A lucky find in a garage sale in Spokane led to the recovery of documentary films made by Montana's fish and wildlife agency in the early 1920s.
One of the silent, black-and-white films, called "Raising Trout for Montana Anglers," shows agency employees supplying Washoe Fish Hatchery in Anaconda with fish harvested from Georgetown Lake.
The process the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks used eight decades ago to breed fish is pretty much the same as today, said Mike Gurnett, retired filmmaker for the department.
Gurnett, who provided the Outdoor Report for Montana's Public Broadcasting Service for 17 years, acquired the films from his friend, John Wheeler, a film documentarian and historian, who stumbled on an old wooden shipping box in the 1980s while visiting a garage sale.
Inside the box were three reels of 35 millimeter film.
On the lid of the box was a bus label. Gurnett speculates the films were shipped to Spokane in the late 1920s but never returned to Montana.
"It was purely an accident. Not only finding these things at a garage sale, but then they wound up in the hands of a person who knew enough to take care of them," Gurnett said.
Gurnett said Wheeler gave him the box containing the films in the late 1980s.
"I can remember spooling it off, and I remember what terrible condition it was in and straightening it out. It would break," Gurnett said.
The film crumbled like cornflakes in his hands. But he was able to see enough -- images of pack horses hauling fish -- to get an idea of what he had.
"When I started spooling it off, I thought, we're never going to get a thing out of this," Gurnett said.
But he lost only about 10 percent of the film. The outer layers of the reel were dried, but as he continued to unspool the fragile strip, Gurnett found the integrity began to improve.
"The saving grace is that the films were never rewound. The inner core was the opening of the film. We were lucky, I think," Gurnett said.
But the problems were multiple: by the 1980s, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks used 16-millimeter film and could not handle 35-millimeter film.
Perhaps an even bigger problem was that the film was made from silver nitrate -- an explosive material.
"It's terribly flammable," Gurnett said.
He called around the country trying to locate a company that could convert the film into video.
But there were no takers because of insurance liabilities.
Finally, Gurnett found a lab in Denver that agreed to take a look. Gurnett had to label the film as an explosive on the mailing package.
People from the Denver company, Western Cine Film Lab, told Gurnett it would take quite a bit of work to repair the film. But the restorers at the lab were intrigued by the old documentary, so they said they'd work on it when they could.
"They knew we weren't deep-pocketed," Gurnett said.
The lab technicians succeeded in making a video -- but just barely. The 35-millimeter film didn't survive the transfer. The original films no longer exist.
Now in one video clip, the 17 movie minutes show shots of bison and bighorn sheep, as well as anglers from yesteryear.
Two movies came from the three reels. The second movie is called, "Land of Shining Mountains."
Gurnett believes the films were made as part of an effort -- even as early as the 1920s -- to attract tourists to Montana.