Sometimes when I’m reflecting on the importance of newspapers in my life, I think about the late Bob Hipple and stories he told about his newspaper and the Great Depression.
Bob (I’m being awfully informal, because I always called him Mr. Hipple when I worked for the Capital Journal daily newspaper in Pierre) is gone now. Born in 1900, he worked in the family owned newspaper all his life. He retired as publisher at age 90, and he died 10 years later, after having experienced a full century of events in South Dakota and the rest of the world.
Someone who lived for 100 years sees and hears a multitude of things, especially when that someone is in the newspaper business and is connected by a wire-service teletype machine to the latest bulletins and news breaks and follow-up stories. Bob never seemed to think of himself as particularly important, but he believed his newspaper, and newspapers across the world, were essential. So, apparently, did many of the people who lived and worked in the Cap Journal’s coverage area.
Everyone old enough to read must know that times were tough around these parts in the 1930s. Drought, grasshoppers, relentless winds and dust storms made it all but impossible for farmers and ranchers to make a living. The author John Steinbeck described it well in his novel “Grapes of Wrath.’’ So does regional author Frederick Manfred in his novel, “The Golden Bowl.’’ Nobody had money to spare, not even a few dimes or a half dollar.
Even under those conditions, people wanted the news. Remember, this was a time well before television. Radio existed for some, but most people got their news from the daily or weekly newspapers. Every edition gave people something to talk about over a meager evening meal or on a rare trip to town. Knowing the tough conditions on the farms and in the small towns, Hipple said the Cap Journal would sometimes trade a subscription for whatever a would-be reader had to offer, sometimes a bushel of corn, sometimes a chicken or two, anything to make it a transaction instead of a gift.
Talking about those times, he once paused, gazed at the ceiling of his cluttered office and said, “I always hoped those people felt they got more than equal value from the trade for a subscription.’’
Hipple was one of the more memorable of the many news people I encountered. While I worked for the Cap Journal as managing editor, I’d sometimes watch the start of the press run and then wander up to Bob’s office for a few minutes of visiting before he left for the day. I had moved on to another paper by the time he retired, but I did a formal interview with him for a feature story. It was a rollicking good time. Imagine trying to cover within an hour or two a career that started in 1905 and ended in 1990. Far too many stories, far too little time.
He remembered when his family’s newspaper published wire service copy of the Russian-Japanese war in 1905. He was hawking papers by age 6 on the street corners and in the shops and cafes and taverns around town. He told me the paper cost 5 cents, “and that was at a time when 5 cents bought a glass of beer and sometimes a sandwich.’’ He sold an extra edition on the streets in 1906 when word came of the San Francisco earthquake. In his time he saw the first bridge across the Missouri River between Pierre and Fort Pierre, watched Charles Lindbergh land the Spirit of St. Louis on a hillside near town on a barn-storming tour after the successful cross-Atlantic flight. He participated in ground breaking for Oahe Dam, and he traded letters with Baltimore newspaper legend H.L. Mencken.
Those were some pretty amazing things to experience, but Bob tended to think of them as just some of his stories rather than major moments in history. And while I got excited about him trading letters with Mencken, he was more excited about trading newspaper subscriptions for corn or chickens. That’s how important he believed newspapers were.