Missouri’s historic Little River Drainage Project will be the subject of a new feature documentary directed and produced by Jackson resident Steve E. Turner.
Turner said the scope of the drainage project, which he called “a big American story,” was what drew him to commit to telling its history in Little River.
The Little River Drainage Project transformed the swamps of southeast Missouri to agricultural land. Despite a Supreme Court battle, World War I, disease outbreaks and floods, the Little River Drainage Project reclaimed close to one million acres of swampland in 14 years.
The project, which moved more earth than the construction of the Panama Canal, now consists of 1,000 miles of ditches and 300 miles of levees. The Cape Girardeau-based Little River Drainage District, whose board is cooperating with the documentary, currently maintains it.
The production is asking those with knowledge of the drainage project and/or life in the Bootheel prior to 1930 to be interview subjects. While they will interview those who were children during this time, Turner is also looking for those who have second-hand knowledge from parents or grandparents.
“Even if you don’t think you have a great story, you might be wrong,” Turner said.
Turner said he is looking for stories that aren’t in books, and can only be told by those who are familiar with this area.
“I recently talked to someone that knew about the fires in the swamps before they drained it,” Turner said. “In the dry season, the fire hazard was massive and he told me that the smoke was so bad it would kill people across the river.”
Pre-production on the documentary began on Jan. 2, when Turner’s production company, Big Prairie Films, partnered with the non-profit International Documentary Association to accept tax-deductible contributions.
“We need the support of Southeast Missouri to make this film possible,” Turner said. “With personal and corporate tax-deductible contributions, along with corporate sponsorships, this documentary will leave a vivid and lasting impact on Missouri and American history.”
Turner said he already has a historical outline and has started pre-interviewing potential interview subjects. He hopes to start filming interviews in May, and film B-roll footage in the fall.
In 2019, he plans on editing the documentary using 3,500 historical photographs and over three million area documents available through Southeast Missouri State University. Frank Nickell, a retired history professor at Southeast, is working as a historical advisor for the film.
Turner said the response he has gotten so far has been overwhelmingly positive and the biggest obstacle he currently faces is getting the word out about the documentary.
“People who have stories to tell want to tell that story,” Turner said. “This is a part of them — their history, their family and where they are from.”
This is not Turner’s first project. He has directed TV commercials and documentary work for AT&T, Maxwell House, NBC, Alzheimers USA, Kraft, Build-A-Bear and many others. He is currently in post-production on another feature-length documentary, The Past is Never Dead, which tells the story of David Robinson and his 17-year struggle to prove he was wrongly convicted of murder.
People can contact Turner at LittleRiverDoc.org, and keep up with the documentary’s progress at Facebook.com/littleriverdoc.