May 11, 2009

Newspapers and history

Lorraine Collins is a writer from Spearfish and has allowed us to share her thoughts about newspapers and history.
A 100-year-old news item in the Pioneer caught my eye the other day and made me laugh. The story from 1909 in “a Peek at the Past” said that “Emil Johnson of Welcome returned a few days ago from a visit at his old home in Kansas and much to the surprise of his many old-time friends, he brought back a bride who will smooth the pathway of this energetic miner and prospector.”

The reason I laughed is that it reminded me of showing up in Canada with my new husband fifty years after Emil brought his bride home. My husband was also an “energetic miner and prospector” and had been working in Canada during the summer for several years, arriving in Alberta and British Columbia every spring to look for bentonite and barite. But one year he showed up with me. Everybody was astonished and the first time he introduced me as his wife, jaws dropped and eyes grew wide with surprise.
One fellow told me, “We assumed he had parents somewhere but he never mentioned them, or anybody or anything else. He sure kept quiet about everything.”

Well, miners and prospectors tend to do that, I guess. So it’s kind of ironic that a fellow who by temperament and training tended to say as little as possible married a person whose entire professional life was devoted to discovering facts and spreading the news as fast as possible. Since he had always operated on a “need to know” basis, and I always felt I needed to know, sometimes our conversations sounded more like a cross-examination in a court of law rather than ordinary supper table chit chat.

My delight in reading about Emil and his bride a hundred years after he brought her to the Black Hills made me think of the importance of newspapers as an accessible historical record. We’ve heard a lot lately about how many famous and important newspapers are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and how many have already vanished. Much has been said about how the public needs to know what’s going on in their communities and their states and that this information will become less available if newspapers disappear.

That’s certainly true, but what about history? That also will be lost. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in libraries looking at microfilms of old newspapers, trying to track down information that’s really been available only in newspapers. Because newspapers record many mundane and ordinary things of life, such as Emil bringing home a bride, and also important events such as murders and scandals and political campaigns, we have an indelible historic record that I don’t think can be replicated by any other means.

When I was writing an article about the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the Black Hills in the 1920s, the microfilm archive at the E.Y. Berry library at BHSU was invaluable. But one thing I’ve always enjoyed about looking at old newspapers is examining the ads and seeing not only what people were being urged to buy, but also what those products cost. There’s no better way to get the sense of a bygone society than to look at the newspaper of that place and that time.
Reading the hundred-year old story of Emil and his bride, I was interested that the writer optimistically predicted this nameless woman would “smooth the pathway” of her new husband. I wonder if Emil thought that’s what she was going to do, and whether she did. Unless we delve into ancient newspaper archives looking for the rest of the story, I guess we’ll never know.
Lorraine Collins can be contacted at

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