Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives

Naushon Sheep Drive

Naushon Sheep Drive [excerpt] by Alexander Forbes

Courtesy of Irving Forbes Collection, Northeast Historic Film,

28mm, b&w, Silent, 1915. Music by 4 Five VI

Alexander Forbes was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1882, the youngest son of William Hathaway Forbes, Bell Telephone Co.’s first president, and Edith Emerson Forbes, a daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He leapt gracefully from the top of one field to the top of a completely different field with apparent ease. Forbes earned an M.D. at Harvard, but was more interested in clinical research than practicing medicine, so he concentrated his studies in electrophysiology and produced two seminal papers demonstrating electrical recordings of central reflex phenomena. In addition to his medical research, he also assisted in the development of submarine detection devices during the First World War and organized three expeditions to survey the northern Labrador coast in the 1930s.

Naushon Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, was owned by the Forbes family, so Alexander Forbes spent many summers there. Under the Forbes family’s ownership, farm labor was employed for maintaining the large sheep herd, though the family also participated in the drives. The size of the flock peaked in the mid-19th century, then gradually declined during the first half of the 20th century. The last formal drive took place in the 1960s, when the decision was made to significantly reduce the flock. Shortly thereafter, a pair of coyotes swam from a nearby island to Naushon, where they reproduced and eradicated the remaining wild sheep.

The Forbes collection includes some of the only American home movies shot on 28mm film stock. The 28mm Pathéscope system was first marketed in America in 1914 (three years after having been released in France) and Alexander Forbes apparently purchased his camera in 1915, probably one of the only people in the U.S. to do so. 28mm was primarily marketed as a gauge for use in watching movies at home more than as a format for shooting home movies. The film’s size made it less expensive than the standard 35mm gauge, and its use of non-inflammable diacetate film rather than nitrate made it safer to project. The cost was still prohibitive for most families, however, so it was already defunct by the time that Kodak developed the much more popular 16mm film gauge in 1923.

Located in the Alamo Theatre, a 1916 cinema building, in Bucksport, Maine, Northeast Historic Film’s mission is to collect and preserve the film and video record of northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts), and to provide public access to the history and culture of the region embodied in it. Incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1986, the archives’ collections contain ten million feet of film and more than 8,000 hours of video in a three-story temperature and humidity controlled vault building, which also provides state-of-the-art storage for institutions from throughout the east coast. Collectively, its holdings constitute a record of 20th century regional culture seen from countless angles: the factory floor and the farm, in the woods and at sea, at home, and on the streets of our hometowns. Over 15,000 people attend events at the Alamo each year, including public exhibits, screenings, documentaries, symposia, film festivals, teachers’ workshops and workshops for the public on preservation, regional culture, and other topics.