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Eagle Lake, TX 77434
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Eagle Lake Headlight
Eagle Lake’s First Picture Show

Sandra C. Thomas
February 27, 2012

With the internationally celebrated annual Motion Picture Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, it was a reminder of the impact of moving pictures upon generations. Within the genius of the industry and its producers, directors, and actors, we have traveled the world. We’ve lived several lifetimes of adventure, mystery, comedy, intrigue, and love taking us well beyond our circumstances and imaginations.

And so it was, in the middle of Main Street in Eagle Lake on a Saturday, in 1904, across from the B.H. Daily Store, that the world changed. Within full view of a carnival on city square, and as an attraction, a tent was hoisted to introduce a new phenomenon – the first motion picture.

The tent stopped traffic, and the townspeople came inquisitively to see what the excitement portended. A large sign by the tent advertising the “Great Train Robbery” was enough to gain attention. Tickets were sold and onlookers quickly filled the tent space to experience the first wonder of the movies — the silent film.

As local adventurers crowded into the tent, the barker shouted “they were about to see for the first time in history, and in live motion, a Western adventure with horses, cowboys, guns, and a moving train right before their very eyes.” And in the twelve minutes it took to tell the story of “The Great Train Robbery” in film, Eagle Lake had become a part of history. It had experienced its first picture show.

Who could have imagined that in 1903, genius inventor Thomas Alva Edison would bring to life on the screen only what one could have dared to dream. Edison, who invented the light bulb and the phonograph, was a natural to become the producer of the first narrative film, one which told a story. While he and others experimented with short clips and stills in the late 1890’s, his remarkable production of ‘The Great Train Robbery” made history, with new editing techniques, a full story, and a surprise ending. And Eagle Lake was a part of it.

This first film generated such interest that others were made, and soon the carnival tents gave way to permanent structures to house increasing interest in the picture show. Thus began the movie house and the silent film industry, and a succession of Eagle Lake theaters. Should we be surprised then, that history repeats, and that this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture was, what else, — a silent film.

St. Catherine’s Province
Spanish Town, Jamaica
Thursday, February 2, 2012

Awakening in Jamaica was like saying good morning to paradise. The sky was beautiful blue like the waters below, with white cumulus clouds over the Blue Mountains and the fertile green valleys of this unmistakably Caribbean island.

As the red dawn emerged, I headed to the small airport, and commuter doorway in Montego Bay to take the last seat on the prop plane bound for Kingston. With several dips and turns with the wind, the plane lifted its wings toward an adventure to find the historic Bernard Lodge Sugar Factory in St. Catherine’s Province near Kingston, amidst the tall, waving Jamaican sugar cane fields, and, thus, to find the remains of the Lakeside, Texas Sugar Refinery.

After only thirty minutes time, with endless views from both sides of the island, the flaps came down, and the plane descended to its small terminal across from the Kingston shipyard/industrial port, where undoubtedly the ship from Galveston in 1918 bearing the materials dismantled from the Lakeside Sugar Refinery would have arrived. I wondered what engineer Maurice Miller must have felt as he arrived from the Texas prairie to this new shore with crystal seas and fertile valleys, to begin his work on the construction of a new sugar mill from the valuable Lakeside
cargo in his care.

The driver and I began our short journey along the port, passing industrial buildings and shipyards, to the nearby cane fields in the countryside. As we turned onto a smaller road, only twenty minutes away, I saw in the distance to the left, the top of a large, wide, red brick chimney. I recognized it at once to be the smokestack of the old Bernard Lodge Sugar Mill, which I had come to know in photographs recently discovered. As we drove, sugar cane fields appeared on both sides of the road, some already in the burning process for harvest, with billowing smoke curling in the foreground of the distant green hills near Spanish Town, once the Jamaican capital.

Turning into a modest entrance, we passed through an open iron gate with a sign reading “Bernard Lodge Sugar Factory.” Several simple plantings of red bougainvilleas stood at the entrance. Down the road a short distance, there it was. The old sugar factory stood proudly, with its large smoke stacks and enormous tin buildings, many pieces of which were tinged with rust, reflecting their bold century of service.

Several cars and a woodframe administrative building appeared to the left near the entrance. Various employee houses and other office buildings stood nearer the mill, all painted the same sun-faded yellow-gold color. There were several tractors, trailers, and trucks scattered about, with the unmistakable tall, green cane fields growing alongside. In large, stacked mounds on the ground were white and yellow bags of cane fertilizer with writing in black Chinese letters, perhaps symbolic of the recent purchase of the last three large Jamaican sugar mills by the Chinese, including Bernard Lodge.

Approaching a small security check point and gate, there was an area filled with bicycles, the transportation of many of the cane field workers. A woman at the checkpoint brought out a sign-in sheet for name, time, and business, which I dutifully signed. I was then escorted to see the manager of personnel who, after hearing the story of the Lakeside Refinery and its rebirth in Jamaica, allowed me, accompanied by a former mill worker, now security guard, to walk through the aging refinery, with its enormous ceilings, turbines, and machinery.

As I looked high above at the tall ceilings, sunlight streamed in through the cracks and open windows. Seeing the enormous iron framework of the buildings from the inside, I remembered the old photographs of Lakeside Refinery in its early construction stages, with its large metal frames, scaffolding, and smokestacks. It was as if to see the old sugar refinery as it first took life in 1901 in Texas.

There were the boilers, the old turbines, the aging brick furnaces, the heavy, now rusting, cane crushers, the large pumps and engines, metal catwalks, large boiling kettles, enormous crown pinions, rollers and sugar melting tanks, chains for moving the cane, tons of heavy milling and refining equipment, and occasional safety signs.

While its tall chimneys have swirled smoke since 1919 in Jamaica, Bernard Lodge may be seeing its final era as a working mill. It is apparent that some of its parts and heavy machinery are already being dismantled for transfer to other facilities, as parts and equipment or possible scrap metal. The Chinese have pledged to spend $180 million in improvements and modernization of their recently acquired Jamaican mills.

While its future may be uncertain, the old Lakeside Refinery, now Bernard Lodge Sugar Factory, has had a rich and colorful past for over a century, from the river bottoms of Texas to the fertile cane fields of the Jamaican countryside.

By Sandra C. Thomas

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