John Runk took his movie camera with him everywhere to capture everyday life in Stillwater after World War II, producing what’s been described as a “scrapbook in film” of his hometown.
From 1947 to 1954, he filmed celebrations in downtown parks, ice-cutting on the St. Croix River, baseball games and day-to-day activities such as young people jumping off diving boards.
Several years ago, the Washington County Historical Society took parts from 48 of Runk’s film reels to make a video called “An Ode to Stillwater: The John Runk Films.” The 30-minute video will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on the front lawn of the Warden’s House Museum, 602 N. Main St., Stillwater.
“He was trying to make a promotional piece for Stillwater, there’s no question about it,” said Brent Peterson, the historical society’s executive director. Runk wanted to show insight into everyday life, he said.
When Runk died in 1964, he left behind decades of still photography, too — an immense collection spanning more than a century. He collected photos as well as took them, often borrowing a negative to make two prints, one for himself and another for the lender. As a commercial photographer, he advertised his motto — “Square Deal” — on the awning of his Stillwater studio.
“He was quite the character, he was unique. He saved images up until he died,” Peterson said. “He was always kind of a loner. He would walk around with his camera equipment,” which he sometimes hauled in a baby buggy.
More than 4,000 images that Runk photographed and collected are stored at the Minnesota Historical Society, possibly the largest collection by a single person in the state, Peterson said.
Once Runk bought his movie camera, he began filming up and down the St. Croix Valley, and then in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Some of his most captivating movies show the Minnesota State Fair, including a plane crash that killed teenage wing walker Kitty Middleton and her pilot.
He was in downtown Minneapolis on the day in June 1954 when the trolleys stopped running for good. There also is footage of a Stillwater Loggers baseball game against St. Paul Park.
In 2008, Runk’s grandnephew found the film collection gathering dust in a basement and donated it to the historical society, which spent $2,700 transferring it to digital use. Peterson noted that it’s rare for a resident to document his community to the extent seen in Runk’s work.
“He never married, but he married the community and it shows in his detail of his work,” Peterson said. “He kept going because he knew his work was important.”
The video being shown in Stillwater this week doesn’t include movies taken outside of town, but those are available on a DVD that the historical society sells for $15 to fund preservation efforts. Saturday’s show is free but Peterson said donations will be accepted. For more information, contact the Warden’s House Museum at 651-439-5956 or visitwchsmn.org/.