In honor of Arbor Day—the holiday to go out a plant a tree—I give you this short film: Trees to Tame the Wind.
First, a few words. Released in 1939, Trees to Tame the Wind was a product of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, financed via FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like many short documentaries of the time, Trees to Tame the Wind would screen in theaters in between feature films, newsreels, and cartoons. Moviegoing in those days covered a lot of bases.
I don’t have an exact date for when the short was first screened, or at which theater, but I can tell you the location it was filmed: 6201 N. Ohlman St., Mitchell, South Dakota, my family’s farm.
The farmer, Ed Casey, is my great-grandfather. He died when I was young, and I have no memory of meeting him, though I am told I did. My grandfather, John Morris Casey—Grandpa Jack as we knew him—is the kid on the left of the picnic table eating watermelon. His younger sisters, Dee (Kovarik) and Jan (Monaghan), are on the right. Jan is also the little girl in the wagon being pulled by Dennis ‘Doc’ Casey on the horse. Doc, by the way, would go on to open Bear Country, U.S.A., in Rapid City with his wife Pauline in August 1972.
Grandpa had vague memories of the Forest Service filming the short (he was about ten at the time), which he relayed to his youngest daughter, Linda (McEntee), some years ago. When a local historian found a blurb in a ’39 Mitchell paper a few years back, Linda went hunting for the reels and found them archived in a collection in Australia. They are the ones who digitized the reels.
The farm is still in our family, and the trees are doing well. One summer, when I was about 13, I was tasked with cleaning out the underbrush that had accumulated over the years. It was so thick not even deer were getting through, let alone having a family picnic between the rows. Even the house is in relatively good condition, and the stoop Ed and the Forrest Service agent share in the opening shot is still there.
We have to preserve everything, cries Martin Scorsese: Every movie, every image, every book, every piece of music, etc. Each is a part of our collective story, our shared history. It’s always been our story, but you never know how close to home those words ring until you stumble across 80-year-old footage of your family farm.
Thanks to Aunt Linda for tracking this down.