At 93, New Brighton photographer looks to donate footage of antique cars to local historical society


Bob Comer sits at the Bru House coffee shop, just down the street from his New Brighton home, with two VHS tapes containing footage from the 1990 New London to New Brighton Antique Car Run. He says he’d like to transfer them to DVD and get them into the hands of interested folks, as well as to donate a copy to the New Brighton Area Historical Society.

At the age of 93, New Brighton resident Bob Comer has experienced a country at war, several times; he’s seen the invention of many things he never imagined possible as a child; and he’s lived through the Great Depression and several other economic recessions.

But Comer, a retired professional photographer, has seen — firsthand — more than most folks his age. In the heyday of his career, he specialized in forensic photography and private investigating.

Though such a career can reveal a lot about the human condition, he says one project he worked on has been on his mind more than the others, and in part, he says, that’s because it’s been sitting dormant for decades now.

He’s now considering donating a copy of the project to the New Brighton Area Historical Society.

Filming a road show

In 1990, Comer, who was born in 1923 when the Model T was still rolling off the Ford Motor Company assembly lines, set out to document the entire New London to New Brighton Antique Car Run, a Minnesota event that has been drawing in people from all over the country for three decades now.

The 2016 event, which took place Aug. 13, drew folks from 16 states, as well as from Canada and the UK, according to Judy Goepel, long-time secretary for the Antique Car Run. 

Goepel was involved when Comer volunteered to film the event about 26 years ago. 

With the help of his friend, Steve Krueger, Comer worked to document moments along the way. Some of them included car breakdowns on the side of the road, scenes of the small towns the slow-paced caravan traveled through and anything else Comer thought people might find interesting. 

Comer and Krueger, with their wives accompanying them, interviewed drivers, getting their personal stories and the rundown on their antique cars.

Once it was all done, Comer says he had about three hours of raw footage on his hands.

 

Sorting through 100 cars

According to Goepel, the Antique Car Run’s board of directors thought two hours and 46 minutes of video was a bit lengthy to distribute and asked for a half hour of edited footage.

But Comer, thinking the project was already in its ideal form, didn’t want to break it down, both because it would take countless hours of editing to do so and because he already liked his finished project.

“There were about 100 antiques cars that year,” Comer says. “How am I gonna choose which to keep in and which to take out?” he says with a laugh. 

Comer decided to keep the film as it was and asked if he could just advertise it in the Antique Car Run’s newsletter. But due to rules regarding commercialization at the time, he was not allowed to advertise copies of the VHS tape, which he was going to price at $15 to $20. 

So the tapes languished on a shelf.

Being “of a certain age,” as Comer puts it, spreading the word about the video via social media and the internet has not really been a possibility for him.

“Besides, that wasn’t as much of a thing back then,” Comer says, also noting that most of the drivers are like him, “of a certain age,” and could probably not be reached through online methods anyway.  

In all these 26 years, Comer has been unable to track down the names and addresses of the folks who might be interested in buying copies of his footage.

 

Donate and distribute?

Goepel and Comer have recently been discussing the video footage, and decided to advertise it in the October issue of the newsletter. 

“I’m also thinking of donating a DVD copy of it to the historical society,” Comer says. “Though I’d still like to sell some DVD copies to make up for my expenses.”

Peg Joyce, a board member of the New Brighton Area Historical Society, says the organization is interested in adding the video to its collection. 

“It’s part of the celebration of our history,” Joyce says. “I think it should be preserved.”

Just how the society will use it is up for discussion, she says, explaining that perhaps it could even be displayed looping on a TV during the next Stockyard Days. 

“I think folks will like it,” Joyce says. 

 

Thinking back

Though he’s never owned an antique car, Comer always found them fascinating.

“I’m getting to be like an old Ford myself,” he jokes. “Fix Or Repair Daily.”

In the early 1950s, Comer started working as a special deputy for the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, performing photography duties for the department. He continued in the job for about eight years, he says, often documenting crime scenes and suspects.

A self-taught photographer, Comer says he honed his skills “out on the streets” and eventually opened up his own photography business, contracting services out to law enforcement departments and county courts. 

He wasn’t only a photographer. He says he was one of the first professionals in the area to start using video, specifically filming depositions for the Hennepin County court system.

At some point, the Stockyard Days’ Antique Car Run, which features cars older than 1910, caught his eye.

“I just thought, ‘gee, they should get a video of all this,’” Comer says.

In 1990 he took his skills with his industrial Panasonic video camera and set off on the 120-mile adventure, trying to capture as many of the 100 antique cars as possible along the way.

“I really enjoyed doing it,” says Comer, whose wife of 66 years, Betty, passed away from cancer a year ago. “She was the backbone of my business and a wonderful woman,” he says, adding that the video project reminds him of all the fun they had 26 years ago documenting the vintage cars’ journey from New London to New Brighton. 

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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