Where everybody knows your name: small town newspapers in Colorado

Originally Published October 1, 2009

A common feature of Colorado newspapers of old was a “happenings” column; it told of the births, deaths, marriages, dances, parties, visits and visitors, new buildings, newcomers to town and folk leaving town. It told of the weather, and bear sightings, of mountain lions and elk, how the hunting was and the best local places to fish this week. In short, it is the historyof these towns.

Certainly, the larger papers like the Denver Times, The Rocky Mountain News, and The Colorado Republican, through the 19th century and into the turn of the century, published events about the smaller towns, but it was the bigger events, not the daily life that was so important to the smaller town.
Everyone who did anything was mentioned in a small town paper. Mr. Smith and family go to Denver, it was in the paper. Local boys catch a bunch of fish, in the paper it goes. The snow breaks trees, a bear attacks some horses, a child falls ill from smallpox, in the paper it goes.
Some would suggest that these items went into the paper to fill space, to make sure there was enough news.  But for the folk living in the small towns, this was the important news. Certainly, news of the world outside had its importance, but the local news was of much more importance to the residents.Today, it might not seem important, but these are the little details that make up the history of the average person, that give us the color and flavor of an area, give an idea of what living in that area was really like, more than any collection of photos ever could.
For example, The Fairplay Flume was the paper for all of the Park and South Platte area. Even today, Fairplay is a two hour trip from Denver by car; by train it was four to five hours, and by horse and wagon, it could take you half the day to get to there. For those living in Bailey, Estabrook, Pine Grove, Hartsel, Alma, Breckenridge, and many other small towns, the weekly edition of the Flume was the only way most folk had to know what was going on locally.   The Alamosa Journal, Julesburg Grit, Leadville Daily, Sagauche Chronicle, Wray Rattler and the many other newspapers throughout the state served the same purpose.
 From knowing what the local grocer had brought back from Denver, to when the next dance or social was to be held, to when the teacher was going to open his or her school for the next session, these small details were important.   Even after the advent of the telephone, the newspaper was still a mainstay, and continued to be a source for keeping track of friends and neighbors even through today for some areas of the state.
Today, newspapers as we knew them are dying out, but the small town, locally run papers are often still strong, addressing the local issues, talking about the local folk, and continuing to give us an historical insight into the lives of the people who chose to come west and stay west. As the song says, “Everyone dies famous in a small town.”
http://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org/ is an excellent source for the small town papers of Colorado’s past. All aspects of these papers were preserved, including the advertisements. CHN currently has 147 newspapers from around the state ranging from 1859 to 1923. It is a joint effort of the Colorado State Library, Colorado Historical Society and private donors throughout the state.
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