History lessons in real time

Marvin Baker
Local Columnist

Do you like to read newspapers? Most people do despite the advent of digital social media. Newspapers continue to be the most trusted source of information.

And all you have to do is go back and look at old issues and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

When it’s the hear and now, we don’t necessarily think about it. We read the paper; the headlines, the obituaries; the sports; the ads. We most often get our satisfaction from the latest edition, then we put it in the recycle bin.

After we finish reading today’s edition, we don’t think about the historical significance that some of these articles, photos and ads will have in the coming years.

But they are and you’ll see what I mean in just a moment.

Starting in May 1923, my hometown had a newspaper called the Hazelton Independent. It was a broadsheet weekly and weighed heavy on local ads and content.

Fast forward 98 years and most of the businesses and people are gone.

Often times we will look at old newspapers to find out when people got married, when they died, who was part of a five-year baseball dynasty, crop prices when they hit rock bottom in 1934 and so on.

For me, I was stunned to find an article in a November 1923 edition of the Hazelton Independent that my dad had a brother who died that month from kidney disease. He was 4 years old.

I didn’t know my dad had a brother named James. Nobody, I mean not my parents, my uncles and aunts or grandparents passed that information on.

So you can imagine my surprise finding that 98 years after the fact.

There were also places in my hometown that my parents talked about often. One of them was the Zirbes Theater. It was a typical movie theater, and of course in 1923, all movies were silent.

A series of ads ran in the Independent about some boxing cards that were happening at the Zirbes. It was interesting reading.

There’s also legal notices that are sometimes passed on to the newspaper from a court of law.

OK, somebody got their property foreclosed, they went bankrupt or somebody died and their estate was up for auction. There was a lot of that kind of stuff in the late ‘20s and early 30s.

Another way to look at this is in reading newspapers from another community. Here at this newspaper, I spend a little time each week looking through editions of the Donnybrook Courier from 1938.

I have to tell you, I’ve learned a lot about the community of Donnybrook and its people by reading those 1938 editions.

Donnybrook is a small community about halfway between Kenmare and Carpio, and although I’ve lived in Carpio 19 years, I knew little about Donnybrook.

That’s no longer the case. At the least I recognize a lot of names when they are published.

Nowadays, weekly newspapers don’t often carry national news unless it’s something of the utmost importance.

Back in the day, the small-town weeklies did from a uniquely small-town perspective, which brings me to my favorite edition of the Donnybrook Courier.

It was a November 1908 edition and it was tattered and torn in spots, but a major headline on the front page announced that Howard Taft had won the presidential race and swept North Dakota.

You won’t find that kind of commentary in the Fargo Forum or the Bismarck Tribune. And you’ll surely not find it on Facebook.

Consider this? Most of us started seeing Internet in 1997. There have been six presidential elections since then and I would challenge you to find information about any one of those elections, except perhaps the most recent, on social media.

You won’t because it’s a flash in the pan. It’s like a radio broadcast. It’s here and it’s gone.

I spent an entire day at the North Dakota State Historical Society going through nine years of Hazelton Independent copies. It was truly fascinating.

Another example of historical significance was when I was in college in Bismarck. I was tasked with writing a major report for astronomy class on Halley’s Comet.

So, I went to the Historical Society, looked up 1910 editions of the Bismarck Tribune and Fargo Forum and got all the information I needed.

Try finding information about Halley’s Comet on social media?

Yes, I’ve been in newspapers 40 years and yes, I’m putting in a plug for newspapers here. But what’s important beyond sentiment is the historical value that newspapers present every day and every week. It’s priceless.