed this week.  This isn’t an Indian artifact, an ancient document, or a grainy photo, as exciting as those always are in the Oldest Town in Texas.

Instead this is a video shot on the streets of Nacogdoches in 1938!  And not an amateur, barely recognizable video—rather a professional quality film that offers a never-before-seen look at the bustling little town in 1938.

Linda Reynolds and Kyle Ainsworth from the East Texas Research Center, Brad Maule from the Stephen F. Austin Cinematography school, Jan Dobbs Barton, Nacogdoches historian, and Davy DuBose, son of retired NHS Assistant Principal Erwin DuBose (who rescued the film), gathered in the screening room at the SFA Film House to view the film on Tuesday night, along with several graduate students.  As the film rolled, those in the room could not believe what they were seeing. 

The black and white silent film began with footage of a long ago Sawyers-Pine Burrs dance in January 1938 at SFA.  It then moved to businesses and close-ups of workers and shoppers as they went about their everyday lives.  Many seemed a little unnerved by the presence of the camera, some stepping back inside doorways when they realized they were being filmed, others stepping unknowingly into posed shots, creating the 1938 version of the photo-bomb.  There was no sound recorded on the film, but that was the norm in 1938 for a Newsreel-type film.

Linda and Brad were more than excited by the find and asked Davy to relay how it came into his father’s possession.

Davy explained that his father was working as assistant principal at NHS in the 1960’s and was given the task to oversee a major clean-up of the high school building, the Chamberlain Building or ‘Old White Building’ at that time.  The school was completed in 1940 as a WPA project and its outside was due a sandblasting.  The attic was cleaned out as part of the spruce-up.

Mr. DuBose found a roll of film, devoid of its metal canister, lying atop a trash can, labeled simply “Nacogdoches 1938.”  He rescued it from doom in the incinerator and took it to his school office, putting out feelers to see if anyone knew anything about it or would claim it.  Years went by and no one claimed it.  He took a job in 1971 as a principal in another East Texas town, and stored the film in a box with other items removed from his office.

His wife would clean out their store room through the years and ask to throw the film away, but Mr. DuBose insisted on keeping it.  Davy and his dad were cleaning again as Mr. DuBose was moving to Lufkin.  Davy pulled the film out of the box, with a nice dirt dauber nest firmly attached to it after years of storage.  Davy cleaned it up as best he could and then took it to a film restoration service The Reel House in Flower Mound, Texas and was delighted to learn that it could be salvaged. 

Davy presented the DVD of the film to his dad and they watched it together for the first time.  Knowing he had something of a true historical nature, Davy said that he wanted to get it into the hands of someone who would appreciate it.  He contacted his friend Jan, knowing she was an avid Nacogdoches history buff.  She in turn contacted Linda and Brad, and the historic screening was arranged.

Davy and his father have graciously donated the original film to the East Texas Research Center at SFASU, where it will be properly stored.

Linda’s first reaction upon being handed the film was to smell it, something only an archivist would understand.  As Director of the East Texas Research Center at the SFASU Steen Library, Linda says, ‘We are excited to have this rare piece of Nacogdoches history.  It’s as if a time capsule has been opened and we are able to have a glimpse into what was going on in Nacogdoches over 75 years ago.  We would love to have more East Texas history come to light so that it too can be shared and preserved for future generations to learn from and enjoy.’

Brad, although not a native of Nacogdoches, has lived here long enough and studied history and landmarks.  He recognized some of the locations around town, which still look relatively the same.  The filmmaker was thoughtful enough to shoot building fronts with the names fully displayed making it easy to recognize The Liberty Hotel, the Redland Hotel, Navarro Cox Tire Company, and the Nacogdoches High School building that pre-dated the Chamberlain building, among many others.

Jan saw her classmate John Swearingen’s mom, Joyce Bright Swearingen, working behind the counter at her parents’ Novel Bright Grocery Store.  When contacted to perhaps shed some light on the mystery of the film’s origins, Joyce could not remember it being shot, but will view it this week, as will Dr. Ab Abernethy.

A sneak peek of the film will be offered this weekend at the SFA Film Festival.  Go to for information.

If you have any information about the film, please contact Linda at ETRC or Brad at SFASU.  Questions to be answered – who shot the film, why was it shot, why was it stored in the attic at NHS, are there more reels in storage somewhere?

Plans are in place to have a musical soundtrack made and then screen the film to the public at a later date at the Cole Art Center.  Copies will be available for purchase at that time.