A few years ago, Stephen Lerner was on a trip with friends visiting the Doyle Creek Ranch Bed and Breakfast just outside Florence. “I became fascinated by the history of the town, and the efforts of some to revive it now,” says Lerner. Lerner is referring to the torrent of floods that hit Florence, the most severe of which took place in 1951. In addition, the community is currently struggling to survive once again.
Soon after, Lerner discovered that the Kansas Humanities Council was giving out grants to sponsor short films to help celebrate the 150th year of Kansas’ statehood. Lerner applied and received a grant in April 2010. His film, “Florence, Kansas” debuts May 28 at The Masonic Lodge, 417 Main St., in Florence.
With friend Frank Barthell, Lerner got to work. “I do not do this work full-time,” says Lerner, who is a practicing psychologist in Lawrence. Lerner and Barthell used the $10,000 grant from the KHC to get started on the project. The filmmakers have financed the remaining funding for the film.
The film features footage taken by a Florence local during the time of the 1951 flood, Charles “Chuck” Graham, now deceased. Graham’s wife Lenore, who still resides in Florence, provided the reels. “She and her son Galen helped me sort through Charles’ stored films and photographs,” Lerner says. The footage had been stored in the Graham’s basement for more than 60 years.
“Chuck was not a professional filmmaker or photographer as far as I know,” says Lerner. “He owned the Maytag appliance store in Florence, but was known for years as a chronicler of life in town.”
"Will You Go Into The Wind"
In addition to the flood footage shot by Graham, the documentary also includes his footage of the Labor Day parades in the town during the 1950s during a time of prosperity.
Building upon Graham’s footage, the crew, which also included editing consultant Heather Attig, shot and edited footage of current Florence residents within the last year. The film crew found the locals were eager to take part in the project. “Our cameraman was Lawrence native Jim Jewell, who did a terrific job,” says Lerner.
Jewell, who works for KU Media Productions says this particular project was special, because he was able to get to know the Florence locals. “I’m interested in small town farming communities and their survival,” says Jewell. “This was a great opportunity, I feel like I know the town fairly well through the experience.”
Like Lerner, Jewell too found the people of Florence to be very inviting. “The degree of sharing from everyone and witnessing how much people cared of Florence, whether they still lived there or not was uplifting,” says Jewell.
In addition to the story of the town’s survival through the history of floods, the film also sheds light on current struggles within the community, who recently lost their grocery store, among other town staples. “Even though this film is about Florence, the model of struggle and survival is transferable to other communities on the edge of whether they survive or not,” says Jewell. The film also poses the question: What are community members planning to do now to save their town?
Working in cooperation with the Florence Historical Society, the crew was able to work closely with community members. “I think over time people there learned to trust us,” Lerner says, “they saw that we respected their stories and were going to do our best to present an authentic version of Florence’s past and present, as well as their dreams for the future.”
This honest account was important from the beginning for the team. “It’s a good representation of a once vibrant community and how fragile it is to sustain that, which is also a big part of what makes up Kansas,” Jewell says. He is quick to add that even those unfamiliar with the history of Florence will likely relate to the film’s message.
Lerner also worked with a team to create original music for the film, including Florence native Jeff Davidson. Davidson, along with Kelley Hunt, perform the song “Will You Go Into the Wind” as well. Musician Greg Allen composed and performed the instrumental music and helped with the music editing process.
In addition, Judy Mills, also a Florence resident, worked as the film’s community consultant, Thomas Fox Averill of Washburn University was the humanities consultant, and Julie Mulvihill of the Kansas Humanities Council provided feedback and guidance.
“I was extremely impressed by the folks I met in Florence — their love of their town, and their openness in accepting a stranger with a camera crew into their lives was really remarkable,” says Lerner.