Documenting Mountain SoulsSep 01, 2021 09:00AM ● By Linda Roller
“In your life, there are a few people you meet that are icons. Bob and Dotty are those people in my life. I learned so much from them.” So says Jeff Swingholm, and the immense respect and love he had for Dotty and Bob Webber is immediately evident through the documentary he has produced on their lives. Released in summer 2021, there will be a showing of Mountain Souls in Wellsboro at the Coolidge Theater in the Deane Center on Saturday, October 16, at 7 p.m.
The idea for the documentary grew out of a decades-long friendship with Jack Duerer and the Webbers. Jack brought Jeff up to the cabin when Jeff was sixteen. As so many people did, Jeff took to Bob and Dotty immediately.
“When Dotty passed (in 2012) and then Bob (in 2015), I was shocked that no one had written a book about them or had ever done a documentary,” Jack says.
But soon after Bob’s death, the focus for people who knew and loved the Webbers was to save their cabin for future generations. Jeff’s longtime friend Jack was central to that project and in 2016 worked with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to dismantle the cabin and store it for safekeeping. It was Christmas of that year that Bob Webber’s son, Buddy, gave Jack a DVD of the dismantling project, set to the music of one of Jack’s favorite artists, John Denver. Jack, in turn, gave Jeff a copy. “I was touched,” he says. “I showed it to my wife, and she had a lot of questions about Bob and Dotty.” Her questions spurred him to create a documentary about the Webber’s lives.
It was a perfect project for a man who was a video producer. Jeff had the skills and knew people who could help him with the project. People like Mark Polonia, who has been a filmmaker and editor for over thirty years.
“He’s a great editor,” Jeff says. “Mark and I have worked on a few things before.” Jeff also reached out to Linda Sampson, who used to write for him. “In thinking about the documentary, most of the script would be the interviews. But it would also need narration. Linda was the perfect person to help me write that.
Several of Bob’s long-time friends had been filmed for the documentary, and John Eastlake proved to be an important source of photos, as he and Bob had blazed many of the trails in the area together. But for some of the Bob and Dotty stories there were no photos. Then Jeff had a flash of inspiration that added another dimension to the film, recalling that, “I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea of drawings depicting Bob and Dotty and events in their lives.” Charlie Schwarz, Bob Webber’s boss for many years, had told Jeff about the mural in Williamsport showing Bob with a book in his hand. Jeff had seen the mural and knew that Michael Pilato was the artist. “I asked Michael if he knew anyone who could do the sketches needed for the documentary, and he said that he could do them.” It was only after the work was completed that Michael told Jeff he had not done that type of work for about twenty-five years.
“Mark, Linda, and I spent hours on each one of the drawings Michael did, deciding which ones to include,” Jeff says. Some of the drawings had to be revised. The drawing that illustrated the story about Dotty’s mom and other children in the Slate Run area catching a train to school in the winter was drawn with leaves on the trees.
“Michael changed the original to a snowy scene, but the erased leaves are still faintly visible on the original drawing,” Jeff says. In another drawing showing Bob bringing groceries up the mountain to the cabin from Wolfe’s General Store, Michael drew a baguette sticking out of the top of his rucksack. That would not be in Bob’s sack headed to the rim and was removed in the final drawing.
To complete this film the way that Jeff envisioned it, he worked a full year, six to seven days a week. Throughout the production he felt like he was living their life.
“Sometimes it felt like Bob was talking to me,” he says. This was never a project to make money. Jeff hopes the documentary and sales of the DVD will raise money for a scholarship for someone wanting to make a career and a life in forestry.
Production began in March 2019 and was completed in January 2020. It is dedicated to Jeff’s mom, a babysitter for the young Bob Webber. She died in a nursing home before he was able to interview her about that.
Before the release, there was to be a dinner celebrating everyone involved in the project, and to give all those an opportunity to meet and talk with one another. But a pandemic has other plans. Two weeks before the dinner was to be held, the state was shut down. “I was afraid that someone involved with the documentary would die before it could be seen,” Jeff relates. And that did happen. John Eastlake died this April, before the documentary could be released to the public.
At the end of our conversation, Jeff says something that speaks directly to how Bob and Dotty interacted with people. “I thought I was his best friend, but later I realized that Bob had lots of best friends.”