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Florence documentary to highlight history, revival

Staff writer

Documentary filmmakers Steve Learner, Frank Barthell and Jim Jewell want to tell Florence’s story through the words of Florence residents.

The crew of filmmakers captured parts of the Florence Labor Day parade on Monday. They will compare the film they took Monday to 8mm films they received from residents of parades from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.

It was one of several trips they have made to Florence since December, including a Florence High School reunion, Memorial Day celebration, and the Palacios family reunion this summer.

Thus far, they have interviewed about 15 people for the documentary.

Learner and Barthell visited Florence last year and were interested in the town’s history. They decided to present a proposal for a documentary about Florence to the Kansas Humanities Council. The Council approved the documentary to honor the 150th anniversary of Kansas statehood, giving Learner, Barthell, and Jewell a $9,975 grant for a 15-minute film.

A concern that every interviewee mentioned is the businesses that are gone. Florence used to have four grocery stores, a hotel on Main Street, several gas stations, and restaurants. An event that several interview subjects mentioned was the departure of Florence’s last remaining grocery store a few years ago.

After talking to residents and learning about Florence’s history, Learner said Florence has been a town of booms. Florence flourished during the railroad and oil booms, attracting a diverse population. The Palacios family was a Mexican American immigrant family who helped build the railroad. All of the Palacios moved away from Florence but continue to return for biyearly family reunions.

Learner interviewed 105-year-old columnist Norma Hannaford a month before she died. Although she lived in Marion, she designated Florence as “the place to be” for much of her life.

“What the project is trying to capture is the unique aspects of Florence and its history and what it has to say about small rural towns in general,” Learner said.

While Florence has unique features, the city is not alone among Kansas towns that, while they were once the center of economic prosperity, are now losing businesses. Learner said 51 percent of Kansas towns are without a grocery store.

Part of what the filmmakers are gathering from interviews is the vision for Florence’s revitalization.

One recent high school graduate told Learner that she wanted to become an accountant and open up an office in downtown Florence.

Other residents dreamed of a light manufacturing or a distribution center that could bring jobs to the community.

Others interviewed believed revitalization efforts are an up-hill struggle.

What the filmmakers have observed so far that makes Florence unique is former residents who continue to return to Florence and have a passion for the city.

“We’re trying to figure out what it is about Florence that keeps people come back,” Learner said. “People have a deep love for the town.”

Last modified Sept. 8, 2010

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