Dickinson County News continues Beacon's 150-year legacy

Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Graphic by Seth Boyes

This article was published as part of the Dickinson County News' annual Progress Edition.

Dickinson County's population numbered around 1,200 some 150 years ago. The city of Milford had just been platted, and the area's growing population had decided it was high time the community was home to a newspaper. A number of newspapers sprang up in the region in the years and decades to come, eventually joining together to form what is today the Dickinson County News.

THE BIRTH OF THE BEACON

1910 Beacon staff

Before a name was even settled upon for the county's first paper, two lawyers named Orson Rice and R.L. Wilcox volunteered in October of 1870 to helm the publication. Rice oversaw finances while Wilcox acted as editor. Wilcox would retire from his work at the paper in a matter of weeks, passing the torch to another local lawyer named A.W. Osborne.

The community opted to name their paper the Spirit Lake Beacon, rather than choosing a more typical moniker. The name came after several days of "grave deliberation in the Crandall House bar-room, George Bellows' boot and shoe store and Roscoe Brown's saloon, which were the three principal places of public resort," according to the paper's Dec. 9, 1875, edition. The archives said no one was ever able to prove who first suggested the name, as a handful of residents each claimed it had been their idea. However, milestone editions of the Beacon consistently summarized the logic behind the choice attributing the quote to an unknown participant in the discussion.

"The position which Dickinson County occupies geographically, being the most elevated portion of the state, together with our facilities for navigation (Here he paused and wet his throat with some of Roscoe's 'distilled lake water') makes it peculiarly fitting and meet that we should have a beacon to shed its light upon the world and serve as a guide to the weary emigrant seeking a homestead," the man was recorded as saying. "And, by the way, I will show a man a devilish good claim for 10 dollars."

Without a press, the Beacon struck a year-long agreement for its pages to be printed some 14 miles east at the offices of the Estherville Vindicator. A young Estherville boy by the name of Abraham Funk wandered down to the Vindicator at that time and saw the first edition of the Beacon being pulled from the press.

"The old press labored and lo the Spirit Lake Beacon was born," Funk wrote in October of 1920 for the Beacon's 50th anniversary. "As I pressed forward from curiosity to join in the inspection of the result, I little dreamed how much this bantling and I should have to do with each other in the unfathomable years of the future."

Funk would eventually be hired by the Beacon after briefly "tinkering with the type" at the Vindicator, and he later held the titles of both editor and owner at the Beacon. Funk's career also included several years as state senator for the region. In fact, according to the March 8, 1894, edition of the Milford Mail, Funk was seated next to historical figure Abbie Gardner Sharp as the Iowa Senate considered a bill to fund the monument to the Spirit Lake Massacre which still stands in Arnolds Park.

THE EARLY YEARS

A.B. Funk

Printing of the Beacon moved in-house after the contract with the Vindicator expired in 1871. Funk recalled Rice, whom he said had little experience in actual printing, became an easy mark for a salesmen in Algona and bought a shoddy press for the Spirit Lake paper.

"From the dished condition of its bed, this printing machine was evidently much older than the state," Funk wrote.

The Beacon's new machinery came with mismatched font sets, type separators cut out of cigar boxes and no lead slugs to aid in setting the letters. The Beacon was in need of a printer, and Rice soon hired John A. Smith of Milford for the job.

"He had been thoroughly trained in a New Hampshire printing office, and the fine line of picturesque profanity he had absorbed in the Wisconsin pinery came in mighty handy in this crucial emergency," Funk wrote.

The next few years were lean, according to Funk, due to grasshoppers descending on the region in plague-like proportions in 1873. Still, Smith and Funk bought the Beacon the following year. The owners were often left to do much of the mechanical work themselves as they produced the paper.

"No pent up day of eight hours confined our powers not while the grasshoppers were gnawing at the vitals of community life," Funk wrote.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Art Lorch(left) and Bill Beck Jr. (right)

Fortunes began to change in 1881, as four different railroads decided to extend into Dickinson County and created a boom for the area. The Beacon purchased a power press and steam engine while also doubling the physical size of the newspaper. The century turned, and Funk sold the Beacon to O.E. Smith in 1910, after 38 years at the paper.

"As a mere boy, my fortunes were wedded to this paper," Funk wrote. "I had written birth notices of children who are now grandparents."

Smith owned the Beacon for 40 years, and earned the nickname "Mr. Newspaper" before selling the paper in 1950. It was then that Art Lorch and William Beck Jr. took over as owners. The Beacon's offices were moved to 1760 Ithaca Ave. and a new press was installed Campus Cleaners now stands on the site. Beck then purchased the Milford Mail in 1958 and the Lake Park News in 1964.

"With Beck as publisher and Lorch the manager, the Beacon soon gained state recognition as one of the leading weekly newspapers in Iowa," the centennial edition read. "The interests of residents were being promoted that desire of residents in 1870."

The 1960s marked the dawn of offset printing in newspapers, and the Beacon began the switchover in 1964. The paper was printed in Spencer during the transition.

"The once ink-stained hands of compositors became TV hand lotion commercial material," the centennial Beacon said. "Trained minds that once set, measured and built ads on a hard-surfaced table top began producing items and prices on intricate photographic machines."

Beck would also buy the Spencer Daily Reporter and the Estherville Daily News as the decade closed out. He leased the group of papers to Mid-America Corporation in March of 1971, before buying back the Beacon, Milford Mail and Lake Park News in 1980. The papers changed hands several times that decade, and in 1990 Paula Buenger joined the Spencer Daily Reporter's newsroom as a staff writer. She took the editor's chair at the Beacon in 1992 when the county's three papers were purchased by Edwards Publication.

The Beacon ran Buenger's photo along with the announcement of the new staff in 1993.

"My time at the Beacon coincided with a challenging period at the Iowa Great Lakes the floods of 1993," Buenger said. "I remember the urgency of my young staff to get it right and cover all the angles of the constantly-changing story much like my staffs today."

Buenger fondly recalled watching the courtship of former Beacon Staff Writer Lisa Farrell and Beacon Photographer Dave Schwartz.

"They married at Gull Point on a predictably soggy day," Buenger said. "Today, both remain in the news business, at the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Lisa is the editor, and Dave is a photographer. It's interesting that so many of us stayed in the business all these years later the other member of our newsroom, Lance Bergeson, sports editor back then, writes for the Des Moines Register, focusing on long distance running."

Buenger would take a six-year hiatus from the newspaper business. In her absence, the Beacon, Milford Mail and Lake Park News, along with the Spencer Daily Reporter, Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and Cherokee Daily Times, were brought under one umbrella in 1998 by Community Newspaper Holdings. Buenger returned as the Daily Reporter's editor in 1999 just as major changes were about to take place in the expanded family of papers.

THE LEGACY

The first opinion page of the combined DCN.

The trio of Dickinson County newspapers were combined into a single publication on July 21, 1999. The combined paper was housed in the Beacon's office up until the fall of 2003, when the offices moved to 3000 Highway 9 west of Spirit Lake.

"We live in a changing world and have come to a crossroads in bringing you, our readers and advertisers, the newspaper that you deserve," former Publisher Greg Drees wrote in his first opinion column for the DCN. "In this very exciting transition, we have taken the best of the past and fashioned it into one unified, county-wide publication in which we know you will take great pride."

One of the first headlines to be printed on the pages of the DCN was an update informing the public the local Save the Park campaign had raised $3 million of its $5.5 million goal to prevent Historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park from being developed as lakeshore housing. Former Milford Mail Editor Doris Welle's byline topped the story, and she continues to write seasonally for the DCN.

Rust Communications purchased the Dickinson County News, Spencer Daily Reporter and Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune in December of 2003, and the newspapers remain under the Rust label today. Buenger has held the position of publisher for the Northwest Iowa Publishing family of papers since the purchase.

A visual redesign of the DCN debuted in May of 2008 and harkened back to the legacy of the Beacon by adding a lighthouse to the paper's masthead. The iconic image had been an on-again-off-again addition to the Beacon's front page since at least the late 1930s and had been redesigned several times over the decades the most recent of which occurred in February of 2018.

The DCN's current Managing Editor Russ Mitchell succeeded former Editor Anitra Wolf in January of 2010.

The Dickinson County News moved its offices into the former Royal Theatre on Hill Avenue in Spirit Lake.
Photo by Seth Boyes

"Coming up to Spirit Lake was an easy decision because I previously served the area as News Editor with Anitra in March of 2003. The newspaper was switching from a twice-a-week publication schedule to the Wednesday editions we still see today," he said. "I had 21 great months up in Spirit Lake, before transferring within the company to Spencer in late 2004. When Anitra stepped down at the start of 2010, Paula gave me a chance to come back as the Managing Editor in Dickinson County. I've loved every minute of the past decade because of the people I've been blessed to work with."

The paper's offices moved again on May 15, 2019, and the DCN staff relocated to the former Royal Theatre on Hill Avenue in Spirit Lake. The theatre had opened around 1914 and continued to show films until the early 2000s. The paper had received grant funding from the city of Spirit Lake which was earmarked for restoring vacant downtown businesses. The theatre's patterned metal ceiling was largely preserved during the remodeling process. Several areas were patched, and its entire surface was painted black. Concrete was poured to level the theatre's sloped seating area, the building's facade was replaced with large panels of tinted glass and walls were constructed to serve as offices for the editorial staff, designers, ad representatives and office staff.

"We're steps away from the county courthouse and the heart of the Spirit Lake business district," Mitchell said. "It's not far from where Mr. Rice and Mr. Wilcox first conspired to start a newspaper in Dickinson County. They couldn't have imagined the way information is exchanged today, but we work every day to maintain their tradition as a beacon for residents of Dickinson County and beyond."

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