By Richard Peterson
The city of Minnewaukan is celebrating its 125th anniversary this week. The Farmers Press is celebrating, too.
If you look at the flag on the front page, you’ll see that it says Volume 125, Number 25. This means the Farmers Press is in its 125th year of publication. The Farmers Press was founded February 9, 1884.
The 125th anniversary of the newspaper will actually be on February 9, 2009. At that time the Volume number will change to 126, which means we will be starting our 126th year.
The Farmers Press is the oldest business in Benson County. It began as the Dakota Siftings and when North Dakota became a state in 1889, the name was changed to the The North Dakota Siftings. In 1919, the newspaper was purchased by activists in the Benson County Nonpartisan League and the name was changed to the Benson County Farmers Press.
The Farmers Press has outlived all its rivals to become the only newspaper in the county. It wasn’t always so. During the winter of 1884, two editors raced across the ice of Devils Lake to be the first newspaper on the west side of the lake. The plum was that the first newspaper would have the opportunity of printing lucrative land notices.
There were four towns in this vicinity and nobody knew where the railroad would stop, thereby determining where the depot would be placed. Minnewaukan was at its present location. West End was located near the farm now occupied by Francis Schneider Jr., just one mile north of Minnewaukan. Hannaford was located just east of the present Teresa Gefroh farm. New Chicago was located on the flat one to two miles northeast of the present Schneider farm.
By January 4, 1884 the two editors crossed the ice of Devils Lake, James W. Sheppard had his own equipment and E.F. Sibley was bringing in H.C. Hansboro’s press. The Dakota Siftings, which located at Minnewaukan, rushed its publication issue on February 9, 1884 and one week later the West End News made its debut.
At that time West End was the larger town, but when the railroad grade reached Minnewaukan in May of 1884, the choice was made; Minnewaukan was the terminal for the time. Minnewaukan absorbed the post office from Hannaford, the town of West End moved over and New Chicago ceased to exist. The first rival of the forerunner of the Benson County Farmers Press, The West End News, lasted 12 weeks.
Some 25 years later the editor of The North Dakota Siftings, William Miller, apparently had little sympathy for farmers. According to the late Harry F. Montague, he was "awfully tough on the farmers." This was a time of political ferment and the Nonpartisan League was just feeling its oats. Farmers banded together under the Nonpartisan League and either bought out existing newspapers or ran them out of business. The paper at Minnewaukan was no exception. Montague said a bunch of farmers went into Miller’s office in 1919 and told him to either sell the newspaper to them or they’d start a rival paper and run him out of business. Miller wisely chose to sell and on June 26,
1919 the first Benson County Farmers Press appeared. The editorial in that first issue indicated that the paper would reverse political policies.
The first board of directors consisted of H.J. Hanson, Carl Lunde and Ole Kittelson.
The newspaper was run by a board of directors only the first year or so. Farmers found there were too many headaches to running a newspaper and after that it was leased out to editors who paid a monthly rental fee.
Montague was secretary-treasurer of the corporation for 45 years. He was replaced by Richard Peterson. Other long-time board members were Herman Preuss and Ben Lauinger of Esmond.
For many years the Farmers Press was the last of the League papers in North Dakota.
Looming large in the history of the Farmers Press is the night of July 20, 1950 when the Farmers Press building in Minnewaukan burned to the ground. To this day, the cause of the fire is not known and there was considerable speculation that it was arson. At any rate, following the fire, the editorship of the Farmers Press changed abruptly and the newspaper was printed at the Maddock Standard until a new building was erected and new machinery in-stalled. It wasn’t until November 2, 1950 that the Farmers Press was printed in its new building with completely reconditioned and new equipment. At that time it was probably the best-equipped weekly newspaper in North Dakota. Cost of the building was $4,250 and the machinery came to
$11,114 for a grand total of $15,364. The corporation collected $1,500 in insurance from the fire and Lauinger, Preuss and Montague signed personal notes for the balance and new shares of stock in the corporation were sold.
Besides the monetary loss from the fire, there was an even greater loss. The files of the Dakota Siftings and The North Dakota Siftings from 1884 through 1918 were lost in the fire. Some of them, but not all, are at the Heritage Center in Bismarck. Files of the paper from
1919 to the present are available at the auditor’s office in the Benson County Courthouse and files from 1963 to the present are available at the Farmers Press office.
The Farmers Press has had many editors. Information is sketchy prior to 1919 but it is known that James W. Sheppard started the paper as Dakota Siftings February 9, 1884 and it is believed he ended his tenure here in 1891. It is believed the following were editors:
Morton Alexander; Bernard H. Feeder; William Miller, May 19, 1899? to April 17, 1908; C.E. White, July 24, 1908 to September of 1910; S.C.
Eldredge, October of 1910 to September of 1912; and William Miller, October of 1912 to June of 1919.
Under the Benson County Farmers Press banner Harry S. Polk was editor from June 26 to Nov. 14, 1919; Hans Grytdahl from Nov. 21, 1919 to July 9, 1920; E.R. Cline from July 20, 1920 to July 25, 1933; S.H.
Farrington from Aug. 1, 1933 to Aug. 31, 1946; Mack L. George from Sept. 1, 1946 to Aug. 31, 1948; Leslie Strand from Sept. 1, 1948 to July 31, 1949; Gene Fesenmaier from Aug. 1, 1949 to July 20, 1950; Hugh Fitzpatrick from July 27, 1950 to Feb. 28, 1954; Les Strand from March 1, 1954 to October 31, 1963; Richard Peterson from Nov. 1, 1963 to Dec. 31, 1966; Les Strand from Jan. 1, 1967 to Sept. 30, 1970; and I’ve been sitting in the editor’s chair from Oct. 1, 1970 to the present.
I’ve been editor-publisher of the Farmers Press longer than anyone else in the paper’s history. I actually started working here as a printer’s devil for editor Les Strand in 1959. So the 49th anniversary of my employment at the Farmers Press will be observed in October.
The most interesting period in the history of the Farmers Press was from 1949 to 1954. Benson County residents were treated to some of the liveliest and most stinging editorials ever written. Les Strand was editor and his lease was terminated by the board of directors.
Miffed, Strand started his own newspaper at Leeds, the Benson County Courier and a three-way editorial battle ensued between Strand at Leeds, Fesemnaier (later Hugh Fitzpatrick) at Minnewaukan and Stanley Stiles of the Maddock Standard. Strand was especially adept at raking the other two and the Farmers Press board over the coals. Bert Salisbury and Harry Montague were two of Strand’s favorite targets and Montague complained years later that "I never had such a tough time as during that period." Salisbury didn’t enjoy Strand’s attacks, either, since he resigned from the board in 1950. They managed to patch things up in 1954 and Strand returned to Minnewaukan.
Strand probably had more influence on the history of the Farmers Press than any other editor. He fought with Farmers Press editors Fesenmaier and Fitzpatrick and the board and finally got his way by taking over the Farmers Press again in 1954. He merged the Benson County Courier of Leeds with the Farmers Press and later bought the Maddock Standard and merged that with the Farmers Press, making it truly a county paper. He changed the Farmers Press from being a letterpress operation to the modern offset method, which was no small undertaking.
In the 1990’s I discovered that the state of North Dakota had dissolved the Benson County Farmers Press, Inc. in 1939 because the proper paperwork had not been submitted to the ND Secretary of State.
So the hundreds of shares of stock sold to finance the new building in the 1950s were illegal transactions. In 2004 I gained possession of the newspaper through district court proceedings.