GENERATIONS: Small Town Newspapers, News & Family History Sources – Bemidji Pioneer

Recently I visited Stephen, Minnesota in the northwest corner of the state to work on a story I was writing.

Stephen is a town of about 650 people just 15 miles east of the North Dakota border and about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

To prepare for my visit, I searched Stephen, Minnesota, online and was pleasantly surprised to find that this small town – represented by a tiny dot on the map – had a weekly newspaper: The Stephen-Argyle Messenger.

A little research revealed that the first newspaper published in Stephen, the Marshall County Leader, was established in 1883. The Stephen Messenger debuted in August 1915 and the two newspapers merged a month later in September.

A further combination occurred when Argyle’s newspaper, The Marshall County Banner, merged with the Messenger. I happened to visit Stephen on a Thursday, the same day their weekly newspaper – now with the names of both towns in its title – rolled off the presses.

I stopped at the Messenger’s office in downtown Stephen, walked in to buy a newspaper, and met the editor, Keith Sustad.

I don’t imagine many people from 145 miles showing up to buy the Messenger, but he was happy to oblige. I told him that as a lover of newspapers, I was delighted to see that Stephen had managed to keep them published at a time when newspapers around the world are struggling to survive.

We spoke briefly and I got the impression it was pretty much a one on one operation, although two other Sustads were listed in the credits – one as co-editor and the other as co-editor.

A one-year subscription to Messenger in Marshall and Kittson counties is just $35 ($40 for those living elsewhere in the US)

Recent issues of the Stephen-Argyle Messenger and the Warren Sheaf.


I began to worry about the disappearance of newspapers when I was taking journalism classes at BSU in the early 1990s, just before my short stint as newspaper counselor at Bemidji High School.

I researched other school newspapers in Minnesota and found that many had already disappeared and others were slowly dying. The high school students were too busy to publish a good newspaper. Those who were likely to be involved were also in music, performing arts and sports, so their time was stretched thin.

Eventually, some schools switched to online publications of one type or another, but most disappeared altogether.

I grew up with the St. Peter Herald and the Mankato Free Press, both rich in local and regional news, photographs of local events, area sports and relevant national news.

There were birth announcements, social columns, engagement and wedding announcements, obituaries, court reports, fire reports, classifieds pages, and often series of editorials on topics controversial. Newspaper clippings have become important parts of many scrapbooks.

Most small towns had newspapers before they had much else. Often their arrival coincided with that of the city post office.

In our area, in addition to the Bemidji Daily Pioneer, there were other Bemidji newspapers – some more long-running than others – including the Bemidji Herald, The Sentinel and the Northland Times.

A small sampling of area newspapers from the late 1800s to early 1900s included the Farley Telegram, Blackduck American, Cass Lake Times, Turtle River Pinetree, and Solway Advocate. There were many, many more.

Newspapers are the most valuable archives we have of news as it happens or has happened, especially local news. Diaries also provide details of family history.

My dad lived near Warren, Minnesota briefly when he was a kid, but I wasn’t sure when exactly. I researched Chronicling America, an online resource from the Library of Congress that provides free access to thousands of newspapers dating back to the 1600s and 1700s.

Chronicling America has searchable digital copies of The Bemidji Pioneer from its beginnings in 1896 until about 1923. I often use it as a searchable source of early articles and wish it had all the years of all the articles.

The Warren Sheath, which still exists (I bought a copy on my way to Stephen’s), is one of the oldest newspapers in the northwest corner of the state. It is also available through Chronicling America.

When I searched Warren Sheath online, using my maiden name – Langhoff – as a keyword, I found 31 listings from 1919 to 1922. Most of them mentioned my grandfather, Wilhelm Langhoff, which was usually listed as “Wm”. but sometimes as Will and even once as Bill.

The names of my father’s older siblings were mentioned a few times when the family visited neighbors. My father’s name – Theodore – only appeared once.

My grandfather died when I was very young, so I have no memory of him, but I learned that he was a member of the Foldahl Farmer’s Club, which organized social events. My grandfather was listed as having participated in a few debates at club meetings. The subject of one of them was “Dairy Farming Pays Better Than Cattle Farming”.

Another Gerbe appointed my grandfather as deputy director of the township of Foldahl. Most other mentions of Langhoffs were short social snippets about the family being or receiving a business, my grandfather taking care of business in another community, and the birth of my father’s younger sister.

Newspapers interrupted most personal or social news several years ago. Remember the engagement, anniversary and wedding announcements and photos that took up a page or more of each paper with elaborate descriptions of what the bride was wearing, what the newlyweds are planning to do and where they will be living? ?

Today, our newspapers are struggling to exist. The advertisement used to stretch the total length of The Pioneer to 30 pages or more – and these were larger pages with smaller type. The classifieds were the primary source of information about items for sale, homes for rent, and available jobs.

When you wanted to know what was happening in town or what had just happened, you bought the local newspaper. Often the information is always there, but many people never look.

Online news is convenient and saves trees, but it’s sad to see the decline and disappearance of so many small town newspapers.

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