LaborFest Kicks Off With Incredible Events

13 Jul

Niles Canyon with Kevin - 6 July 2013 090

Author standing in front of image of Jess Robbins, cameraman, Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, Niles. Mural by Laura Ramie. Photograph by Melinda Gould.

I thank Melinda for the impromptu photo session at the home of Rena and David Kiehn in Niles.  We only had a few minutes before a screening on Saturday evening of A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Cry of the Children (1912), and the feature film, The Whistle (1921), starring William S. Hart.   This was my first opportunity to view the mural the Kiehns had commissioned artist Laura Ramie to paint.  My great-uncle Jess, pictured here,  is one of several historic figures along a wall behind the Kiehn house who were important  in the development and operation of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, including film’s first matinee idol cowboy, Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson.  In 1907, Anderson and George K. Spoor had created the company in Chicago.  By 1912, Essanay set up its West Coast shop.

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum today honors this early history.  Weekend screenings of silent film not only include Essanay features, but films from other companies as well:  David Kiehn is a resident historian who authored a book on Essanay’s history, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company (Farwell Books, 2003).  Ramie’s mural can be seen in its entirety at:  The artist also maintains a blog at:

This was LaborFest’s first year to collaborate with the Museum.  On Saturday and Sunday, we also engaged excursions on the Niles Canyon steam train, another first in our twenty-year history of presenting events on labor and culture.  The train ride is a lot of fun.  The history of trains in Niles Canyon dates back to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.  Steam locomotives were in operation from the 1860s to the 1950s.  As with LaborFest and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, the operation of these trains is entirely a volunteer effort.  Information on Niles Canyon Railway schedules can be found at the Pacific Locomotive Association website:

Since our theme encompassed railroading and labor, what better way to culminate the weekend than a Sunday matinee screening of the feature length film, The Iron Horse (1924), directed by John Ford and starring George O’Brien.  This film commemorates the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.  But beware histories embedded in films.  One of the intertitles during the film explains that White labor was not available for rail construction, so Chinese laborers were employed.  But, in fact, Irish American labor had first been employed.  The decision of these workers to strike led to the hiring of Chinese immigrant workers, who were considered hard working and docile.  Docile they were not as they eventually struck as well.  I may have counted two Chinese “extras” in this film.  Otherwise, White actors in “Chinese face” portrayed Chinese workers.

On Saturday at the Museum, Laurence H. Shoup’s lecture on the 1894 Pullman strike in California covered enough ground to correct any misconceptions about the building of this railroad.  Shoup is the author of Rulers and Rebels: A People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901 (, 2010).  Still, one must understand narrative in the context of its times.  The Iron Horse is an engaging drama with a grand structure.

My thanks go out to the entire staff of the Museum for their time and effort in helping shape this programme.  We were able to draw entirely from their archives; the choices were germane, provocative, and entertaining.  Rena Kiehn, the Museum’s public relations director, was indefatigable in coordinating communication between the three volunteer organizations, creating copy, and publicizing the events.  Melinda Gould, who as an event attendee happened to be on hand with a camera, took photographs under the challenge of intense, direct sunlight.

Finally,  mention should be made here of the screening of the U.S. premiere of Ken Loach’s documentary, The Spirit of ’45.  Shown at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco on Friday evening, this LaborFest event enabled an American audience to visit the immense changes that occured in Great Britain following the closing of World War II.  One of the film’s respondents, Dot Gibson, chair of the National Pensioners’ Convention, was on hand to introduce the film and take questions following.  With their economy in shambles, the British people bravely moved to nationalize health services, mining, transportation, utilities, and housing.  They succeeded in this and maintained these entities and services until the era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  The film also explores the insidious dismantling and privatization that followed.

For more information about LaborFest events through the end of July, please visit:

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