Jefferson Public Library project puts 138 years of microfilm online

After a while, I had to start assuming it was a false memory, even though the fuzzy mental image of Darth Vader and C-3PO hanging out on the Square in Jefferson has been with me for as long as I can remember.

On one hand, I suppose it could have been the product of wishful thinking.

After all, in reorganizing our fireproof safety box at home recently, I inexplicably came across action figures of Chewbacca and Hammerhead that I must have subconsciously placed aside at some point for safekeeping.

They were original action figures, albeit “loose” — the term we in the geek community use to describe toys that have foolishly been taken out of their packages.

But, they’re proof positive that I’ve never gotten over “Star Wars.”

So, did I really once see Darth Vader here in Jefferson as a kid or did I merely just want to see Darth Vader here in Jefferson as a kid?

I even turned in recent years to a Facebook group devoted to Jefferson history to see if anyone could verify this early memory of mine.

No luck.

The “Jefferson Iowa News” guys have photos from Jefferson Bicycle Days circa 1900, and of an I.O.O.F. parade around the Square in 1912 — but no one apparently thought to whip out a camera at the sight of a Dark Lord of the Sith standing across the street from Durlam & Durlam.

Oh well.

In recent days, though, I’ve discovered the digital archives of the Jefferson Public Library containing complete back issues of The Bee and The Jefferson Herald — in addition to long-extinct Jefferson papers like The Jefferson Era and The Free Lance — from 1866 to 2004.

Three years in the making, the conversion of reels and reels of microfilm to digital images started going online at last April.

The project has so far cost $11,061, and a third phase — spanning 2005 to 2011 — is expected to cost an additional $2,030, according to Jane Millard, library director.

She’s had no problem selling the project to community groups.

“I love our local history,” Millard said. “And we have so many people come in and use our microfilm.”

But the fact that the back issues are now searchable by key words makes not only for an invaluable research tool — it’s also incredibly addictive to play around on.

And, you know what?

Turns out my fuzzy little memory of Darth Vader and C-3PO in Jefferson wasn’t just make believe.

On July 26, 1979, Jefferson actually celebrated “Star Wars Day.”

Mind you, it was just a new twist on Old Fashioned Bargain Day — “Explore our galaxy of bargains,” a full-page ad proclaimed — but photo ops with Vader were scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m., followed by a “Star Wars” costume parade on the Square.

A Brenton Bank ad also touted an appearance on the Square by C-3PO.

I found the library’s digital archives too fascinating, however, to just look up the one thing.

I ended up spending an entire afternoon on the site.

To date, the site has received 4,507 total visits from 1,232 individual people, Millard said.

The library is still working to spread word about the site, despite visits from users in China, Sweden, Spain and other far-flung places.

Users of the site, she said, look at an average of 36 pages per visit.

Personally, I found myself essentially piecing together, via old stories and ads, the entire history of motion pictures in Jefferson.

The Lincoln Theatre — present-day site of All Ability Cycles — appears to have been our first movie theater, and according to ads of the day, it offered “full value photoplays.”

The Opera House — the present-day Sierra Theatre — soon wanted a cut of that business.

It underwent a big remodel and reopened with the local premiere of “The Birth of a Nation” from Nov. 24-25, 1916.

D.W. Griffith’s epic silent film about the Civil War and Reconstruction — today, it’s mostly just remembered for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan — was accompanied here by an 11-piece orchestra, according to press reports, and grossed $1,543.50 during its run, which itself was pretty epic for 1916.

For its day, the film was a phenomenon.
Newspaper correspondents throughout Greene County duly noted whenever friends and neighbors trekked to nearby cities like Fort Dodge or Perry to see “The Birth of a Nation” before it played Jefferson.

A Des Moines theater in April 1916 even took out advertising in Jefferson to promote the movie — billed as the “8th wonder of the world,” with 5,000 scenes, 18,000 people and 3,000 horses — when it played there.

The Opera House eventually renamed itself the Majestic Theatre, and then the Strand Theatre.

The theater took to billing itself as “the temple of silent art” and boasted that it only showed the “pick of the pictures.”

But, for every legendary Charlie Chaplin film like “The Gold Rush” — which came to Jefferson in December 1925 — local theatergoers were subjected to an abundance of silent flicks bearing such wonky titles as “The Child Thou Gavest Me,” “Behold My Wife” and “Rich Men’s Wives.”

A big ad on Dec. 6, 1922, for the film “One Clear Call” at the Majestic howled, “Thrill to new thrills when masked Ku Klux Klansmen ride at the sound of ... ONE CLEAR CALL.”

Uh. No, thanks.

For decades, Jefferson had two theaters, with the Lincoln, State or Howard theaters complementing the larger Opera House until 1951, when the Howard Theatre closed.

The Opera House/Majestic/Strand — whatever you want to call it — officially became the Iowa Theatre on March 28, 1931, after an extensive rebuild.

“Here’s to a big success for the New Iowa Theatre,” Gary Cooper wired, as reported on Page 1 of The Herald on March 26, 1931.

Clara Bow and Fredric March wired in good wishes as well.

The Iowa became the Sierra in 1974.

And what, then, of “Star Wars”?

Its two-week run at the Sierra in August 1977 attracted more than 2,000 people.

“Many in Jefferson and the surrounding area have seen the picture three and four times,” the paper reported.

Hence “Star Wars Day” a couple years later.

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Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161