History on our heels
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
The footfalls of those who came before have not seemed so far ahead as of late.
Once fall finally arrives in full, it will have been 150 years since this county was first home to a newspaper. Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House when the Spirit Lake Beacon first went to print. The paper changed editors, publishers, owners and offices over the years, but it eventually merged with its competitors to form the paper you're reading today.
It's a legacy so great in length that it's almost impossible to perceive in its full scope. In some ways, that's not only the point, but the mark of a job well done. The whole point of having a paper of record is to serve as a conduit to bring forward those days long forgotten. Over the decades, the pages of the Beacon have contained stories like a fatal airplane crash in Big Spirit Lake (Nov. 14, 1940, edition), the assassination of President William McKinley (Sept. 19, 1901, edition) and the very first Okoboji Bible Conference (Aug. 22,1935, edition). That is to say, the paper continued to share news important on both the local and national scale to not only inform, but to record that news for us today.
You might have noticed some extra heft in your paper this week, and that's due to the Progress edition you should find inside the fold. The final feature in that special section is something I'm quite proud to have written, not because of its subject, its phrasing or even the page's presentation — which is quite good I might add — but because of what it helped put in perspective. This paper and its predecessors have recorded the story of this community for 15 decades, but the paper has shared its own story just a handful of times over the century-and-a-half — typically every 25 years, unless there's a special occasion.
I volunteered for the task this year, as we saw the milestone approaching, and soon I began to undertake the research — sifting through decades of digital pages to find factoids penned by faces I know only from sepia-toned photographs and phrases likely muttered by voices I've never heard. Soon, the names began to mean something as the highlights from their life in this community unfolded. I could imagine the stress induced by the struggles of the paper's early days. And, in a manner of speaking, it was always clear the story would ultimately head in our direction. I transcribed quotes. I found photos. I confirmed timelines — when the press was bought, when the paper was sold, when the office moved, when the papers merged, when the masthead changed.
Then it all stopped.
I should have seen it coming, but I was too engrossed in studying history to realize that very history had come to rest against my heel. No archive yet contained the story of the Dickinson County News' return to downtown Spirit Lake — but we knew the story. No bound stack yet contained the editor's hopes for the future after a decade at his desk — but we could craft the words. No anniversary edition yet held the next chapter of the local institution which had told countless other stories — but now it does.
It's both a pleasant honor and a daunting duty to realize you're the scribe of tomorrow's history. That is, of course, the constant condition of any journalist, but it's a somewhat surreal experience to be fully aware the words typed today are straddling the divide — to be a writer with one foot in the past, one in the future and eyes fixed on the present. It's a realization which not only calls for appreciation of what was built, but the people who devoted themselves — in part or in whole — to continuing the legacy of the local newspaper.