Thursday, February 18, 2010

Adams County Makes the News – Introduction – 3

[Part 3 (of 4) of Eberle’s Introduction to Adams County Makes the News]

Myths about rural life abound—the invention of the Wild West is just one of them. I often come across the idea, both among city and country folks, that a rural town is basically like a city, only smaller and less advanced, less sophisticated—that the differences between a city and a rural area can all be accounted for if you simply scale down the urban reality and take into consideration the rural area’s backwardness. To me this is a strange misapprehension, and somewhat mysterious. It’s as if a cloak of invisibility covers the rural experience. On television, for instance, you don’t see many western North American rural towns on commercials that make use of rural imagery—although exotic rural communities are quite fashionable just now (an SUV driving through a computer-generated wilderness to a third world village market.) The Wild West myth surfaces on occasion in commercials that make use of rural imagery—spewing mountain sunsets and cowboys—and in shows, the stereotyped country hick versus city slicker set-up isn’t dead yet. But beyond that, the veil of obscurity falls with an almost audible thud. In fact, it could be that the national consumer market of rural towns is so negligible that rural life is heading toward some kind of media extinction—not necessarily a bad thing. But it would be convenient if there were a word to describe those realities which take place in the shadow of looming myths—the lost Atlantises that are thriving, invisibly, among us—because I think that they exist in abundance.

The individualized and local nature of the Adams County newspaper makes it a unique historical record of the community. Editorials, ads, articles, and letters to the editor have the advantage of
representing with word-for-word accuracy what a certain part of the population cared about at the time—the people who wrote to the paper and the editors of the paper. It would not be accurate to say this represents the community in its entirety, because many people don’t write to the newspaper—the prostitutes, for example, who were reported as having a fight in 1902, were not writing letters to the paper. And there are groups which are completely or almost completely unrepresented—children, for instance, or the workers at the Mesa Orchards. Material sent in to the paper is based on the fact that the writer sees her or himself as existing in some relationship to the community—to a certain degree, because of its public nature, the writing is about that relationship.

The newspaper material doesn’t create a complete record of all individuals in the community, or an exhaustive history of the area, but I find the authenticity of the written gestures that have
found their way into the paper very compelling. Everyone who writes for publication in the newspaper, whether a reader or an editor, shares a similar starting point: the decision to make personal thoughts public. The different voices that are generated by that decision, and the range of motivations that prompt it, reveal various dimensions of private and community life over time. As with any history, what is unwritten creates its own spaces between the lines and is part of the experience of reading. To my mind, the kind of gaps and fragments inherent in the county newspaper narrative create a particularly fascinating landscape, a kind of do-it-yourself novel. There are tempting by-ways, and sudden glimpses of remnants of the past, archways framing vistas from half-forgotten points of view, paths to be taken or left behind.

I found myself, for instance, threading together the history of Iola DeGaris between the ads for her millinery shop and her wedding to the “good-natured and popular meat-cutter… and prominent member of the Council band,” Otto E. Brauer. The fate of two Council boys who meet up at the front during World War I has a dramatic poignancy: one is killed shortly afterwards, and the other turns up later in the paper as the village marshal. In 1931, Charlotte Lemon writes a letter to her father, the editor, upbraiding him for reprinting a sexist article—which made me start wondering about her possible influence on his outspoken editorials calling for women’s restrooms in the public buildings of Council. These fragments of lives are compelling to me because they make me realize how much any “objective” history leaves out—not just individual lives, but the unique context of the relationships that have evolved over time within a community.

Reading the county newspaper, where a wide range of individuals and their relationships are
palpably present, creates a humanizing perspective on that period of history— not always a comfortable experience, as some individual voices, untempered by abstraction, can be disturbing. It is one thing, for instance, to know that some people understood and supported the killing of Germans in World War I as justified genocide; it’s another to see that thought process in action in someone’s own words. I found that my own emotional responses to the various narrative voices became integral to this way of reading the past.

Part of the texture of newspaper material as history comes from the juxtaposition of
details—how to use egg-white for mending, what percentage of school children have tuberculosis, who has a rooster for sale, what constitutes profanity, the Council bank failure, who has grown the biggest ears of corn. The juxtaposition of large and small events hints at a sense of scale that I often find lacking in more traditional histories. There is foreground and background, and randomness, and moments of poetry, which I think of as reality haiku. For instance, “news” sent in to the paper from Indian Valley in 1913:

“It is raining today.
Pastures are quite green.
We hope no potatoes are green this time of year.”

What I like about this is the way that the everyday comes into the record of the past, as expressed in the voice of a writer of that time. Diaries or letters involve that kind of writing as well, but from a single point of view. The newspaper material, on the other hand, offers multiple local points of view, unified by the public intent of the writing and the shared community of readers.

Vanished establishments in Council take on life as well, through the patchwork of newspaper
items. The Overland Hotel, for instance, gone for decades now, advertised pack trains into the mining regions; a woman residing there advertised a two-year old baby in need of a home; the price of meals was published, as well as the dates when a traveling optometrist would be there to see residents with eye problems. Facts that might not find their way in to many histories of the early twentieth century West appear in tantalizing detail—that people used to give cracked bones to their chickens instead of oyster shells, that school outhouses for girls and boys had to be fifty feet apart from each other by law, that a piece of brown paper covered with mutton tallow and well sprinkled with ginger was recommended as a chest plaster in cases of whooping cough.

Pix from Top:
Adams County Rodeo Queens, Council, 1997
(despite jpg name!)
Cattle on the upper stretch of Mill Creek Road, Council, 1997
Carved Bear Art, Council, 2000
Our garden shed, 1998
Council Quilt Show, 1998
Adams County Fair, Council, 1997


  1. There is so much feeling in these articles of Eberle's. I really enjoy her perspectives on what the Adams County Newspaper reflects about everyday life --she doesn't fill in the missing pieces, but allows the reader to let their mind wander and wonder about the stuff between the lines. So much of interest in these unique examples of history - so many possibilities for creating fiction or poetry or art.

    Thanks for sharing this, Eberle and John. I am fascinated.


  2. When I say "art", I refer to the tangible, such as paintings or sculpture even.

  3. Dear Poetikat,
    thanks so much for your comments - I really like your insights into the nature of empty spaces (not filling in the missing pieces, or the spaces between the lines). I feel like I keep appreciating more and more the qualities of this kind of absence - and it's lovely to hear from someone else who savors the piquant presence of absence...thanks!


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