Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Small Town Newspaper, News, Opinion, Culture & Power

A short list of occupations defined a new town on the frontier. There were developers and speculators who divided the open land into individual properties. Lawyers recorded deeds and resolved disputes. Merchants, saloon-keepers, doctors and dentists met various needs of settlers. And very early, there was the newspaperman.

A newspaper was important to fledgling communities on the frontier. A weekly newspaper confirmed a town’s existence and verified its prospects.

There have been at least eight newspapers in Sutton and over forty in Clay County. Most were short-lived, maybe only a few months while others lasted sixty to ninety years.

Sutton had the Sutton Times, Advertiser-news, Globe, Clay County Herald, the Democrat, Sutton News (twice), Sutton Register and today’s Clay County News. The Harvard Courier served that town for ninety-one years following earlier sheets called The Harvard, Champion, The Leader, Advocate, Sentinel, The Harvard Free Lance and Clay County Journal. There was a Fairfield News, Fairfield Herald, Fairfield Tribune and the Independent before the Fairfield Auxiliary began in 1911 becoming what may have been the county’s best paper for much of its fifty-four years. Edgar had the Edgar Review, Edgar Weekly Times, Edgar Times, Leader, News Journal, Edgar Post, Post-World, World, the Sun and the Edgar Sun. Clay Center had the Clay County Patriot, Clay County Progress, Call, Gazette, Clay County Republican and the Clay County Sun. Even Ong seems to have had the Weekly Visitor, the Ong Times, Sentinel, Deacon and the Weekly News.

Is that a complete list? Probably not. I expect I’ll run across references to more county newspapers. I’d be surprised if there weren’t local news sheets distributed in Glenvil, Inland, Eldorado, or maybe even Saronville, Spring Ranch(e) or Verona.

So what was the big deal with newspapers? Consider that from the early 1870’s into the 1920’s, newspapers were the primary source of news, comment, advertising, entertainment and literary exposure. There was no radio, TV, internet; there were a few distant newspapers and some magazines but at prices many couldn’t justify. A year’s subscription to the local paper was only about a buck.

What did the early paper offer? All covered the local community extensively. Newspapers were avid boosters for their community pointing out business changes, civic improvements, accomplishments of successful residents and any other favorable items that would make locals feel good or attract outsiders who might come across an issue.

Sutton had multiple stores in each category and competition was fierce. The News and especially the Register carried quarter and half page and even full page ads that were repeated week to week.

Each paper had extensive social news coverage like today, only much more so. Each community (Saronville, Verona, Eldorado, etc.), township (Sheridan, Marshall, School Creek) or parts of a township (Excelsoir) had a correspondent who filled eight to twelve column inches each week of “who visited whom” notes. My grandmother’s uncle, A. G. Israelson was the Saronville reporter for newspapers in Clay Center, Harvard and Sutton where the weekly activities of her Aspegren and Israelson families were carefully chronicled.

Papers serialized books with chapters appearing week after week for several months, non-fiction as well as lots of fiction. Editors promoted the local theater, clubs, literary guilds and other cultural endeavors that cast a favorable light on the town. Small town papers had access to the products of major papers and carried lengthy articles on current events world-wide. They offered detailed analysis of political and economic issues, either their own or acquired elsewhere.

Early papers had an overt political slant and aggressively advocated for their favored party in editorials as well as news articles. Two papers in the same town almost always divided along political lines. Nearly all papers had a regular column by the publisher who attempted to persuade his readers to his and his party’s position. No one else held that kind of sway over the public in towns on the plains.

School news was big. The progress of rural students made its way to the paper. The Edgar Sun had high school students as regular contributors to a section called “The Huskie”. The town’s baseball team was always a favorite story. The Sutton Register carried a poultry column for years and seemed to have something to say about raising chickens every week.

The lasting impact of those newspapers from one hundred years or more ago is that they give us a picture of the day-to-day life of the town, its founders and of our grandparents. We find the specific facts from the beginning as we read but after a period of time reading and absorbing the images, a more general picture appears that tells about the overall lifestyle, the mood and the flow of human activity during those times.

Many old newspapers have been microfilmed and are on file with the Nebraska Historical Society. Reels are available for a fee through member libraries including the Sutton Library. However, it takes time to get the one or two reels available at a time, it’s for a limited period and microfilm is not the most user friendly medium. Members of the Sutton Historical Society have begun a small pilot project to copy, to digitize, images of the of papers owned by the Clay County News. If it’s feasible, we’ll have DVD’s available at the Sutton Library and elsewhere with files of past issues of the Sutton News, the Sutton Register and The Clay County News.

This work is simple enough, but very labor intensive. If you would like more information about this project, or would like to help, please contact Jerry Johnson at or 773-0222.

This article first appeared in the October, 2010 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For more information about this magazine please contact Jarod Griess at or at Sutton Life Magazine, 510 West Cedar Street, Sutton, NE 68979 or at 402-984-4203.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

We've since connected Walter Wellman (in a Nov. 2011 posting) to the Sutton Times beginning on Friday, June 20, 1873 when Walter was 14 years old.