Pages of the past worth reading again

The pages are yellow, tattered on the corners and brittle to the touch, but the messages preserved in faded ink are as interesting today as they must have been back in 1877.
Without a doubt, the oldest known copy of the Hamilton County News, dated April 13, 1877, is a fascinating read. It’s been stored in the back room of the Plainsman Museum for decades, until we unsealed the wrapping this week to turn back the pages to the past.
With all the focus on history looming, as Hamilton County celebrates its 150th birthday this week and Nebraska kicks off a sesquicentennial celebration March 1, it seemed appropriate to dust off the bound volume and take a look back for old time’s sake. As co-publisher of the modern day Aurora News-Register, I was intrigued with the writing style and entertained by the candor with which publisher C.P. Whitesides kept local readers informed.
“Timetogofishing,” he wrote, reflecting the spring fever all of us feel in early April. “Some potatoes have been planted. The earth is being adorned in her robe of green. A general assortment of notions at G.&M’s ‘Pay as you go, then you won’t owe,’ is what Gover of Harvard says to all.”
Newspapers in that era, of which there were sometimes two or more even in small rural towns, spoke directly to the reader, often in a reverent tone. The stories were almost essay like in nature, yet to the point.
“In answer to a question we heard asked last week, why the inhabitants of Hamilton seemed more sociable and friendly with each other than do the citizens of Aurora,” Whitesides wrote, “we say that our citizens do not exercise any superiority over each other, nor are they imbued with any sensibility of aristocracy.”
Hmmmm. I’m guessing his thoughts were the talk of the town in the local churches, coffee shop, tavern, or wherever citizens gathered back in 1877. Even the advertising of the day carried a different, sometimes rhythmic tone.
“To be or not to be, that is the question with Glover & McKay,” touted a newspaper ad that covered a third of a page. “Whether or not they will take the lead of all dry-good houses that may be found in the west, if you call on them, you cannot but be convinced that their prices are non-competing, and, therefore, they out-sell everyone and everything.
You will find them at the old stand, at Hamilton, Nebraska.”
Now that’s a winning sales pitch if I’ve ever heard one.
Here are a couple of other advertising slogans that caught my eye:
* $3 watches. Cheapest in the known world. Sample watch and outfit free to agents. Coulter & Co, Chicago.
* Vegetine. Nature’s Remedy. The Great Blood Purifier. Sold by all druggists.
What that product DID NOT have was FDA approval. But then, the FDA didn’t exist back then, which meant cure-alls and those who believed in them were fair game.
Sports stories were a fun read as well, documenting wins and losses while also dispersing goodwill in a folksy kind of way. Here’s a short sample of the “News from Harvard,” a featured section of that week’s Hamilton County News.
“The game of baseball between the Stars of Hamilton County and Harvard Boys came off according to pramme last Saturday,” the story began. “The game was closely contested, and interesting from first to last, ending in favor of the Harvards. Score standing -- Stars 14, Harvards 15. The boys of both clubs played remarkably well and the Hamilton boys need not be discouraged. Come again, boys.”
The six-page edition, which of course featured no photographs, only small black print and a few line-art graphic images, was filled with little nuggets of information. Case in point: “The great bridge across the Platte River connecting Hamilton and Merrick counties was completed last week.”
That was it. No headline. No background, just a tidbit of info passed on for all to know. It left me hungry for more, though if memory serves from my journalism history class the newspaper from that era was likely a one-man show in a labor-intensive shop, with few resources to go out and cover events, interview sources, and sell advertising.
One thing that hasn’t changed since 1877 is the area’s reliance on agriculture. On that note, here’s what the good publisher had to say:
“Being desirous of planting crops to suit the weather, we consulted a weather prophet. He turned his face safely toward the new moon and observed that its position was well defined with horns turned upward, and other unmistakable signs of dry weather. Said he, whatever you plant, be sure to plant deep and in furrows, for we are bound to have a dry spell. Our oracle was right. We have no doubt of it, but the moon has tipped a little for somehow it has rained incessantly for three days.”
The hometown weekly publisher just told it like he saw it back in the day, turning his thoughts and knowledge into local history. It’s captivating to turn those brittle pages and catch a snapshot of our community so very long ago.
I look forward to celebrating our state and local history this month, and all year long. It’s fascinating, entertaining, and, if we read closely enough, there are timeless lessons to be learned.
KURT JOHNSON can be reached at kjohnson@

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