Long before the Internet and online blogging, there was amateur journalism, a hobby that began shortly after the American Civil War with the availability of small and inexpensive printing presses. Amateur journalists published and circulated their own newspapers, and sometimes books. They formed associations and held conventions. Similar to the Paris salons of the 18th and early 19th centuries, they also gathered informally with other writers to exchange ideas and information. In the late 19th century, one of the leading amateur journalists of the day was living in Fargo, North Dakota.
Born in Nova Scotia in 1862, Finlay Grant began working on his first newspaper at the age of fourteen by creating weekly word puzzles. Two years later, he and a friend printed their first newspaper, The Young Bluenose in Halifax. He edited several more papers before joining the National Amateur Press Association in 1880. That year, he convinced the organization, the foremost association of amateur journalists in the United States, to accept Canadian members. The following year, he was made the Association’s official editor, and later became its president.
Through the Association, he met and became engaged to a Michigan poet by the name of Bertha York, and the two married at the 1885 convention. The following year, they moved to Fargo to establish the Commonwealth newspaper.
While Finlay became well-known as a reform advocate, Bertha continued to publish prose and poetry. She published several papers, including Ink Drops in Fargo, and Pansies Monthly at Edgeley. She is best known for her book of poems, Only Buds , and was considered “…one of the greatest writers of the Golden Age of hobby writing.”
Finlay became editor of the North Dakota Independent and founded the North Dakotan , a paper dedicated to the discussion of state and national politics. The couple had two children, although their first born died very young.
At the age of 34, Finlay contracted typhoid fever and, after an eight-week battle with the illness, passed away at his Fargo home on this date in 1897. The city and state mourned his loss, and the Fargo Argus reported that, “There are few men in the community whose loss could be so deeply felt.”
He was buried in Edgeley beside the grave of his first son. Bertha later relocated, but continued writing well into the 1930s, long after the heyday of amateur journalism had passed.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Ahlhauser, William C. 1919. Ex-Presidents of the National Amateur Press Association : pp. 19-20. W. Paul Cook Publishing: Athol, Massachusetts.
Hennessy, W. B. 1910 History of North Dakota: Embracing a Relation of the History of the State from the Earliest Times Down to the Present Day : p. 218. The Bismarck Tribune: Bismarck.
Spencer, Truman J. 1891. A Cyclopedia of the Literature of Amateur Journalism: pp. ii, 408. Adkins Printing Company: New Britain, Connecticut.
Jamestown Weekly Alert . “Finlay Grant,” Obituary. May 6, 1897: p. 4.