On Sunday February 15th, 2015, MIRC assistant director and curator Lydia Pappas gave a talk on the recent discovery and preservation of some previously unidentified films in the MIRC collections at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts in Beaufort. The screening was a success and well attended by local history enthusiasts as the probable filmmaker, Kate Gleason, was a well known figure in the town and responsible for its revival in the 1920s.
Raised in upstate New York in the late 1800s, a time when women rarely played prominent roles in industry and commerce, Kate Gleason (1865-1933) overcame innumerable obstacles to excel in business and engineering. Catherine Anselm “Kate” Gleason was born in 1865, the eldest of four children of William Gleason and Ellen McDermot, Irish immigrants living in Rochester, New York. William Gleason owned and operated the Gleason Works, a machine-tool factory he founded shortly after the Civil War, and Kate quickly became captivated by mechanical devices and engineering. At the age of twelve, she began working at the Gleason Works and at 19 was enrolled in Cornell University’s engineering program, the first woman to ever do so. Kate was employed at the Gleason Works until 1914, and was able to put the company on the map internationally by expanding into Europe in the early 1900s.
Her shrewd business acumen eventually led to other careers and notable firsts in the world of business and finance. She was appointed by the bankruptcy court of New York to serve as the first female receiver in a case involving the Ingle Machine Company, and shortly afterwards was elected president of the First National Bank of East Rochester, the first woman to serve as president of a national bank.
In the 1920s she moved into construction and made a career as a builder and developer. Among her many notable accomplishments was the invention of mass-produced, low-cost housing built out of concrete. It earned her the nickname “Concrete Kate,” as well as membership in the American Concrete Institute, again the first woman to be so recognized. In addition, she is believed to be the first woman to have an engineering college named in her honor—the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
Using a Basic Preservation Grant from the National Preservation Film Foundation, MIRC is able to preserve the 16mm black and white Kodak safety film recently identified as having belonged to this notable engineer and businesswoman. The films feature Kate Gleason, her family and friends, and eminent members of the engineering profession from the 1920s and 1930s. These unique 16mm prints are not available in any other archive or cultural heritage institution and consist of the master material of this footage. According to Gleason family members, these are the only known moving images of Kate Gleason that document important details of her well-travelled life. The films also feature her sister and brother, Eleanor and James. These are all the more unique since very few images of Kate Gleason exist. Her family disapproved of her lifestyle, and after her death, her sister Eleanor Gleason destroyed her personal effects. These films are therefore especially important documents of Kate Gleason’s personal and professional endeavors.
The films include footage of the Beaufort, SC area, as well as other scenes from her travels, such as footage of the house she built in Rochester, NY–modeled on the Alhambra palace in Spain–boating scenes from around the South Carolina islands she developed, and shots of Septmonts, a French village that she bought and renovated. Gleason won the Croix de Guerre from the French government for her work rehabilitating Septmonts after World War I. Other notable scenes document European vacations in her trusty American station wagon, and shots of France, Ireland and Germany, where she attended the World Power Conference on behalf of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Together, these films constitute a unique window onto the life of a remarkable American woman.
The screening in Beaufort gathered local history buffs as well as people interested in the legacy of such a well known local figure, including a lawyer and gentleman in his 90s who knew Kate Gleason when he was a young man. USCB history professor Larry Rowland gave a lecture about Gleason. He also narrated the film footage, which was particularly personal to him: his mother Libby Sanders was Kate Gleason’s secretary for many years and also appears in the films. Mr. Rowland’s local knowledge, paired with encouraging the audience to shout out during the screening, led to the identification of areas of footage that were previously unknown to the curators. The screening was accompanied by a talk by Alice Moss, Executive Director of the Beaufort Memorial Hospital Foundation, who spoke of the legacy of Kate Gleason’s involvement with the Beaufort area and her donation of the land on which the hospital stands. Lydia Pappas then described the finding and identification of the films themselves, and the research and technical details of restoring the films. She was accompanied by a graduate student intern from the USC Library and Information Sciences Program, Travis Wagner, who spoke about the gender aspects of filmmakers of this time period and the rarity of women behind the camera.
Young Kate was a “pretty girl of average height and very straight posture with bright blue eyes.” By all accounts, she was widely read, a wonderful conversationalist, and a witty raconteur—completely at ease in the company of men and women alike. Although she aged gracefully, remaining vivacious well into her sixties, Gleason never married. She did, however, amass a small fortune—$1.4 million by the time of her death (1933)—during a life that included three illustrious careers: manufacturing, banking, and construction.
~Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC assistant director and curator