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A FILE OF OLD NEWSPAPERS
The contemners of the newspaper as a recorder of social facts cut themselves off from a source of historical information which is nearly always important and often of unique value. It is, indeed, an assemblage of sources covering, for the period of its publication, the manifold activities which the particular paper regards as its field. It is not necessary to consider every statement contained in a newspaper as gospel truth. One who would so view the gossip of the street, the shop, or the drawing-room, or even the formal written assertions of a valued correspondent, would find the factual basis of his conclusions often nothing better than thin air.
For the purposes of the historian old newspapers compare in documentary character with letters, diaries, and account books of the same place and period. One difference is that the newspaper, which focalizes the observations and activities of many individuals, is sure to afford many more details than the private record. Another is that, its constituency being an entire community, the number of subjects it touches upon is likely to be very much greater than those mentioned by a diarist or letter writer. Then, too, if newspapers are preserved at all they are likely to be preserved, as in the case about to be mentioned, by volumes or extended series of volumes, while letters and diaries are almost certain to represent only fragments of the period involved in any serious historical inquiry.
Recently the State Historical Society secured a notable addition to its splendid collection of state newspapers, in the gift of fifty-eight volumes of papers published in Kenosha (and Southport, as the place was originally called). One file, the Southport Telegraph, is practically continuous from
the first number, published June 16, 1840, to May 20, 1875. From 1849 it was called the Kenosha Telegraph. There is likewise a file of the Southport American extending over the period September 7, 1843, to October 10, 1849; a continuous file of the Kenosha Times, May 13, 1859, to May 1, 1863; a file of the Kenosha Union complete from January 28, 1866, to June 7, 1877; the Kenosha Tribune, two volumes, July 8, 1852, to December 28, 1854; and a broken file of the Kenosha Democrat. This is continuous from April 23, 1850, to July 8, 1853. Other volumes of the Democrat cover the following periods: May 18, 1855, to November 25, 1856; September 9, 1859, to August 31, 1860; September 7, 1860, to August 30, 1861.
This valuable gift comes to the Society from Emily E. Bond and Charlotte W. Bond, of Kenosha, daughters of Kenosha's pioneer Josiah Bond. It was Josiah Bond who assembled these files, bound them, and preserved them in his home on Prairie Avenue, the brick house which to the Misses Bond is still "home." The gift is a memorial to Josiah Bond.
The Southport Telegraph was the first paper published in what is now Kenosha. It was started early enough to catch the beginnings of formal harbor improvements in the place, and contains a very complete record of Kenosha's rise as a wheat shipping port for southeastern Wisconsin and several of the northern counties of Illinois. The development of the town and surrounding rural community can be traced with much confidence by means of the successive volumes.
One advantage over many other early country papers which the Telegraph enjoyed was its having a thoroughly able, vital, and indefatigable editor. The paper was started by Christopher Latham Sholes, founder of the Green Bay Democrat, to which it was the successor. Mr. Sholes today is best known as the inventor of the typewriter, but readers of this file will conclude that as an editor he was a power in the
affairs of the territory and the state for many years. He was a keen student of public questions, was versatile in an extraordinary degree even for that period of editorial omniscience, and he wielded a pen whose vigor and incisiveness lost nothing by being under the control of a mind which knew the value of flexibility, variety, and subtlety in statement.
Mr. Sholes in politics was a convinced Jeffersonian Democrat, but during the Free-Soil campaign of 1848 he bolted Cass and entered wholeheartedly into that propaganda, helping powerfully toward securing for Van Buren the surprising Racine and Walworth County majority of five hundred and twenty-two votes over both his rivals. Sholes, too, while sufficiently hard-headed to escape everything fantastic or fanatical, was a natural social reformer. He sympathized with the "Wisconsin Phalanx," which originated in Southport and established itself at Ceresco, and he published a large amount of information about it; he was interested in the subject of land reform which had for its aim to limit the amount of land an individual might own; he entered without hesitation or reserve into the temperance crusade of the 1840's and the 1850's; he broke a lance for the principle of "married women's rights" as enunciated in the first constitution, and he was an uncompromising opponent of slavery. He was the consistent unfeed advocate of the poor, the downtrodden, and those whose lives were rendered sordid or narrow by excessive toil-socially a genuine "democrat." As editor Sholes manifested a much deeper and more catholic interest in his home town than did the average newspaper man of that day. All local causes and interests were discussed in his columns. He maintained usually an entire page devoted to local and other editorial matter. On one occasion he drew upon himself the bitter opposition of many Kenosha merchants and manufacturers by denouncing in his columns their attitude toward the laboring class, the
farmers, and the wholesalers and importers of the eastern cities from whom their supplies were procured. He charged the merchants with giving the town an evil reputation abroad and at home.
At the beginning of his activities in Southport and at various times thereafter Sholes, while managing editor of the paper, was associated on the business side of his enterprise with Colonel Michael Frank, the well-known Kenosha lawyer, legislator, and publicist, whose connection with the beginnings of Wisconsin's free school system has properly been a theme of eulogy on the part of many writers. The actual history of the free school movement, in which Kenosha (Southport) was a leader, partly through Colonel Frank's influence, can at last be definitely worked out with the aid of the Southport Telegraph file. When that history shall be written it will appear in several respects different from the report of it based, as this has always been, upon unverified tradition and upon the record of a legislative proceeding with which Colonel Frank's name is intimately associated. It has been assumed that when Colonel Frank, in the early months of 1845, obtained from the legislature favorable action on his bill authorizing district number one in Southport to tax itself for the support of a free school (provided the people by referendum vote should accept the act), and then persuaded the people of the village to adopt the law by majority vote, the free school was established forthwith. On the contrary, this file proves that a long, tedious, and depressing campaign had to be waged by the friends of free schools in Kenosha before it was possible to obtain a vote which actually touched the pocket nerve of the community; and it was not until more than four years after the adoption of the law that a free school came into existence. That still left Kenosha in the lead, but by a much narrower margin than has been supposed. Also it contradicts the assumption that Kenosha's free public school influenced the consti
tutional convention to provide for an absolutely free system of common schools.
The above is merely an illustration of the way this file of old papers will aid toward the writing of Wisconsin's social history, in which there is so vital an interest because of the light that history sheds upon the social problems of today. Taxation, good roads, labor problems, agricultural improvement, the liquor question, "progressiveness" and "conservatism”—all these things and many others of familiar sound were problems to the pioneers of Wisconsin just as they are problems to us; and the mode of dealing with them which they adopted is not without its lessons to this later and presumably wiser generation.