Monday, January 7, 2019

Moving Picture Health Car
Every County Had One

In 1916, movies rattled into rural North Carolina communities in the back of a souped-up Studebaker “auto-truck” called the Moving Picture Health Car.

Warren Booker, working for the Health Department, and W. C. Crosby, working for the Education Department, had created an all-in-one vehicle that could deliver lights and movies to any location, and the Moving Picture Health Car was born. Their goal was to bring health education and entertainment to poor, isolated farm families in North Carolina.

The truck was outfitted with a movie projector and a canvas screen. A gasoline engine coupled with a generator provided sufficient power for lights and the “moving picture machine.”  A Victrola offered a musical interlude to begin the entertainment and supplied suitable dramatic accompaniment to the silent films. Black-out curtains darkened the hall. A switchboard allowed the show to be run from a central location, and there was a fire extinguisher. Camping and cooking equipment were included for roughing it.

Taken from The Health Bulletin, Vol. XXXI, No. 2; May 1916
The car had a two-man staff. H. E. Hamilton, a “mechanician,” took care of maintenance and kept the Health Department up to date.  Roy Tatum, knowledgeable about medicine, instructed the audiences in good health practices.

In the November 27, 1916 News and Observer, Booker reported that it took  twenty to thirty minutes to set up for a program.  This included hanging the screen and running the cable through a door or window to the motion picture machine in the hall.

It was a big deal when the car rumbled into small out-of-the-way crossroads communities bringing “real” motion pictures and offering “intensely interesting” health information. The promise of dazzling lights and moving pictures flickering across a canvas screen inevitably drew a crowd. It was magical for isolated people, some of whom would have no electricity until after World War II.

Fairview, a tiny Wake County community, got an early look at the Health Car show. According to the April 3, 1916 Greensboro News, it was the “first moving picture show ever given in the country in this State.” The show ran for over two hours.

Each show featured five or six reels of film—about sixteen to twenty minutes each. An opener might be an uproarious slapstick comedy, a film depicting a scenic landscape in a faraway land, or perhaps a western with fast riding cowboys and lots of action. This was followed by several movies offerings health information. The conclusion was usually a comedy—maybe Charlie Chaplin in The Tramp or Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in The Butcher Boy.

The purpose of the Health Car was to teach disease prevention, sanitation and hygiene. Programs highlighted topics like tuberculosis, typhoid fever, venereal disease, oral hygiene, and cleanliness. One film focused on a campaign against flies and included directions for making a fly trap that were distributed to the audience.

The lessons were embedded in dramatic action stories. One popular show was The Man Who Learned.  The herky-jerky, black and white, silent film projected onto canvas with scratchy Victrola music as the background taught a lesson about typhoid prevention through sanitary milk production. The story was gripping and the Victrola played music appropriate to the scene—intense, foreboding, or jubilant as needed.

The audience is enthralled by the action. Hearts are thumping. Eyes are wide. At the end, the important lesson has been learned.

The shows were a rousing success. Care-worn farm women in faded dresses, men in shabby bib overalls, and children bouncing with excitement and anticipation arrived at places like Pikeville (Wayne County), Mount Mourne (Iredell County), or Lemon Springs (Lee County) on movie night. They came in wagons hauled by mules or worn-out horses. One man declared it was better than a Methodist camp meeting.

The car circulated around the state visiting each of the 45 counties that existed at that time. It remained in one area for three weeks, visiting up to twelve locations each week. The vehicle carried enough films to present a fresh line-up for each return visit.

The price of the truck was $750; its extra engine and generator went for $360. It cost $90 a week to operate the car, which was paid for by the communities hosting the exhibit—usually by the local government or generous donors.

 People turned out in huge numbers. One report placed daily attendance from 450 to 900. There were times when the evening productions were moved outside because no venue of adequate size was available.          

In 1917, the state legislature appropriated $25,000 to provide a Moving Picture Health Car for each county. The cars would turn rural schools into community centers, provide health information, and bring communities together in ways they had never been before.
The cost of an outfitted car was $3,000 with $2,000 paid by the county. By late 1920, every county had a movie car.
African Americans had little access to modern innovations like movie cars. However, in 1919, black teachers joined the North Carolina Tuberculosis Association in the sale of Tuberculosis Christmas Seals to finance a movie car. Every county had a quota, and, in almost every county, the quota was met. Over $5,000 was raised; this was used to purchase a Dodge panel truck, a Delco lighting system, and an Atlas projector. A new movie truck hit the road.

Dr. E. T. Ransom operated the car on a circuit of one week visits around the state. Each week, he presented six to ten programs. In addition, local doctors were sometimes brought in to treat people who came to the show. In some instances, Dr. Ransom also made home visits.

During the first six months, Dr. Ransom visited twenty-five counties and recorded an attendance of 34,148. The car met with such enthusiasm that a second car was added the next year.
A hundred years ago, it took a vehicle loaded with equipment, driven miles over terrible roads, with electricity furnished via generator, for a farm family to see a movie. Today, we can watch whatever we want, in real time, on devices we hold in the palms of our hands. We’ve come a long way since days of the Motion Picture Health Car!

Sunday, January 6, 2019


            The town of Plymouth (Washington County) has had more than its share of legends of buried treasure. The following story appeared in Norfolk: The Marine Metropolis of Virginia and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina by Geo. I. Nowitzky, published in 1888.

            “Black Beard, the notorious pirate who made Plymouth a frequent resort, it was generally presumed, buried a great deal of his quickly acquired wealth within the limits of the town to keep it from being as quickly lost; and about the time that everybody concluded it was buried beyond all hopes of being found the Civil War came, and with it not alone the army, but also more reports of secreted treasures.
            “Among the many stories of this nature, and the one most generally believed, is that a sutler (a person who followed an army and sold provisions to the soldiers) who sold the Federal army very few goods for a great deal of money, fearing that the soldiers would sometime raid his premises, concluded to secrete his gains in the quaint old grave-yard, and before he found use for it or thought it wise to recover it, he was taken sick, died and was also consigned to a grave-yard.
            “This led to one of the most stirring episodes connected with the history of this historic town. Two gentlemen, well known as able jurists and statesmen, concluded that they had discovered a clue to the whereabouts of the sutler's buried treasure, and naturally concluding that it was doing no good where it was, and brought to
light might be made useful, with the assistance of a mate of a steam-boat which made Plymouth one of its landings, organized themselves into an expedition for the special purpose of unearthing this treasure, which they had reason to believe was buried in a part of Grace church-yard which at that time was not used for cemetery purposes.
            “The night selected was dark and dismal, and as they walked down to this resting place of the dead and alleged safe of the sutler, the only way they could keep up their spirits was by reflecting what a vast amount of good the money, now useless, would do by relieving the wants of the poor and distressed, and educating worthy fatherless children; and, to their credit, be it said, that each made a firm resolve that half of the restored wealth should be used for these purposes.
            “No time was lost, for as soon as they reached the little cemetery the digging commenced. It must have been a weird scene; the light (all that could be forced from an ordinary stable lantern) had just sufficient illuminating power to shed a faint, ghastly glimmer on the time-honored tombstones and vaults; a fitting one, however, to act as an accompaniment to the dull but continued thuds of the pick. It is generally believed that the same dim substitute for the sun never had its rays forced back by the reflecting force of the sutler's hoarded gold.
            “But this appears to be the only effort in which this party has ever been unsuccessful; for one of these gentlemen has been Governor of the great North State, is loved by all her people, and to-day worthily represents the greatest nation on earth (ours) at an imperial court, vested with unlimited power, as the rank Minister Plenipotentiary signifies. The other is also well loved and trusted by the people, for having represented his District in Congress once, his constituents urged him to accept the position again, and his return by an overwhelming majority proved his popularity. As for the mate, the last time I heard of him he was still treading the deck of a steamer that displaces the waters of Chesapeake Bay, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal and legendary Roanoke River.”

[Taken from  Norfolk: The Marine Metropolis of Virginia and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina by Geo. I. Nowitzky: 1888.]

Saturday, January 5, 2019


U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service
        Buffalo City.—Cuppy, the well known favorite bear of Buffalo City (Dare County), is no more. Cuppy has of late been in the habit of slipping her collar so as to have more freedom, ramble about as she pleased and pay a visit to the store. A few days ago Cuppy slipped her collar to make a survey. She was gone three or four days, but afterwards was found in the swamp near by. The searching party coaxed her with candy but of no avail. She was too much for them and before they could capture her she had to be shot. Cuppy’s death has been a severe blow to some of her admirers.

[The Weekly Economist (Elizabeth City, NC) 10 Feb 1893]