Historical film shows Sewickley in the 1930s and ’40s

Monday, August 5, 2019 | 6:00 AM


John Poister has devoted much of his time to film restoration since his surprise discovery of films documenting Sewickley’s 1940 centennial celebration. The find late last year demanded his attention, prompting him to resign as executive director of the Sewickley Valley Historical Society (SVHS). He has remained close to the organization.

Meanwhile, SVHS staff have made similar discoveries that provide snapshots of Sewickley from the same era. The organization plans to show all of these materials to the community the evening of Sept. 18 at the Old Sewickley Post Office. Poister said the free event will launch the historical society’s 2019-20 programming schedule, which runs from September through May.

“Our initial program remembers an occasion of great pride for the community, a centennial celebration of the naming of the town, at which more than 300 residents were recruited to serve on subcommittees managing the event,” said Harton Semple, president of the SVHS board of directors.

Coraopolis-based Debenham Media Group helped Poister digitize and restore the centennial film, shot at a time when motion pictures were considered a novelty. Organizers of the 1940 event tried to involve the entire community, and the celebration included athletic competitions, a two-hour-long parade and fireworks.

Poister added a more recent discovery helped him “fill in a lot of blanks” and complete a script for the restored film.

Susan Holton, current acting executive director at SVHS, was doing some housekeeping earlier this summer, when she came across folders marked “Sewickley Centennial Committee” and “Sewickley Centennial Records, 1940.” Unlike most materials, the folders did not appear in the SVHS database.

“When I looked inside, I found correspondence, bills, a bank book, ledgers — even a blueprint for the centennial regatta race course on the Ohio River,” Holton said in an email. “Knowing that John Poister had been working on his lecture on the centennial movie and an article for our newsletter, Signals, I immediately let him know of the find, and the rest is history.”

As an added attraction on Sept. 18, SVHS will show two additional films, shot in 1938. Poister and Holton discovered them along with the original centennial celebration film stocks.

One of these films depicts borough employees at work. The second one, Poister said, shows several iconic Sewickley homes, many of which viewers will recognize.

At the time of filming, local business leaders and elected officials had concerns about the state of Sewickley, as the Great Depression was coming to a close.

There was an effort “to kind of sell Sewickley to prospective residents and to prospective business people,” Poister said.

The film includes static shots of houses on Beaver, Centennial and Thorn streets.

“It’s a tribute to Sewickley that we were able to preserve some of these beautiful homes. They looked good in 1938, and they look good in 2019,” Poister said.

SVHS is on the lookout for other historical films to add to its collection. The organization is particularly interested in locating the “Skeins of Destiny” film, produced in 1916 by Sewickley’s Cot Club as a benefit for the hospital, said Semple.

The centennial film in particular “will be a trip down memory lane” for Sewickley natives, Poister said.

“For people who are new to Sewickley, they’ll get a sense of how the borough has evolved from 1940 until now,” he added.

For more information on the historical society’s programming, visit https://www.sewickleyhistory.org/.