It’s Saturday, April 11, 2009. I’m reading my local newspaper, the Laramie Daily Boomerang. The headlines tell me volunteers have organized a city-wide cleanup for today; that a local university basketball player is trying out for the NBA; that turkey hunting hinges on making a good turkey call.
Advertisements for Easter Sunday church services are juxtaposed with ads for ammo at the local outdoors store. Maybe we really are clinging to religion and guns in my rural state but that’s not my concern today. I’m just happy my small town still has a paper, the one I’ve subscribed to since 1990, when I first made up my mind to move West.
I received the Sunday Daily Boomerang in the mail the Thursday or Friday after it was published. I read about local leaders and pancake breakfasts and homes for sale, and dream about my future home town.
Now as big city papers are drowning in red ink and moving their “content” online, small town papers like mine have shrunk to 24 pages for a Saturday edition and deliver little national or international news beyond briefs. That concentration on local reporting is the trend that might keep small papers from being a redundancy, in several senses of the word.
But while print news is in danger of landing in the ash heap, the flames of fascination with newspapers past are being fanned. For example, an effort is underway by the Wyoming State Library and other partners to digitize and make available to the public Wyoming newspapers from 1849 to 1922. I’ve seldom heard hard-core historians or genealogists complain about using microfilm readers — I sense they enjoy the hunt. But thanks to the Wyoming Newspaper Project, more than 900,000 newspaper pages have been digitized. The bulk have been loaded to the easily searchable Web site: the rest are on their way.
This morning it took me about 10 minutes to read my local paper, ads and all. Since I still had coffee left, I fired up the computer and betook myself to Wyonewspapers.org. Dog curled at my feet, I read.
April 11, 1891, like today, was a Saturday. Readers of the Daily Boomerang on that morning would have seen a front page with international news about enraged Italians and a story out of New York about one Anna Dickinson, famous lecturer, about to be incarcerated in an insane asylum. There, above the fold, in the left hand columns now valued above all other space in print news, the Trabing Company, Wholesale and Retail Grocers and Jobbers of Wines, Liquors, Tobaccos and Cigars, offered an array of products that might have served as a business model for today’s mega-discount stores. From butter ladles and moulds to Kennedy’s World-Famed crackers; from celebrated Milwaukee beers to flours from both Laramie and Colorado; from practical good such as farm and spring wagons to tents and wagon covers: the mind boggles at the selection. It was reassuring to learn that shoppers could get Fancy Groceries such as Imported Herring, Mackerel and White Fish in Kits and Pails. And that Orders from along the Railroad will Receive Prompt and Careful Attention.
On page two appeared an ad for a mortuary service that still exists in Laramie today. J.W. Stryker, Undertaker and Embalmer, dealt in Wood, Cloth and Metallic burial cases and caskets. He offered robes and general funeral supplies and the Finest Hearse in the City for Adults and Children. He could be reached by telephone, night or day, at No. 56. That notice was followed by an ad for one of Trabing’s competitors and assurance that one could purchase ginger ale, champagne cider and birch beer, the Queen of All Summer Drinks.
Readers in April 1891 would also have learned about the federal government’s decision that Indians didn’t really need all that reserved land, after all. The Crow Reservation in Montana, just over the Wyoming line, would be opened sometime after the first of July. “This will throw open to settlement a million acres of agricultural, grazing and mineral land, and a great immigration is expected.”
Another news brief lets us ponder this time, just a generation after the end of the Civil War and the start of southern reconstruction. “The alleged falling off in the percentage of increase in the negro race in the south is very easy to account for. The census enumerators in the south didn’t enumerate all of the negros,” the brief explains simply.
Page three contains more ads including one for the Holliday Furniture company, which still operates in Laramie, as well as a lure to travel 120 miles away to Rocky Mountain Brewery of Denver, Colo., with its Capacity of 150,000 Barrels per Annum, Brewed exclusively of Bohemian Hops and Selected Colorado Barley, specializing in Pilsner Bottled Beer.
Then there is a feature by the Boomerang’s founder and publisher, a humorist who named his newspaper after his mule. Bill Nye’s column, “Thoughtlets,” describes his findings on a recent trip to Chicago’s Whitechapel Club, a short-lived and highly macabre press club. Modern travel writers could learn much from these lines describing the club’s sarcophagus: “Bright and cheery skeletons hang up wherever the pleased eye rambles o’er the walls, and blood spattered garments, torn by the coroner from murdered innocence, soften the harsh outlines of the bony decorations. Skulls with phosphorescent eyes in them stand upon the whatnots — or whatsnot, perhaps I should say — here and there.”
Nye continues: “All is cheery and appetizing, especially to the weary mind and the tired and spent brain. Here we see several white, ghost dance garments from Wounded Knee, upon which the blood yet looks nice and fresh. Here is a large westward hoe with which an irritated farmer killed several of his children in an unguarded moment.”
Lastly, page four presents the schedule of the Union Pacific Mail and Express, coming and going from the Laramie depot, and instructs one where to find a tailor with a large stock of Scotch and English goods, as well as another vendor of Stove and Kindling Wood. In a titillating bit of local news, we learn that C. J. Weatherby “has been in the city several days preparing to organize a senate of the K.A.S.O. Just what these letters stand for is not known to the general public, but we are told that the society is a high social and fraternal organization. Ladies are not admitted.”
Also in local action we should not be surprised to learn that over the previous few days back in April 1891 J.J. Shore of the Laramie Brewery has been putting some of the beer from the new brewery on the market. “The superior quality of his production will create a demand for it far and near. It will keep $75,000 in Laramie every year that would otherwise go to distant points, not counting the large number of men he will employ.” Mr. Shore is described in the story as “energetic, wide awake, and practical.”
Finally, these offerings from the “This, That and the Other” column. Dr. Free is acquiring the art of riding a bicycle. The hunters will be out in force again tomorrow. The city has decided to postpone flushing the sewers until after the ditches are cleaned out. “Dad” Nash lost the most valuable Jersey cow of his herd yesterday, which he valued at $200. The telephone line has been down between Laramie and Cheyenne. The damage was repaired today.
And finally, on a more serious note, C.P. Fillebrown was safely lodged in jail at Cheyenne. He says he is innocent of murder — that he found Hiram Faulks already dead at Granite Canyon. We learn about his escort into custody. “Fillebrown, who was in no way manacled, walked erect beside the officer. He was agitated, but by great effort managed to conceal his emotion from all but the closest observers. He greeted several acquaintances and managed to carry a smile of forlorn hope.”
Fillebrown isn’t alone in feeling forlorn hope. Many modern newspapers carry themselves with that air these days. They are already in the act of self-digitizing, going straight to the web and skipping the print and microfilm stage, like an insect going from larval to adult and skipping the pupal phase.
It is amusing to imagine whether historians 100 years from now will be interested in Laramie clean up day, or how the basketball player fared in the tryouts, or where they could have found Easter Sunday services. Perhaps it is vanity, but I hope the doings of our age, the mundane, the silly, the bizarre, the haunting and the historically prescient, will be duly recorded. Even more, I hope the pleasure of reading daily news, in whatever form, will not cease to be a habit for future generations. I can picture my house still standing in 100 years, inhabited by another woman and her dog, who curl up with a cup of coffee on the Saturday morning before Easter and learn the news of the day. Here’s hoping the only thing missing will be the ink.