Old news rich in history: Thousands of newspaper clippings in Forum library offer window to the past
FARGO — Lined with dusty filing cabinets full of yellowed newspaper clippings and old books, the little room on the west side of the Forum building has the look of an office forgotten by time.
To Carol Bradley Bursack, the newspaper's former librarian, it's a historical treasure trove that she said she would've guarded with her life when she worked here.
She laughed because it was kind of a joke between her and the previous librarian, Andrea Hunter Halgrimson. "We joked about it, but it was in our hearts, Andrea and I. It meant a lot to us, and we knew what the loss would be."
The Forum's newsroom library, which is not open to the public, contains publications going back to 1879, but she and many others who use it consider the thousands of newspaper clippings the most valuable documents of all.
Between 1922, when the library was launched, and 1995, when The Forum began to digitize the newspaper, librarians and their assistants cut stories from every newspaper and catalogued them by topic and byline.
It's the kind of place reporters today can still look for, say, the first Chinese restaurants in Fargo, the 1956 feud between Fargo Central's and Jamestown's football teams, and what life was like at the World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Moorhead.
In the days before digitization made searching a matter of punching a few words into the computer, the clip files were the only practical way for reporters to give their stories context and depth, according to Bursack. "The papers were put on microfilm," she said. "However, that's not searchable. That's a real issue: not having a searchable database. The only searchable database was those precious clippings."
Even now, most of The Forum's back issues have not been digitized and online indexes are less than complete, so the clip files remain one of the best windows to the years before 1995 for reporters as well as historians.
"It's tremendously helpful in a wide range of different subjects and topics," said Mark Peihl, the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County's archivist. "It's a real treasure."
What's in the library
The dominant feature of the newsroom library is the roughly four dozen filing cabinets that line several walls. These are home to newspaper clippings with topics that range from the A and A Drive-in in Barnesville to Zoos in North Dakota and Minnesota. There must be thousands of them given that, between 1922 and 1995, there were more than 26,600 days in which The Forum printed at least one newspaper.
Along one wall is a floor-to-ceiling electric filing cabinet with drawers that move up and down along a conveyor. Along with a short instruction sheet taped to the front is the admonition: "This old guy needs TLC." Spare parts are, after all, kind of hard to find. Diebold, which patented this "power file" in 1967, has long been out of the filing cabinet business. It now makes ATMs and related products.
Besides the clippings, the library also contains copies of The Forum and its ancestor newspapers on microfilm going back to 1879, city directories going back to 1893, telephone books going back to 1969 and various other reference works.
Bill Marcil Sr., chairman of Forum Communications Co. and Forum publisher from 1969 to 2010, said being able to cite old news stories bolsters the paper's credibility because readers can get the background to have the complete story. "It's extremely important to the newsgathering machine that we've got going."
Pat Springer, a reporter who came to The Forum in 1985, said the library looked then much as it does now except it was abuzz with activity.
Halgrimson and her two assistants, he said, were often busy clipping stories with these long scissors, which he noted with amusement are still there. They'd file stories at least once by topic, once under the reporter's name and, for some stories, such as obituaries, again under biography, he said. "You can imagine every story wound up filed in multiple locations, so it was very laborious. I can imagine how time consuming it must've been."
Halgrimson, who went to part-time status in 2003, passed away in 2015.
As Springer and Bursack described it, the newsroom library functioned very much like any other library. Reporters were free to search for clippings or get help from the library staff. They'd then check out the clippings and return them to a basket for refiling.
Springer said he found the library a refreshing change from the South Dakota newspaper where he previously worked. Reporters were on their own with research, he said, and sometimes they just didn't have the time to do it.
Few outside Forum Communications had access to the library for fear that so many hands would result in damaged or misplaced files. According to Bursack, in some cases she and Halgrimson searched through the clippings themselves when national media or historians called for answers and, in rare cases, they allowed historians into their sanctum.
Glimpse to the past
One of those historians, Peihl, said newspaper stories provide insight that can't always be gleaned from other documents. As an example, he said he used the newsroom library for an exhibit on a World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Moorhead.
Official records showed when key decisions were made, how many hours prisoners worked, how much produce they harvested, but Forum stories showed how the camp operated, how prisoners cooked and how they did the laundry, he said.
Besides the facts, news stories also give a sense of the time in which they were written.
Forum sports writer Jeff Kolpack said when he researched the 1956 feud between the Fargo Central and Jamestown football teams he was struck by how slow time moved.
Unbeaten Fargo Central was about to play Jamestown in the championship, but Jamestown, the home team, canceled because it might snow. Fargo Central people thought Jamestown deliberately canceled to avoid losing to them.
Today, the back and forth between the coaches would've played out on social media in a day, not over different editions of the newspaper, Kolpack said. "Instead of texting back and forth, it was 24 hours later, you know?"
For Kolpack, whose father Ed was a Forum sports writer for 39 years, the library sometimes warms his heart. The elder Kolpack died in 1993, but the son said he would hear his father's voice whenever he stumbles across one of the old man's columns in the library.
For now, the newsroom library is not available to the public, but there have been efforts to digitize more back issues of the newspaper so physical access to the library wouldn't be an issue.
At one time, cost was a key factor and it still is. While computing power is cheaper now and machines are more competent at recognizing words, quality scans can still be expensive, according to Shane Molander, North Dakota's deputy state archivist. The most recent grant the State Archive received from the federal government's Chronicling America program is $246,600 for 100,000 pages, about $2.50 a page.
Molander said he expects to scan some early Fargo-area newspapers in this latest round of grants.
Bill Marcil Jr., The Forum's publisher, said The Forum has discussed digitization with various companies over the years, including giving up digital rights to the old newspapers in exchange for access, but the talks haven't panned out. He said digitization is certainly worth revisiting.
Peihl said the newsroom library has such valuable information that he wished more people could see what's in it. "I realize there are also conservation concerns. Old newspaper clippings are pretty fragile and people may not be as careful as others, but it is a tremendous resource."
Down the news hole
Hardcore users of Wikipedia talk about going down "the rabbit hole" when they search for one thing on the online encyclopedia and 20 clicks later they find themselves reading about something completely unrelated. The Forum newsroom library is kind of like that.
Here are a few examples we've encountered in that historic treasure trove:
The Black Building: In the file for what had once been Fargo's tallest building is a curious story from Jan. 21, 1979, about old-fashioned, manually-operated elevators that remain in use. These are elevators in which an operator has to manually direct the car up or down and had to be skillful enough to line up the car with the floor. The Black Building had one along with the former deLendrecie's Department Store, Powers Hotel and Gardner Hotel. A photo shows a woman at the deLendrecie's building, which no longer had an operator, helping a child climb out of an elevator that she hadn't been able to line up with the floor. Building managers at the time said they were reluctant to change to automated elevators because of cost and the time.
Blond hair: On the same page as an April 22, 1922, story about one of the original interstate routes through Fargo was the headline "Gaze upon these blondes! Brunettes to predominate soon." There are a dozen photos of blonde coeds from what's now North Dakota State University. The story relates that a scientist predicted that in two generations, 40 years, Nordic-majority Fargo would have very few blondes left as would the rest of the country because genes for brown hair dominate those for blond. The writer wrote, apparently with tongue firmly in cheek, that "The women will suffer the most. History tells us that practically all of the great women of art, literature and history from Helen of Troy to Pollyanna — were blondes." Funny enough this prediction has been bouncing around for at least 150 years. The last time news media reported this was in 2002, according to Snopes.com, a website debunking fakery.
The Nestor: Searching for the previous location of the Nestor bar in downtown Fargo led to files about an old Chinese restaurant, called the Pheasant Cafe run by one Phil Wong. But, as it turns out, he was one of many Wong family members to own restaurants in Fargo. The earliest listing found in a Polk City Directory from 1917 shows at least two Chinese restaurants and at least four in 1922. The ethnic dining scene here started a long time ago.
The Weekly Argus: A search for what was on the earliest newspaper on microfilm led to a column about the exasperated wife of an editor from the Dec. 31, 1879, Weekly Argus, one of several papers that would eventually merge to form The Forum. The editor's wife, "Mrs. Snow," said her husband always spends his evenings at home like a "model man," except all the time is spent on work. She described a typical evening spent mostly in silence. After an hour she asked whether he ordered the coal as she asked. He said he forgot. Another hour and the baby cries. He stopped and asked her to quiet the boy. She goes to bed and eventually he does as well. When both babies wake up crying, she tried to wake him to get some help. "The third time he starts up and cries, 'What, Tom, more copy?'"
Vintage recipes: A search for vintage recipes for a book led Tracy Briggs, a Forum writer, to a recipe for "Harvey Wallbanger cake," named after a cocktail though the cake itself didn't contain booze. A Moorhead High School home economics teacher taught her students how to bake the cake in the 1960s and 1970s. "It kind of cracked me up," Briggs said in an email, "to think of this sweet little old lady teaching the kids how to make cake out of a vodka cocktail."