PICTURED: Panning for gold in the San Francisquito Canyon. Herman Keene Collection. All photos courtesy of the Research Library of the Museum of Ventura County.

by Emily Dodi 

Within the Museum of Ventura County’s collection are hundreds of thousands of personal artifacts donated by Ventura residents. The treasure trove includes photographs, family papers, letters, books, maps, architectural plans, films, videotapes, and more. They are kept for posterity, but for one collection, time was running out. 

“About a year ago, we started processing a backlog of material,” says Deya Terrafranca, Research Library and Archives Director of the Museum of Ventura County. Elena Brokaw, the museum’s Barbara Barnard Smith Executive Director, adds that they began by “prioritizing the most precious.” 

“We came across a box of 16mm film cans from the early 20th century,” Terrafranca explains. It was clear that the 20 reels of film needed to be digitized — quickly. “If we didn’t do it soon, the film would break down.” If that happened, the film — and all the stories it contained — would be lost forever.

Today’s technology reveals past history

Herman Balden Keene (1879-1965), whose digitized films inspired Out and Back: Ventura County Backcountry Adventures, currently on exhibit online at the Museum of Ventura County. All photos courtesy of the Research Library at the Museum of Ventura County

What the film held was a bit of a mystery. The museum knew the film belonged to Herman Balden Keene, a lifelong Ventura resident who lived from 1879 to 1965. The original labels offered a few clues, but according to Terrafranca they weren’t terribly illuminating. “They were very, very minimal descriptions like ‘Snake,’ ‘Condor,’ ‘Football Game.’” 

Terrafranca and her team, which is mostly made up of volunteers and interns, were able to look at the unspooled reels under a magnifying glass to get a glimpse of the images on the film. The idea of projecting the film, however, was a non-starter. Without the proper equipment, the risk of damaging the film was too great. Even cleaning the film to get a better look at it under a magnifying glass would have been too risky because of the dust and dirt that had accumulated on the film over time. 

Thanks to a grant from the Schwemm Family Foundation, the museum was able to send the film to the University of Southern California’s film department for archival digitization. 

In addition to digitizing all the film and creating an archival master, USC rehoused the original reels in special archival cans. In March 2021, the digitization was complete. That’s when Terrafranca and her intrepid team got to work. 

The process was painstaking. A five-minute film could take an hour to watch, describe, upload, and create metadata [for online search purposes]. A 15-minute film would take an hour and a half or two hours.” Their labor was worth it. “It was very interesting to see and really rewarding.”

“A rare moment in time”

The collection is now available for viewing in an online exhibit titled, Out and Back: Ventura County Backcountry Adventures

Mother and child car camping in the Sespe backcountry. Herman Keene Collection. All photos courtesy of the Research Library at the Museum of Ventura County

“Herman Keene’s footage captures a rare moment in time in the history of Ventura

County . . . and is the only backcountry footage we have in our collection,” Terrafranca says. 

The backcountry includes the Sespe and Matilija, beyond Ojai and up where Highway 33 now leads. 

But who was Herman Balden Keene?

“He was a local wealthy man who loved going into the backcountry,” Terrafranca explains.

An avid outdoorsman and hunter, Keene also had the desire and the means to capture his life on film. His parents came to California in 1872, after his father served in the U.S. Civil War and worked as a clerk for the Treasury Department. They settled in Rancho Sespe and grew walnuts and oranges. 

What remains a mystery is how the museum came to possess Keene’s film in the first place. Nevertheless, as Terrafranca and Brokaw exclaim, they are very glad they did. 

“[The footage] captures the juncture of the early days of car exploration of the backcountry, and at the same time the use of horses and pack animals,” Terrafranca says. In her view, that shift from horses to the automobile “was the most exciting thing to see.” 

In one scene, Keene stops his car and pulls out a shovel to clear rocks and dirt from the road. 

The film also captures “Santa Paula in ways that may not be recognizable to viewers today. [It] includes weather challenges Keene endured along the way, and how he survived the backcountry wilderness on his quest to hunt fox, bear and mountain lions.” 

There is footage of wildlife, including condors, as well as documentation of natural disasters.

Community in focus

As much as Keene’s film tells us about the history of our surroundings, it sheds light on the people who came before us. There is footage of football games, gatherings and camping trips in the Sespe. Some scenes are staged, most likely because the people in them had never even seen a camera before.  

There is also an abundance of footage that reminds us that times and sensibilities have changed.

A man surrounded by a flock of chickens. Herman Keene Collection. All photos courtesy of the Research Library at the Museum of Ventura County

“The footage includes ambiguity and a lot of disturbing footage of trapping, abusing and killing animals,” Terrafranca warns. “But it’s important to recognize that it was a very different time in the same place.”

Brokaw concurs. “Some of it is difficult to watch.” She adds that it leaves us to “grapple with how to gauge the actions of our ancestors.” 

Making our history accessible, including the parts that aren’t easy to acknowledge, is at the core of the museum’s mission.  

“Everything we do is based on accessibility,” Terrafranca explains. This commitment to accessibility drives her, other museum staff and volunteers to make the Museum of Ventura County the best community museum in the country. When the pandemic shut the museum’s doors, it became all the more apparent that the museum needed a way to connect with the community virtually. That sparked the expansion of the museum’s online exhibits and programs, and now it reaches people across the county, the country and the globe. Brokaw proudly states that the museum now has three locations: the Museum of Ventura County in Downtown Ventura, the Agriculture Museum in Santa Paula, and MVC Online.   

The work of delving into the museum’s backlog continues. 

“Currently we are doing a thorough search of Tura Times, a local TV show from the 1980s,” Terrafranca says. The tapes, which are in special format, will go to USC to be digitized.

Once the final product comes back, who knows what it will reveal. The same goes for all the books, maps, papers and other personal artifacts lying in wait, each and every one containing a story. 

Thanks to the Museum of Ventura County, these will not go untold. And thus, we will be able to discover and learn from them.

Out and Back: Ventura County Backcountry Adventures can be viewed at photographs.venturamuseum.org/exhibits/show/outandback/outandbackkeene. More information is available through the Museum of Ventura County and its Research Library, 100 E. Main St., Ventura, 805-653-0323, venturamuseum.org