Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

Small town, big help

Strange but true: the most useful single resource available to researchers hunting for newspaper stories from the period 1855-1946 is an obscure daily published in a central Minnesota town most people have never heard of.

The Winona Daily Republican wasn't a large paper. In the nineteenth century it sold a couple of thousand copies. Even today, its successor-paper, the Daily News, has a circulation of a mere 11,000. But, published as it was in what seems to have been the archetypal slow-news town, it did print a huge number of wire stories from around the world. It is these that give the archive its value - for everyone other than present-day Winona residents, that is.

It's hard to over-state how unusual the Daily Republican seems to have been in this respect. Increasing numbers of local newspapers are coming online - Northern New York Historical Newspapers (which has one of the most awkward, cumbersome and time-consuming user interfaces I've ever encountered) lists 24 titles and contains more than 600,000 pages; the Historical Missouri Newspaper Project has 13 more. But sample searches soon reveal that all 37 of these newspapers concentrated almost entirely on local news. That makes them very useful for people interested in the minutiae of life in Rolla, Missouri, or Ogdensburg, New York, but of distinctly limited value to everyone else.

The Republican - put online alongside another Winona paper, the Argus, and its successor-title, the Republican-Herald by the Winona Newspaper Project and hosted by Winona State University - runs to only 150,000 pages of text, making it one of the smaller archives currently available. But it boasts the excellent Olive Software's easily-understood and eminently accessible user interface, quick searches, and the chance to limit searches to a specified range of dates. Better still, results are reported with word counts and ragouts of headlines as well as issue dates, making it much easier for users to judge which items are likely to be of interest. Results can be ranked by "score" (the system's attempt to guess which fit the search criteria most closely) or date. Oh, and the entire site is also absolutely free.

I've found the Winona Newspaper Project invaluable for my historical research, not just as a source of stories, but as a sort of index, too (the Republican's reporting of a wire story from Buffalo, for instance, led me to a rich seam of stories in New York State papers that have been microfilmed but not yet placed online.) But it's no slouch at turning up Fortean nuggets either. Two sample searches, for "sea serpent" across the entire 1855-1946 period, and for "airship" for the years 1896-97, turned up a satisfying number of interesting hits: 196 for "sea serpent", including a number of completely new stories from Lake Michigan, and eight useful reports, from a total of 17 returns mentioning the word "airship", concerning the mystery airship flap of the late 1890s.

The Republican archive has been online since 2005, but I've seen few if any references to this superlative resource. Everyone I've mentioned the paper to seems to have found it invaluable, though; I recently passed news of its existence to Paul Chambers, whose books include a fine recent study of the Cock Lane Ghost. Paul is currently working on a new biography of Barnum's celebrated elephant, Jumbo, and he promptly reported that the Daily Republican "really is a useful resource... I thought I knew most of what had gone on in Jumbo's life, but the Winona paper came up with a humdinger of a story that I hadn't come across before."

Anyone with an interest in US stories of the last century-and-a-half is unlikely to be disappointed by the Winona Newspaper Project. Please do check it out.

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