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The Dearth of News

In March of 1901, the country correspondent at Bloomenfield informed the readers of the Jamestown Weekly Alert about the recent local movements of the horse trader, Herman Cook, from Windsor. “Think the charming young lady at Mr. K’s has something to do with it,” was the report. “How is it, Herman?”

This item evaded the blue pencil of the editor, but it was the sort of thing that made editors nervous--a country correspondent getting nosy about the romantic involvements of his neighbors, doing so in jocular fashion, but nevertheless risking offense, and trouble for the editor.

Most of the country correspondents in their heyday, the early twentieth century, were men--not women, as came to be customary later in the century--and it shows in their particular interest as to the presence of young ladies in the community. From a twenty-first century perspective, this seems sketchy. We read in the Starkweather report published in the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean in December 1904, “Miss Adie Kennedy is spending the winter on her claim at Hiddenwood.” This item was perhaps newsworthy then, and it is historic now, but still. . . .

I have been intimating that there is more to these reports of country correspondents, which filled the pages of our newspapers a century ago, than has been credited. As a historian, here are two things I value in the examination of the lives of past generations on the prairies.

First, investigations that penetrate to the grassroots. We have to build history from the ground up, learn how people lived their lives, before making generalizations.

Second, recognize the complexity of daily life in the past. There was no simple life. Working a subsistence farm, keeping house and raising kids on a homestead, these were exercises in multi-tasking such as we can scarcely fathom today.

Now, the reports of the country correspondents are problematical evidence. They can be uncertain as to provenance, doubtful as to veracity--but they are on the scene, they are primary, and they are literate, literate to a degree that has to command our respect.

I sampled the “Country Correspondence” columns of three newspapers: the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean (with reports from Brocket, Church’s Ferry, Lawton, Crary, Hampden, Starkweather, Edmore, Newville, and Garske); the Jamestown Weekly Alert (with reports from Pingree, Spiritwood Lake, Buchanan, Ypsilanti, Crystal Springs, Elbridge, Bloomenfield, and Windsor); and the Langdon Courier Democrat (with reports from Rush Lake, Daniels, Dresden, Mowbray, Nekoma, and Olga).

These newspapers had networks typical of prairie papers at the time. And just laying them out, listing the points of origin, strikes us with a fact of life a century ago: the landscape was alive with multiple points of community life. It was a living landscape of considerable human interest. And complexity.

One day in 1915 the country correspondent writing from Dresden for the newspaper in Langdon produced a masterpiece of irony. He begins, “The country correspondent sat in his chair lamenting over the dearth of news and feeling like kicking himself for the second or third time because Mr. So and So did not come to town or that no young prodigy had made his of her advent into the community.”

This, after he had filled his column with weddings, church improvements, basket socials, and business progress. The correspondent is feigning boredom, and he feigns comfort when a fellow citizen tells him how much he appreciates the Dresden notes. He knows his life is rich, and he tells us about it, every week. I am going to keep reading.

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