The History of Waterloo in Five Chapters

Nov 14, 2014

Two Waterloo-area residents are in the midst of producing a series of five documentaries that chronicle the history of the city. The filmmakers are focusing their camera on a few locations that are key to Waterloo’s past.

Francesca Soans and Robert Neimeyer in the recording studio for their five-part documentary series on the history of Waterloo.
Credit University of Northern Iowa

Francesca Soans and Robert Neymeyer went hunting for places around Waterloo they thought would generate plenty of memories and conversation. Soans says they landed on five.

“A synagogue as a place of worship," she says.  "A department store, that’s the Blacks Department Store as a story of downtown Waterloo. Rath meatpacking plant, which is so much a part of Waterloo’s working-class history and labor history. The Paramount movie theater. And the north end as a story of the African-American community in Waterloo.”

Soans and Neymeyer come to the project from wildly different backgrounds. He grew up just down the road, in the small town of Parkersburg. She was raised in southern India and educated in Philadelphia. But Soans says they’ve found common ground.

“He being an historian and I being interested in stories we kind of got together and started talking about looking at Waterloo’s rich history in an interesting way," she says.

Soans teaches in the communication department at the University of Northern Iowa. Neymeyer is the historian at the Grout Museum in Waterloo. For the documentaries, she handles the camera work and sound recording. He asks the questions.

“We know there’s a good cultural and historic memory here," Neymeyer says.  "We just have to tap into it and have them sit down and tell us what they remember and how it fits into that larger scheme.”

Neymeyer and Soans’ simple filmmaking style is evident in the one chapter of the documentary series they’ve finished, an hour long story about the history of the Sons of Jacob Synagogue. People connected to that place of worship simply speak into the camera.

“You know, there’s one synagogue in a 100-mile radius that has to provide Jewish life for every kind of Jew within that 100-mile radius. There are those of us who keep kosher, and those of us who don’t. There are those of us who are in Jewish marriages, and those of us who are not. You know, there’s such a range of practice within this one shul, we don’t quite have that freedom to say, 'I’m going to go to the conservative synagogue,' or 'I’m going to go to the conservative one.' There’s only one.”

The haunting background music was composed by UNI professor of music Rebecca Burkhardt. Neymeyer offers the perspective of a local boy to the documentaries. He watched movies at the Paramount. He ate in the Tea Room of Black’s Department Store. He’s observed Waterloo for many decades.

“Waterloo has always been a great, sort of sociologic melting pot," he says. "A lot of things happening: industry, commerce, some great stories, ethnic, racial diversity.”

Soans, on the other hand, provides an outsiders eye. She didn’t arrive in the area until the late 90s. She’s using her research as a primer on her new hometown. And she says, in the process, she’s discovering the power of documentary filmmaking.

“For me to go into some of these stories or some of these places and discover connections people have that’s just wonderful and amazing and very beautiful," she says.

The completed “Sons of Jacob Synagogue” hit the festival circuit this week with a screening at the Wild Rose Film Festival in Des Moines.