Historically Speaking: The tenacity of Don Witham and the early days of the WF Pioneer
At age 47, Don Witham, a South Dakota native, started over. After 20 years as a salesman with the Columbia Artists Management Community Concert series based out of New York, he worked for a few months as an ad manager at the "Cottonwood County Citizen and "Windom Reporter" in Windom, Minn., before accepting an invitation from Barry Prichard to start up a newspaper in West Fargo. He discussed the offer with his wife Betty, who would work alongside Don in his struggle to keep the Pioneer running, and decided to accept. Half ownership of the newspaper cost $1,000. In the first few months he drove to and from Barnesville, Minn. each day where he stayed with Betty's dad while Betty and their daughter stayed in Windom until school was out.
The first issue of the West Fargo Pioneer was published on March 15, 1967. Barry Prichard took on the title of editor and Don became president and general manager. An associate editor was hired to take care of the news and a sports editor covered the games at the high school. The columnists were mostly housewives from the area, which included Horace, Davenport, Mapleton, Argusville and West Fargo, with a weekly column from West Fargo Mayor Clayton Lodoen.
Copies of the Pioneer cost five cents initially, to attract readers, but rose to ten cents within the first year. In his column "The Hitching Post," Prichard said that they could keep the cost low by reporting strictly on the community, including weddings, 4-H Club activities and school events.
Don made sure everything and everybody worked, but his main focus was selling advertising.
"That first year I didn't know what to expect," said Don. "I just sold ads all day, every day, while Betty and everyone else worked like the dickens."
The staff was paid regularly, but Don did not take a salary, which pushed him to sell even more. One of his first customers was Roy Larson who owned the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. At first Larson was paying for half a page of advertising, which was good money to Don. At one point Larson offered Don $100 a week for whatever Don would give him. Don gave him a full page ad because he felt Larson was "on a wing and a prayer" just like he was, and the men became good friends.
As hard as Don and his team worked, the Pioneer would never have survived without the backing of the community. A great example is when the West Fargo High School band, led by Band Director Glen Whaley, held a subscription sales drive to help buy new band uniforms, some of which were 20 years old. Subscriptions sold for two dollars and the band received half of each sale. Don sweetened the deal by offering a cash bonus for every 100 subscriptions sold. Logistically, it was figured that the band could contact everyone in town in just a few hours, but the drive was held for a week to contact all homes in the rural school district.
Joyce Newgard was hired as a part-time typist in May of 1967 and within the next year and a half became bookkeeper. As a part-time typist she worked long hours on Mondays and Tuesdays for $1.25 an hour to type stories onto a Friden Justowriter, a special typewriter that printed in strips that could be pasted onto a page that Don would take to the printers in Wahpeton each Tuesday by noon because the paper was published each Wednesday.
Newgard's memories are fond even though her days were filled with deadlines and technical problems. "Equipment was always going down. The machine we used for headlines was particularly a nuisance and Don was the only one in the office who knew how to fix it. He would throw a coat over his head, because it could not be exposed to light, and would make his adjustments," she remembers.
She also remembers the struggle Don had in selling enough advertising to keep the newspaper going. "Don claimed that he needed to sell $700 a week for the paper to stay in operation," she remembers, but when she became bookkeeper she noticed that the company was more in debt than it seemed. Adding to Don's financial complications, Prichard's involvement in the paper was waning.
Prichard also owned the Barnesville Record Review and came into the Pioneer office only on Thursdays. His title slid from editor to co-publisher over that first year and a half while the associate editor's responsibilities grew to managing editor. It was not long before Prichard wanted out.
"He tried to sell his shares to anyone that would buy, but I wasn't selling mine," Don recalls. "I told those people that if they wanted to own half of the West Fargo Pioneer they would have to drag themselves to the stockyards to sell ads one minute and the next minute be downtown begging for sales with their boots full of manure - and do that every day. They didn't stick around for long."
In October 1968, Don withdrew money from his life insurance policy and borrowed the rest from Betty's uncle to buy out Prichard for $7,000. When he handed Prichard the check, he asked if Prichard thought the Pioneer would ever make it. Prichard said no and warned that the Pioneer would never be more than eight pages long and that it was always going to be a struggle. Don answered, "Well, I have to have something to do."