WASHINGTON — Michael Zahs is 66 and lives in rural Washington County, down a dirt road, in a big farmhouse filled with artifacts. He has a long, 40-year-old gray beard and often tells people he was born 100 years too late.
The retired history teacher is enamored with the past, so in 1981 he was delighted to find a stack of old motion picture films among a local estate’s treasures.
For more than 30 years, Zahs kept them in his farm shed. He knew the cellulose nitrate-based films were precious. Some dated back to before the turn of the last century.
He even had the American Film Institute make copies of a few of the films back in the 1980s. He would show them during a bus tour of Iowa history that he still leads every year.
No one else seemed too interested. Until now.
The films took on a new life after an Iowa arts organization learned of them and enlisted film experts to confirm the reels include the earliest films ever made, dating back to 1895.
“The specialists are gobsmacked and excited almost beyond belief what the collection is revealing,” said Christopher Rossi, director of Humanities Iowa, which recently secured a $51,000 grant to preserve the films.
Zahs, a 6-foot-3-inch man who wears Wrangler jeans and flannel shirts, is now telling the films’ story to a wider audience of people, including a documentary film crew that was visiting his farmhouse.
The films came from the basement of the old home of Frank and Indiana Brinton, traveling entertainers from Washington, Iowa. Zahs enlisted his students in Washington to clear off the coal dust and rat droppings, and incorporated the films into his lessons. “Together,” Zahs told the children, “we are going to see things that haven’t been seen for 100 years.”