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The history of news in Wadena

The Wadena Pioneer Journal has roots that go back to 1877, and although a lot has changed over the years, the goal is still the same: to cover Wadena-area news and its people. (file photo)

Most northwestern Minnesotans are familiar with small town life, like the goingson in Wadena. Things seem to move a little slower, a little easier. Everyone knows everyone. And, to an outsider, not much seems to happen from day to day. But the small town residents know the truth: there's always something happening—you just have to pay attention.

Since March 24, of 1877, when a man named Prince Arthur Gatchell began the first newspaper in town, Wadena has had enough activity to keep a local paper alive with stories.

Gatchell's paper was called The Tribune, and it quickly found a competitor when S.S. Gardner, a local real estate agent, began the Wadena Real Estate Journal. However, this journal was short-lived, and it was the third paper, the Northern Pacific Farmer, started by Joseph E. Hall and "a man by the name of McClure" in 1878, that all but took the place of The Tribune (which had changed it's name to the Wadena County Tribune and moved to Verndale by then).

In the late 1800's, when the first Wadena newspapers were just getting off the ground, the subscription rate was two dollars or barter comprised of either two bushels of wheat, 12 pounds of butter, 13 dozen eggs, or eight bushels of potatoes.

At the time, small town newspapers took a great deal of work to print as well. According to a historical report, written by Bob Zosel, a historian and researcher of Wadena history, Hall, part owner of the Northern Pacific Farmer, "did vividly recall the production" of the newspaper.

"It began with an old Washington hand press, which they had picked up in Fargo, and the shop was located in a story-and-a-half unfurnished building," according to Zosel's report, written in 2009. "During this printing, there were many local spectators, and Mr. Hall, at five-feet, six-inches, tells of operating the hand press, which he was very familiar with. A young local blacksmith, with some reputation for strength, asked if he could try pulling the lever to operate the press. In so doing, he tried several times before he could operate it and, upon the return of the lever, he was jerked over the frame to the delight of other spectators."

Some years after its establishment the Northern Pacific Farmer (which had changed ownership and been renamed the Wadena County Pioneer) was up against a new competing newspaper, the Wadena Tribune, established in 1885 by Edward H. Love and A.C. Archer, previous editors of the Bluffton News.

The newly established Tribune changed hands a number of times in the years after it was founded (much like the Pioneer had) and, in 1897, the Swindlehurst Brothers, William and Alvah, purchased the Tribune.

During the next decade or so, the the Wadena County Pioneer at the Wadena Tribune, competed for news, notably both reporting on the mayor-at-the-time and local druggist, Robert F. C. Iltis.

Iltis was accused in articles written by the Swindlehurst brothers of being a fan "of the establishment and maintenance of houses of ill fame in the city."

According to Zosel's report of the case, Alvah Swindlehurst, brought forth a witness in the case against Iltis, "a poor, fallen woman, who at one time conducted a house of ill repute." However, the jury ruled in favor of Iltis, awarding him one dollar.

The rival newspaper, the Wadena Tribune, had followed the case and took the opportunity to pen an article with the headline "Iltis wins libel trial, awarded $1. Big deal."

A few years later, in 1905, the Wadena Tribune and the Wadena County Pioneer consolidated, becoming the Pioneer Journal, and Alvah Swindlehurst continued as the editor of the Pioneer until 1913.

Following the consolidation of the two papers, a number of rival papers attempted to spring up in the city, like the Wadena News, which was established in 1910 and later purchased by the Pioneer Journal.

Other newspapers who tried to rival the Journal were also either bought out by the Pioneer shortly after their establishment or succumbed to bankruptcy. They couldn't compete with the well established Pioneer, which had switched in 1914 from the Mergenthaler Linotype machine to a new Intertype machine, which enabled the paper to give better service both in newspaper printing and job printing.

With a better printer, the paper was able to experiment with essay contests, like the one started in 1928 with the topic "Why I Believe in the Wadena Community" as well as a printing of Wadena Pioneer calendars and a trial with columns, like "Betty Lou Goes Shopping," a column established in 1932 by staff writer Betty Lou and series like "The Girl That Came Back," which was so popular, it was followed up by another series, "Mutiny of the Albatross."

Yes, the paper was flourishing and experienced another bump up in production in 1936 with the implementation of the modern Duplex press.

"With this installation the Pioneer Journal now has one of the finest printing plants in the state," reads Zosel's report. "This would enable them to print more than 5,000 eight-page papers per hour. It also would, with minor adjustment, be able to print in two colors."

The paper then settled into a rhythm, printing papers weekly, cranking out stories that have long joined with history.

In 1989, the paper went through another change of hands and was purchased by Forum Communications Company, and the purchase was shortly compounded with another stark change to the newspaper business: the rise of the internet.

Today, the Wadena Pioneer Journal prints weekly, every Thursday morning, with an equal emphasis on posting stories to the paper's website, a frontier still being explored for how it can optimize local news for local readers—because local has always been the focus of Wadena's newspaper no matter who the owner, publisher, editor, or reporters were.

"Being publisher of two community newspapers is not something I take lightly," said the current Publisher of the Wadena Pioneer Journal, Jason Miller. "There are so many great stories to tell in our communities and without our local newspapers, those stories wouldn't get told. Community journalism is vital, and I'm proud to be even a small part of the great teams that do this important work every day in our communities."

The newspaper has changed. Print has changed. The internet has emerged and, with it questions about what news is fake and what is true, but local newspapers have always cared about finding and writing the local stories that impact readers on a day-to-day basis, whether the stories are happy and exciting or more serious and possibly perceived as negative. That fact hasn't changed in Wadena since 1877, and it doesn't look like it will be changing any time soon.