homepage logo

Researching newspaper ancestors

By Staff | Apr 26, 2019

I have been spending a lot of time at the Blue Earth Community Library during the past month.

No, it wasn’t to use one of their free computers and WiFi service. Nope, it wasn’t to check out a novel or a movie, either.

It was to do research for the cover story for our annual Community Focus magazine which is included inside this edition of the Faribault County Register.

I spent many hours (many Saturday mornings), going through all of the bound book issues of the Blue Earth newspapers which are housed in the back room of the library.

I was doing research on the history of the Register, as next month we will be celebrating our 150th birthday. That is 150 years of continuous publication.

Now, the name of the newspaper was not always the Faribault County Register. It started out as the Blue Earth City Post in 1869. It changed ownership and names many times over the years. However, it had continuous publication over all those many years.

I had heard some snippets of the history of the Register, but to be honest, I was more confused than informed about the 150 year saga. Sometimes it was the Post, sometimes the Register, sometimes it was both at the same time, sometimes the two were owned by the same company, sometimes not. And sometimes it was known as the Post/Ambassador.

I knew that the first newspaper in Blue Earth was the Blue Earth City News which was started in 1861. But, that date did not compute in the Register’s claim to be 150 years old this year, not back in 2011.

It was all very confusing and I was determined to research it and get a clear understanding of this newspaper during its 150 years of existence.

It is a lot like people who are very much into researching their family history. I wanted to know all about my newspaper editor and publisher ancestors. It was a quest.

With a lot of diligence, I finally compiled a history of newspapers in Blue Earth. It was not easy because newspapers in the olden days did not write about themselves very much.

The ones in the early days were mainly run by printers, who produced posters, tickets and envelopes and all kinds of other printed material. The weekly newspaper was more of a sideline to the printing business. We still do an awful lot of printed items other than just the newspapers. We create many magazines, posters, brochures, etc.

I tried to create a list of all the editors over the years, but it became nigh on impossible. Once again, back in the olden days, the publisher, who was also the owner, was also the editor. That was the case up through the 1930s and beyond.

One of those owner/publisher/editors was J.M. Palmer. He wins the prize for being the editor of the Faribault County Register (and yes, that was its name for his entire tenure) for the longest number of years 37. He bought the Register in 1900 and sold it in 1937, and, as far as I can tell, was the editor that entire time.

When editors became hired employees, starting in the 1970s, there were a lot of them who came and went.

A partial list includes: Stan Brotherton, Patrick Hinrichsen, Bill McAllister, Carol Iammatteo, Marlin Raveling, Vince McGowan, Rich Glennie, Jake Jatras, Bob Nolte, Joe Moss, Leonard Kransdorf, Kyle McArthur and now yours truly.

I say partial list because these were the names I came up with as I perused all the old issues and heard names mentioned by those with memories of the olden days at the Register. I very easily could have missed one or two, or even more.

Many newspaper editors are characters; I think it is a requirement for the job. Some could be called quirky, opinionated, maybe some are more weird or strange, and a lot of the old time ones were known to keep a bottle of whiskey in their bottom left desk drawer, if you know what I mean.

The editors of the Faribault County Register and its predecessors were probably also a bit colorful, I would imagine.

The one editor I would like to have met was Maynard “Pie” Johnson. If you read the story in the Community Focus magazine you will learn he was the editor from 1947 when he took over when his father died, until 1966 when “Pie” Johnson himself passed away.

Johnson was involved in Blue Earth newspapers for a lot of years. He came here in 1925 to work for J.M. Palmer, the publisher/editor of the Faribault County Register, then bought the Blue Earth Post with his father in 1931. It was the two Johnsons who then owned both the Register and the Post starting in 1937.

Perhaps you wonder how Maynard “Pie” Johnson got this nickname of “Pie,” which, from what I have learned, was the name he was best known by.

Maybe you think it was because he loved to eat pie when he was a kid and got called that nickname and it stayed with him through his whole life.

That would be a natural assumption. However, I have another theory.

“Pie” Johnson worked in a letterpress newspaper office most of his life.

Putting a newspaper together using the letterpress method was a lot of work. The pages had to be put together using individual pieces of type and headlines and photos.

The items on the page were held in place by expanding metal blocks called quoins. But if the quoins were not cranked tight enough, the page full of loose type would collapse onto the floor when it was picked up to take to be put on the press.

The term for that mess on the floor was “Pie.” All the individual pieces had to be picked up and the person had to start all over again.

So my guess is that Maynard Johnson perhaps dropped a page of type once or maybe twice, and was given the nickname “Pie” for causing that disaster. And perhaps, just maybe, it was J.M. Palmer who gave him the name.

It is only a guess, but I think it is a good one.

“Pie” Johnson and I have something in common, besides both having been editors of a Blue Earth newspaper.

M.A. “Maynard” Johnson was active in the Minnesota Editorial Association, which later became known as the Minnesota Newspaper Association. He served on the board of directors from 1948 to 1952 during which he served as the president of the organization from 1950 to 1951.

I also served on the board of directors of the Minnesota Newspaper Association and served as the president of the association, pretty close to 50 years after “Pie” Johnson did. I?was president from 1998 to 1999.

“Pie” Johnson was also pretty well-known in the newspaper world back in those days. He represented Minnesota on the National Newspaper Association as a member of UNESCO at the United Nations for two years.

He was also cited by the Minnesota Editorial Association for newspaper leadership in Minnesota in 1951.

Just like many folks, me included, think it would be fun to be able to visit with a great-grandfather or other ancestor they were never able to have met, I would love to somehow be able to sit down with “Pie” Johnson and talk about newspapers, specifically newspapers in Blue Earth and Faribault County.

It would be interesting to compare notes as to how things were “way back when” and how they are now.

And what, if anything, has changed.