Buena Vista County, IA
USGenWeb Project





The winter of 1880-1881 was a severe one for all of Iowa.  Nearly every community suffered from the deep snows and prolonged cold spells.  The northern part of the state was hit especially hard.  Snow drifts blocked the roads, stalled the trains, and caved in buildings, and both people and livestock lost their lives in a blizzard.

An eastbound passenger train was snowbound for three days within a mile of the town limits.  Most of the men in the neighborhood worked together to dig the train out.  Three men who had tried to cross the frozen lake on foot were caught in the storm, and were never heard of again.

To offset the grimness of the scene there followed weeks and even months of excited speculation and amused anticipation, all because a mysterious young man had appeared from the East and registered at the Commercial House as George Burton of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Perhaps the following story by Normal H. Crowell, a former resident of Storm Lake, belongs to the realm of folklore or fiction, but it seems worth telling.  The highlights given here were taken from an article that the Pilot-Tribune of January 3, 1929, reprinted from an El Paso, Texas, paper.

The self—styled Mr. Burton went to a local newspaper office, identified by Crowell as that of the Cornet, and applied for a job.  When he failed to get one, he rented an office and had a hand press, paper, ink, type, and other materials shipped in.  Soon afterward the first issue of the Lance rolled off the press and Editor Burton hired two boys to carry it to every family in town.  Almost immediately, in Crowell's words, “every family in town was sitting up clutching its feverish brow.  Eight hundred and fifty male citizens of the place were particularly attracted to the new sheet because they saw, on page four, in large type, their names just under an array of headlines that required no diagram or explanation as to their importance.”  They ran:

“To the eight hundred and fifty fellow citizens listed below, all of whom now subscribe to this paper's contemporary, the editor extends greetings.

“The Lance is with you.  It will print the facts.  It will print the truth about the facts.  The editor will use no white wash.

“Why drink dishwater when you can get champagne?”

“As these names subscribe for the Lance they will be removed from the list.  The last man in will get a writeup [sic] that will make him hump like a caterpillar to stay in town.”

In an editorial headed “All Hail Gentlemen.  And my Competitor, Too,” Publisher Burton set forth a few remarks about himself.  He wrote:  “The Editor is a stranger and you will want to know something about him.  He is a young man of 27, unmarried and not even in love; someday he hopes to marry some charming young woman, settle down in a cozy home.

“But honesty compels him to recite a few facts that must be taken into consideration.  Although I am not a natural born criminal, I once stold [sic] a horse.  Although I am not a fugitive, I am badly wanted by a certain prominent person in the east, and to be candid, I am using an assumed name.”

Naturally, people didn't want to miss the chance of reading such original and magnificent weekly entertainment, not to mention seeing the names regularly printed in big letters as nonsubscribers.  As Crowell says, “What was a dollar and a half compared to a chance to be in on a lynching bee?  The counter at the Lance office tinkled like the United States mint.”

At the end of three weeks, only 13 names appeared in the list of those who had failed to subscribe, but these were printed “in coal-black letters an inch high.”

The editor took note of this unlucky number and inquired genially in his column, “Aside from the value of the Lance as a news medium, it would really seem the part of wisdom to subscribe to it rather than to see the story of your grandfather's demise in print -- eh brother?... Or perhaps Mr. ...... prefers restitution of certain property to its rightful owner to separating from a dollar fifty for the Lance....If the gentleman who plays poker Saturday nights and sings loudly at church next morning will kindly step forward, we will thank him and give him a receipt....By the way, Brother A., did you burn all those letters or did you overlook one?  You certainly need the Lance quick...Thirteen men are treading on mighty thin ice this week.”

Soon the editor and his versatile talents had become a legend.  For dress occasions he wore a swallow-tail coat, said to have been the first seen west of Fort Dodge at the time.  He could play the accordian [sic] and shoot like a cowboy.  One day two strangers passing through town, possibly on a commission for some of the local residents, lingered across the street from the Lance office and one blazed away at the window of the newspaper shop.  Immediately Burton emerged with a gun in each hand, and collected the spurious Colt revolver as well as $5 for a new pane of glass before starting the aggressors on their way out of town.

When his rival editor publicly satirized Burton's talent, the young man suddenly appeared on the main street with two guns, a gunny sack of empty tomato cans, and the sheriff to act as witness.  He set the cans up on the plank crossing the middle of the road, drew back 25 paces and started shooting.  After neatly picking each can off with a bull's eye shot, he calmly gathered all together again and quietly went back to his office.

Burton's pointed editorials and plain speech made him the target of attack from time to time.  Once a gambler he had exposed as dealing “from the top, bottom, or middle of the deck with either hand”, allowing other players a chance about like that of “a rabbit with a hyena”, started after Burton breathing fire and brimstone.  He went into the Lance office wearing a white starched shirt - people in the street awaited him in joyous anticipation.  He came out shortly with the words “I tried to lick the editor” printed across his back in six-inch letters.  Escorting him was Burton, armed with a press wrench.  They went as far as the depot, where the gambler was urged to buy a ticket to Chicago and assisted onto the next train.  He was never seen in Storm Lake again.

This editor did not reserve all his ammunition for the wolves of the community.  He attacked the sheep as well.  After attending church one evening, he went home and wrote an editorial exhorting the minister of that particular congregation to wake up his flock with same straight from the shoulder talk instead of putting them to sleep with “a violet-scented talk on brotherly love.”  The pastor, on reading this constructive comment, immediately invited the editor to occupy the pulpit the following Sunday and show how he would conduct the service.  Burton accepted the challenge, which he announced to the public in some hastily printed handbills.

The church was crowded that Sunday with people who could scarcely restrain their excitement as Editor Burton came in the door, strode up to the pulpit, tossed his hat on a chair and, briskly rubbing his hands together, sat down while the minister announced the opening hymn.  After singing, prayers, Bible lesson, the taking of the collection, and the morning solo (procedures sat through by the congregation with ill-concealed impatience) Brother Burton stepped forward and began:  “Friends and enemies -- and I can't tell you apart at this distance -- I have been asked to fill this pulpit on this occasion.  I assume the task and accept the responsibility.”  What followed lived up to the highest expectations of the critical but palpitating audience.  Editor Burton had a vocabulary and vocal delivery of which Billy Sunday himself might have been proud in his day.  Among his mildest remarks were the following:  “You are being slowly chloroformed by your preacher -- and it is all your fault.  You tightwads refuse to pay him enough to support his family ....  You need a preacher six feet four high and weighing two hundred pounds to get behind you with a cattle whip ....  Fear of dismissal has been held over the heads of the preachers in this pulpit for years.  Think of it, you cowards.  Afraid to pick on some one your size, you bulldoze your preacher:  Shame on you!”

Strange to say, the minister himself and the congregation survived the ordeal, though when it was over, “each individual felt like a pincushion.”

The advice was constructively followed.  Within a short time the pastor's salary was raised.  The church membership was enlarged and by the following year had almost doubled.  By that time Editor Burton had departed for points East.  According to Crowell's story, the Lance abruptly ceased publication with a final issue carrying only one item, a reprint from an eastern paper:

“Cincinnati, Ohio, Nov. 12 -- Gilbert Warburton, president of the Green Diamond Coal Mining Corporation and owner of the famed Blue Grass Racing Stables, died at his country home today.

“Mr. Warburton leaves a widow and one son, George Warburton.  His fortune is estimated at $15,000,000.  It was left equally to his widow and son.”

The editor's last comment was:  “My father is dead. Goodbye all!”

The office of the Lance was said to have been left as it was, untouched, until 1883 when it was destroyed by a fire which wrecked half the business district of the town.

The editor of the Pilot-Tribune, in printing the story of this Don Quixote, suggests that it be left to the early settlers of the community to determine how much of it was fact and how much was fiction.  It would be difficult to get the truth in 1942 -- sixty years later, even it [sic] it were possible to interview all old settlers on the subject.

Some of the story may be true in substance with names, dates, and details altered in friendly disguise.  Research failed to disclose the publication of either a Cornet, or a Lance at Storm Lake.  The Pilot was founded in 1870 as already narrated.  On May 18, 1857, the Storm Lake Sentinel was issued by Charles H. Fullerton, editor and publisher.  Wegerslev and Walpole's Past and Present of Buena Vista County (1909) states that this paper “was independent in politics,” and from reading its files it is apparent that its principal joy in life was to prod the Pilot.  It had a short life and succumbed after a little more than a year.  This might have been the original of the Lance, or perhaps the whole story is fiction, presenting what Mr. Crowell wished someone had done.

Journalism in those days was conducted on a more personal plane than is known to modern times.  The county history quoted above contains several passages on that very subject, asserting that editor and reader both gloried in the war of words, and, “how joyfully did two rival editors enter the fray.  The files of the newspapers published in the county during the eighties and nineties are replete with bickering and strife from week to week.  It is a source of wonder in this day that the readers tolerated it, but they seem to have enjoyed it as much as the editors, and the keener the thrust the more enjoyment did all concerned get out of it.”

Jerome Rose, familiarly known as "Posy", started the Storm Lake Tribune in 1877 and published it until 1881.  That year he sold it to P. D. McAndrew, who two years later sold it to Sutfin and Perkins.  Sutfin had been a partner of Colonel Vestal's with the Pilot and bought Young’s interest in 1881.  L. H. Henry was a later owner of the Tribune.  He sold it to Thomas Walpole in 1896.  Walpole and a partner named Smith acquired the other Storm Lake paper and consolidated the two under the name Pilot-Tribune, which soon established itself as a leading newspaper in the region.  Walpole, who secured full control in 1904, sold an interest in 1906 to C. H. J. Mitchell.  These two men cooperated in the publishing of the paper for a number of years.

Norman H. Crowell, a resident of Texas since 1917, contributed some rhymed recollections entitled “Tempus Fugits” to the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune for February 26, 1931.  Among the verses was one describing Editor Walpole:

The man who first showed
me the great type lice trick
Was two men in height and
a half a man thick.

I'll never forget him. -- Tom
Walpole by name --
Since the lesson he gave me
I've not been the same.

Crowell and his wife, Grace Noll Crowell, whose poems found a wide public among readers of women's magazines and other journals of large circulation, were at one time residents of Buena Vista County.

In an era when public interest was becoming awakened to the merits of good journalism, the Pilot-Tribune, as edited by W. C. Jarnagin, won both State and National honors.  In 1923 the Sigma Delta Chi, journalistic fraternity at Iowa State College, awarded it their cup for distinguished community service.  The University of Iowa School of Journalism in turn presented their cup to the newspaper in 1928 as the best all-around Iowa weekly newspaper.  The Pilot-Tribune in 1930 won a cup presented by the Publishers Auxiliary in a contest sponsored by the National Editorial Association for the best front page of all county newspapers and second place for the best weekly newspaper.  In 1932 it was ranked by the National Editorial Association, as the best weekly newspaper in the nation.

The Sun, published at Storm Lake in 1884 by L. E. Lange, and the Buena Vista Vidette, launched in 1885 by C. Everett Lee, were both Democratic papers.  Lange soon moved the Sun to Laurens in Pocahontas County where it was well received.  The Buena Vista Vidette became a militant Democrat organ, published for a number of years by Freeman A. Brown, a Storm Lake merchant.  Brown, however, disagreed with the national party on the monetary question in the campaign of 1896 and disposed of the paper after the election.  A. A. Smith, who acquired the controlling interest, enlarged the plant, the paper, and the circulation until it led all the others.  In 1904 he sold to Miss Elizabeth Sohm, and Storm Lake had the distinction of having a woman newspaper publisher.

Still another journal, the Storm Lake Enterprise, had been started in 1897 by Bethards and McAnulty to represent a particular faction of the Republican party.  It did not last long.

Elizabeth Sohm Morcombe, who successfully built up the Vidette, has told something of her own story in its columns.  She began to work on the paper July 5, 1901, as a bookkeeper and reporter at three dollars per week.  She had previously served as editor of the Buena Vista College Tack.  Some time [sic] later A. A. Smith sent Miss Sohm from the Vidette to take charge of the Alta Observer and to “kill the paper as soon as possible.”  The young woman bought it instead but it died nevertheless and had to go out of business.  She returned to the Vidette and bought that in 1905.  At the time she was getting $16 a week, which was then considered good wages for a girl.  She later confessed:  “The new owner had some time that first year!  Buying a plant with no money is no joke.  Friends, however, came to her assistance and she issued as security a mortgage that really was no security...  Matters picked up and the owner began to plan a building and purchased lots on Lake Avenue....  But alas, a disagreement with the Board of Supervisors caused a sudden dislike to Supervisors in particular and to newspaper work in general, and she determined to throw up the much desired business career and join the ranks of housekeepers.  She was married in 1908 and leased the plant.  In a year, what had been accomplished in several was undone.  The owner “was forced to return, begin to repair damages and start anew on a dream for building.  The lot was purchased in 1913.  The building was begun..”

Early in June 1917 J. E. Bell, at one time owner of the Alta Advertiser, visited the office of the Vidette and offered Mrs. Morcombe $12,000 in cash for the paper; he also said he would buy the building then under construction for an additional $8,000 or more, and would invest $5,000 in extra equipment for the plant.  Bell said he liked the town of Storm Lake and though he had hunted all over the western part of the United States, he had not found any place that suited him so well.  With some reluctance Mrs. Morcombe accepted his offer.  With the issue of June 28, the new editor and publisher took charge; the name of the paper was changed from the Buena Vista Vidette to the Storm Lake Register. Many improvements were made and this Journal proved very successful.  It was edited in 1942 by L. B. Watt.

The Alta Advertiser had been founded by C. T. Steever, a man of many Business enterprises, who decided to start the paper in 1876.  In the beginning he published it only once a month, but as the editor's “vigorous and trenchant style” attracted many readers, and business and advertising patronage increased, the paper was converted to a weekly.  It was independent in politics, with a leaning toward the Democratic party.  In 1883 the Maggs brothers purchased the plant and paper from Steever and took A. Smith into the firm.  From then on the journal was to be Republican.  But in a short time there was another change.  Thomas Walpole bought out the Maggs' interest, and when Smith was elected county recorder, Walpole remained sole proprietor until 1888.  During this period the Alta Advertiser was ably edited, as Walpole was a business man of ability and learning.  However various changes were bound to occur.  O. H. Wegerslev acquired an interest, Walpole finally sold out to him, and he published the paper with various partners.  Walpole and Wegerslev collaborated on the Past and Present of Buena Vista County, a history published by the S. J. Clarke Company in Chicago in 1909.  W. R. Coyle was editing the Alta Advertiser in 1942.

Newell's first newspaper, the Times, was founded in 1872 by Col. John T. Long, who often met Colonel Vestal of the Storm Lake Pilot to debate popular subjects of the day.  People enjoyed the verbal duels but were not so ready with financial support for two newspapers in the county, and the Times did not last long.  Will H. White founded the Newell Mirror in 1875.  It proved successful.  H. C. Gordon and J. P. Lawton, who took the paper in 1893, further developed it.  This weekly independent journal was being edited in 1942 by Alva O. Noble.

Sioux Rapids had a paper by 1875, the Echo, founded in that year by D. C. and W. R. Thomas to represent both the town and the northern part of the county.  It lasted two years before announcing its own demise in an editorial which complained of the lack of patronage.  In 1881 W. S. Wescott founded The Press and published it for two years before selling to Acres, Helms and Blackmar.  Several changes of ownership followed before the paper was acquired in 1891 by B. W. Talcott, foreman of the Storm Lake Pilot.  In 1897 he sold it to a corporation of business men who consolidated it with the Republican, established by J. M. Hoskins.  C. C. Colwell acquired the paper and operated it for two years.  In 1900 it was consolidated with The Press under the name of Republican-Press.  Colwell, with the association of J. E. Durkee, issue this journal until 1907 when the Ryder-Sherman Printing Company became owners. In 1942 the paper was known as the Sioux Rapids Press, and was edited by G. M. Sherman.

The Linn Grove Independent first made its appearance May 2, 1890, issued by the Independent Publishing Company, and edited by Frank S. Lane.  The paper was said to have been breezy and interesting, and supported one hundred per cent by the business men of the town.

Two of the newer towns to acquire newspapers were Marathon and Albert City, both railroad towns.  The second railroad to be built through Buena Vista County was the Chicago and North Western, running east and west through Marathon, Sioux Rapids, and Linn Grove, and constructed during the years 1881 and 1888.  In 1881 a narrow gauge railroad had been planned from Spirit Lake southward to connect with the Illinois Central line.  On this road a town had been laid out in Poland Township to be used as a station.  This town was called Marathon.  The narrow gauge railroad was not built, but that same year the Chicago and Northwestern was surveyed through the same territory and officials of the road were easily persuaded to establish a town on the site which had previously been chosen for the other road.  Thus Marathon was located.

When the Milwaukee railroad was built from Spencer to Fonda in 1889, Albert City was named as a station.  The land selected was on the farm of George Anderson.  He sold the tract to the Townsite Company, which offered lots ranging in price from $575 to $650.  The Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune says of the town's beginning:  “Business houses were planned and it was no time until the rat-a-tat-tat of hammers was heard and buildings were being erected.  The filling of Main Street was a big issue, as it was extremely low.  In fact tame ducks were often seen swimming up and down Main Street.  At times there was so much water that it was impossible to drive horses through the street, making it necessary to drive a roundabout way in order to get to the business section.  The merchants found rubber boots very necessary in going to the boarding house.”

Originally the town was called Manthorp, for George R. Anderson's former home community in Sweden, but as this name was often confused with that of Marathon, it was changed to Albert City.  The name was suggested by Albertine, which was the Christian name of Mrs. George Anderson.  Many of the residents were Scandinavians who had already been living in the community for some years.  Probably some of these were members of the Albert City Improvement Association which in March 1900, to make the community attractive, adopted a resolution “that there should be a reserve of ten feet in front of each lot in which to plant ornamental trees and build a walk, the walk to be four feet wide and outside of this a space of six feet to be left in the middle of which trees are to be planted about a rod apart....This space may be sown with lawn grass and kept in nice order.  It will give a beautiful appearance to our city.”

A newspaper, the Albert City Pioneer, was established March 29, 1900, with Turrill and Lovejoy as publishers.

One of the oldest institutions in Marathon was the Marathon Republic, founded in 1890 by E. E. Willey.  Merle F. Fish, who acquired the paper in 1917, was still publisher in 1942.

Iowa Writers’ Project.  Buena Vista County History.  Storm Lake, Iowa:  Work Projects Administration, 1942.  53-61.  Print.

Contributed anonymously