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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Discovering the past through digital newspaper archives

David Colburn
Posted 4/24/24

If there’s one thing I’ve loved about the digital age, it’s the ready window into history provided by searchable online newspaper archives. It’s become a regular practice of …

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Discovering the past through digital newspaper archives


If there’s one thing I’ve loved about the digital age, it’s the ready window into history provided by searchable online newspaper archives.
It’s become a regular practice of mine on Wednesdays after we get the Timberjay off to the presses to log onto the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub, maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society, to see what was making front-page headlines in the Tower Weekly News and Ely Miner 100 years ago that particular week. As a relative newcomer with no local roots, it gives me some fascinating insight into the history of my new home.
A couple of weeks ago I was slightly startled to discover this front-page headline in the Tower Weekly News for April 11, 1924: “Cross is burned here Wed. night.” The article described a 24-foot by 12-foot cross wrapped in oil-soaked cotton batting that burned for over an hour in the Johnson meadow along East Two River and “in a direct line with Main Street.” The article noted similar incidents had occurred in Virginia and Eveleth.
I was aware of the 1920 Duluth lynchings and knew of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan revival in the U.S. but hadn’t really thought much about its history in Minnesota. From another quick search of the archives, I discovered that there was an active Klan chapter in Virginia at the time, and that the archives include at least three newspapers that were pro-Ku Klux Klan papers, likely published by them, including the Voice of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, The Minnesota Fiery Cross, and The Call of the North. There’s quite a lot of history to be learned there if one cares to delve into them – they reported Klan activity from Minnesota and around the country.
In the Fiery Cross, I found this description of the Ku Klux Klan’s “program” for 1924: militant, old-fashioned Christianity and operative patriotism; back to the Constitution; enforcement of the 18th amendment (prohibition); and enforcement of present immigration laws and enactment of more stringent laws on immigration. Sounds like themes ripped out of today’s headlines, not yesterday’s. Perhaps there’s some truth after all to the quote that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Ah, but nefarious activities and political commentary aside, historical newspapers give one a glimpse into the lives of regular people. Newspapers were the social media of the day, routinely reporting on birthday parties, social gatherings, school happenings, athletic contests, hospitalizations, real estate sales, small business openings and closings, and more. On the same front page as the burning cross was a story about Deputy Game Warden Harry Anderson (presumably no relation to the actor of the same name in the sitcom “Night Court”) and his six-year-old son Glen falling through thin ice on Lake Vermilion in their car. Anderson cut a hole through the top and pushed the boy to solid ice, and the boy raced to shore and brought back a pole that Anderson used to get himself onto solid ice. Elsewhere it was reported that Mr. and Mrs. Gust Peterson were Duluth visitors on Monday, Wm. Eldridge moved his Tower shoe repair shop to Duluth, and Pete Flaim was in the Soudan hospital after suffering the misfortune to have a small bone in his right leg broken while at work loading railroad ties near the Pike Bay Lumber company mill.
My first big dive into digital newspaper archives came a number of years ago when researching family history in Kansas. I never knew much about my father’s father, Harry Colburn – the grandfather I knew about was Dad’s stepfather. His biological dad had died when he was a young child. The big unknown I unearthed that none of us, including Dad’s sister, knew about was that Harry had been married before he married my grandmother. But through newspapers I was able to trace much of Harry’s youth and young adulthood as he became involved in the family milling business.
I’ve done two research projects here in Tower that couldn’t have happened without the digital newspaper archives. The first was related to Charles G. Nelson, a Soudan man who was killed in action in World War I. Through newspapers I reconstructed some highlights of early family history and activity surrounding his induction into the military, traced his travels to boot camp and his unit’s trek to New York to head overseas, and his eventual return to Soudan and burial in Lakeview Cemetery. Tapping additional records archived online, I pinpointed the exact spot where he was killed in action and initially buried in France, as well as extensive information about his unit’s movements and battle engagement.
The second project you may have read recently is about the forgotten Pine Island iron mine. That history was wholly cobbled together from old newspaper reports, as no official records of the mine are known to exist.
A recent exploration for fun came when a friend who lives in the Kansas house of my childhood posted pictures online of an antique oak hutch he and his wife bought, including a picture of a shipping tag on the back of it with the name Percy Henry, Tipton, Missouri on it. I found out I could access the old Tipton newspapers online and set about discovering more about the man who owned the hutch. He was a successful local banker who loved buying and selling new cars, and he eventually became a prominent banker in Kansas City. I found more than 30 clippings about Percy, including his wedding photo. My friend was delighted to get the history. I was delighted with the hunt for Percy.
If you have family roots in this area and haven’t done so, check out the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub online and do a little poking around – you might find out something about an ancestor you didn’t know. The archives have newspapers back to 1849.
Or, like me, just take a look for history’s sake, to understand the times and the folks who built this area into the place it is today.
For broader access to newspapers and topical research, try a subscription service like the one I use,, or check the Library of Congress site Chronicling America, which has digitized newspapers from across the country from 1756 to 1963.
By the way, when searching for topics, you may need to get creative. For example, there were very few references for “Pine Island mine” in my search, but many more when I split the phrase into separate search terms of “Pine Island” and “mine.” The latter search produced many more unrelated hits, as when someone may have visited Pine Island the same week something newsworthy happened at an unrelated mine. Searching old newspapers can be tedious at times, but well worth the effort when you tease out the little gems of history that lay within the digitized print.