Wasting Time in the Past

How I end up spending hours on end looking at old newspapers

By Justin Franz

Last week, I needed to write a story about Whitefish’s annual skijoring competition. Most newspaper reporters will tell you that after a few years on the job, a lot of stories seem to repeat themselves. So, in an effort to find a new take on skijoring, I logged on to one of my favorite websites, Newspapers.com. Newspapers.com is the largest online newspaper archive with 16,000 newspapers from the 1700s to the 2000s and “millions of additional pages added every month.” Currently, there are more than 560 million pages available for viewing.

A site like Newspapers.com is invaluable to me when doing research because the Flathead Beacon lacks its own deep archive. (In 2020, we turn 13 years old! Watch out, soon we’ll be asking mom and dad for the keys to the car.) Typing in “Whitefish skijoring” revealed dozens of stories from the Daily Inter Lake, the Missoulian and other papers across Montana. Whenever I need to dig up some local history, the Newspapers.com archive is usually my first stop. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the easiest ways for me to lose hours on end.

Long before people were sharing pictures and musings from their daily lives on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the local newspaper was our social media. The Oct. 5, 1911 edition of the Libby Herald featured a story about the apples from Oscar Colberg’s orchard on Bull Lake that “swept the boards” at the state fair in Helena. “We all know the Troy district is extra good for fruit raising and this prize winner shows that both sides of the Kootenai in our neighboring district are equally adapted to the raising of fruit and will take a back seat to no place in the Pacific Northwest,” the article concluded.

Recently, I started trying to reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly scrolling the Internet — after a few minutes on Facebook or Twitter, it seems like I’m just avoiding whatever is next on my to-do list. But Newspapers.com still gets me every time, and what starts as a quick search almost always ends up being an hour-long exploration of the past. Some might say history books are the best window into the past, but who’s going to write a book about Oscar Colberg’s apples? The mundane, day-to-day happenings that were included in the daily or weekly newspaper help color a past we usually only think of in monochrome.

Sometimes, when I’m really deep in the archives, I start searching for the names of family members to see if any of them made the news. One of those recent searches brought me to the Bergan Evening Record in Bergan County, New Jersey, where my dad grew up. The Nov. 27, 1951 edition included the “Palisades Park Social Notes” and listed the happenings of various residents over Thanksgiving. Mr. and Mrs. Philip Adelson attended a family reunion in Brooklyn. Radarman First Class George Petersen came home from the Navy for the weekend to see his family for the first time in months. And Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Franz — my recently departed grandparents — spent the holiday weekend with relatives in Maine and Massachusetts.

When I make discoveries like that, I don’t feel so guilty mindlessly scrolling through old newspapers.

Now back to that story I need to write.

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