What was the first movie made in Minnesota?

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It’s possible that no living person has seen the silent movie “Free Air”, but Gerald Mattson has developed a living version of it in his brain.

The local historian spent years researching the 1922 film, which would be the first feature film made in Minnesota. It’s also the answer to this week’s question for Curious Minnesota, a community reporting project fueled by excellent questions from readers.

Todd Racek inquired about Minnesota’s entry to the big screen during a Curious Minnesota event at the State Fair. The Fairgoers then voted it as one of their favorite questions of the day.

Described in the Minneapolis Tribune as an “airy little story of a road trip across the country,” “Free Air” was an adaptation of a novel of the same name by famed Minnesota native Sinclair Lewis. Unfortunately, it has been officially declared “lost” by the Library of Congress, which means that no known copies exist.

Part of the film was shot in Rosemount, which in part caught the attention of Mattson, president of the Rosemount Area Historical Society.

“Everything in town came to a standstill during the shoot. The farmers all came to see what was going on because it was a big deal,” said Mattson, a retired airline mechanic.

A pro-capitalist agenda

“Free Air” was created by Bill Kahlert and Einar Berg, two enterprising natives of Saint Paul who were students at Hamline University when they became interested in making films as a kind of light propaganda. Specifically, they believed that the films could be used to combat “townleyism,” a form of socialism that gained a foothold in Minnesota and North Dakota in the 1910s.

The couple founded Outlook Photoplays to produce short films and feature films, including “Free Air,” which was filmed primarily in Minnesota, with trips to North Dakota and Montana. Their project? Use heavyweight funds such as Swift & Company and Great Northern Railroad (they were friends with James J. Hill’s son Louis) to tell stories that championed the virtues of big business.

“They made three feature films and [‘Free Air’] was the only one making the money, “said Mattson.” Berg’s daughter, Karen Winship, told me he always had a great deal of affection for the film, which had moderate success. “

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Mattson’s research revealed that “Free Air” was distributed nationally after its debut on May 20, 1922 in St. Paul and New York. Trade records show that 70 copies of “Free Air” were printed, 20 of which were sent to South America for display.

“I’ve always hoped that one of these South American copies would show up,” Mattson said.

From the St-Paul hotel to Rosemount

Everyone agrees that “Free Air” was successful because it focused on the business of large corporations. Dramatic comedy about a young man who finds himself on a trip across the country in pursuit of the (rich) woman he loves, its theme is that hard work and determination make you a winner.

Mattson seems to have listened to this message.

His hard work resulted in the most complete record of “Free Air”, even though it only exists in his head. In addition to meeting Berg’s daughter, who gave him copies of dozens of stills and set photos, he delved into Lewis’ novel, newspaper archives and production notes.

He also visited a number of filming locations in Rosemount (renamed Schoenstrom in the film), St. Paul (the St. Paul Hotel was the local production base), Red Wing and elsewhere.

Mattson’s travels took him to the cliffs of Taylors Falls, which also served as Montana’s Glacier Park in the film. He even toured the historic St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in Mendota, using the visual clue of the gravestones to determine the exact spot where “Free Air” captured a scene.

Mattson, who has made presentations on the film to historical societies and other interested groups, arranged his roughly 70 photos in the order they would appear in the film so that he could imagine how they connected in “Free Air”.

“I was ‘watching’ the movie, really. I tried to do it like I was sitting there in a theater, watching a movie, putting the scenes in order and using the [Sinclair Lewis] book to match them, ”said Mattson.

He published the results in an in-depth article that takes up much of the November 2005 32-page issue of “Over the Years,” the magazine of the Dakota County Historical Society.

While “Free Air” didn’t have any big stars, it featured many of the citizens and structures of Rosemount.

A building originally built as a temperance room, which had become a grain and feed business by the time of filming in 1921, has been reconfigured as a general store. And a brick building became “Red Trail Garage”, with the addition of a sign.

Like the film, these structures no longer exist. But Mattson – and other curious moviegoers – can still hope that somewhere in Brazil or Argentina there is a safe containing an imprint of “Free Air”, proof of a time when Rosemount and its citizens were movie stars.

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