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News-Shield History

The history of the Barron News-Shield, the community's oldest business, dates back to Nov. 1, 1876, when A. Dewey published the first issue of the Barron County Shield.

The "Shield" was not Barron's first newspaper. That publication was the Barron County Gazette, which opened for business two years earlier in 1874. The publishers were C.W. Carpenter and W.L. Abott, who, in 1875, moved the newspaper to Rice Lake, changing its name to the Rice Lake Chronotype.

To frame the year 1876 for historical highlight, it was in that year that Wild Bill Hickok met his demise while playing poker in a Dakota Territory Saloon, and George Armstrong Custer was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn with the 7th Calvary in eastern Montana Territory. Alexander Graham Bell was credited with inventing the telephone that year, while certainly no telephone was in use in the newspaper days of that era.

According to early history, the Barron County Shield was first located near the courthouse square just north of Quaderer Creek. It eventually moved to 3rd Street north of the old city hall, before it found its permanent home on La Salle Ave.

Newspapers in those vintage days leading to the turn of the century were very different from their 21st century counterparts. Picture a small building, its walls papered with the latest printed announcements cranked out from a hand-operated press. The building would also have contained a bigger, flatbed press for printing the newspaper, and several type cases holding perhaps four or five fonts of type for printing both job work and the paper.

All type, of course, was set by hand and placed into galleys before being laid down into forms to join with handset headlines for the press. This cumbersome procedure for printing newspapers in the Gutenberg era of movable type was to last through the first decade of the 20th century, when Linotypes, one of mankind's greatest inventions for spreading the enlightenment of the printed word, began appearing in newspaper shops. Two broadsheet pages was the maximum output per run in the early days. All stories were written longhand and spiked on a copy hook before they were handset, very likely by the person who wrote it. Hours could be consumed setting but a single galley of type, the approximate length of a newspaper page.

Employees were few and undoubtedly sparsely paid. There may have been a secretary, but perhaps not. Most shops, in addition to the publisher, employed a printer, and most likely a "printers devil", an understudy and errand boy to the whims of his superiors.

Money was not in abundance and not always the accepted currency. Many a subscription was traded for a bushel of potatoes or corn. The money that did come into the register, the guaranteed money, was mostly generated by the printing business, and county newspapers were zealous in their attempts to get it. Feuds among newspapers were common as they competed for that business, which was good pay and in high demand. Newspaper publishers were famous for the editorial potshots, mostly verbose diatribes, they routinely took at one another which had their roots in the competition for printing as much as for readers.

Most early, growing communities had their own weekly newspaper and sometimes two or three. Barron was no exception. The Barron County News was established in 1900. It began as the Weekly Call. The two papers consolidated in 1918 under the name Barron County News-Shield. The word "County" was dropped from the title in the 1970s. Dallas had the Dallas Index, Prairie Farm had the Prairie Farm Breeze, Cameron had the Cameron Record.

In those early years, when type was set by hand, it had to be cleaned and saved for the next edition of the paper, which meant the person returning it to the type case had to know how to spell. Many a printer's devil or some other lowly on the totem poll received lightning bolts of criticism from a wrathful publisher because they had mixed their "Ps" with the "Qs".

The newspaperman then was as much a mechanic as he was an artist. Presses that broke down needed instant repair. Type had to be wedged and locked up into pages, and there was hell to pay if a page slipped from a makeup stone, its type scattered on the floor. Ink was everywhere. It was first rolled on a page for proofing, but it didn't stay there. It stuck like glue to the hands, arms, face and hair, oozing into one's pores. The printing business did indeed get into one's blood.

The news reported now is the reverse of what it was then. Now it is the local news that dominates the pages of the weekly newspaper. There is scarcely a mention of anything of national or international significance. Then it was the news of the nation, sprinkled with international snippets (and sometimes more) that dominated the front pages.

There is a logical reason for this. Weekly newspapers in the 1870s were virtually the sole purveyors of the news of the nation across small-town America. There was no radio, no television and telephones were but a crank away from their inventor. The telegraph, with its pulses of battered-powered dots and dashes, was but a primitive forerunner of modern communication, suited mostly for the birth years of the developing west, partnered with the railroads that were expanding the national empire towards the mountains barricading the Pacific.

The first issue of the Barron County Shield was a testament to this thesis. A wood cut on the front page depicted the Northfield, Minn., bank robbers- Cole Younger, Charley Pitts, Al Carter and Bob Younger. The unfortunate Charley Pitts had a prominent bullet hole in his chest. Publishers were not squeamish and readers were not then offended by a little blood and guts.

Another front-page story relayed the tale of what happened to the stuffed hide of a terrible gorilla killed by a plucky little Frenchman somewhere in Africa. And so it went.

But in an age of primitive communication, how did those stories find their way into the columns of the Barron County Shield? They, and all the other rural newspapers in those days, did it with "ready print". The ready print came from the nearest big city by train, its pages pre-printed with all that national and international news. Those pre-printed pages were then fed through the local press, which rolled out the final product. This dependency on ready print meant that if the train was delayed, so was the newspaper, sometimes by a couple of days.

The ready print for the Shield most likely came by railway express from the west (remember the bank robbery story), and since the rail line didn't hit Barron until 1884, this meant that someone had to meet the train at a depot somewhere to pick the ready print up. This dependency on ready print carried into the 1920s for some newspapers.

The thirst for the ready print declined with the advent of the Linotype, invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1884, but not prominent in newspaper production until well after the turn of the century. This invention was transformative for newspapers. With handset type on the shelf (it was still used for setting headlines) many galleys of type could be set by one linotype operator. This marvelous transformation in technology oiled the skids for the movement of national news to the inside pages. Local news that happened one day could be reported the next, and local news became more a fixation of weekly newspapers as state and national news became more readily available through other sources. Even in this day of instant communication, the local news formula is still working for weekly newspapers.

The linotype era was a golden age for newspapers in general and weekly newspapers in particular. It accompanied an industrial revolution that fueled prosperity throughout the nation that carried over to small-town America. Communities like Barron were growing islands of commerce that could provide virtually all of the goods and services desired by its residents. Newspapers shared in that prosperity.

Offset lithography doomed the linotype, a machine that was blessed on its coming but with few tears shed at its going. Often temperamental, they consumed much electricity and melted large quantities of lead bars in producing their lines of type, which fouled the air when that type was melted and re-cast for the next edition of the newspaper. Lead poisoning was not a worry in those days but certainly would be now, but I never knew a printer or newspaperman who died of that malady. Alcohol was a far greater threat to the health of the profession in those days. The News-Shield still had two linotypes in operation in the early 1980s, used almost exclusively to set a few lines of type for funeral cards.

The newspaper darkroom, a mainstay since the birth of the industry, soon followed the linotype into history's stockpile of outmoded technology. The computer age, which accelerated soon after the advent of offset printing, was soon at full tide, and newspapers were swept along with the current. Newspaper pages, once laid out with type and locked up with quoin keys in metal chases and later pasted up by hand on paper, are now fully paginated via computer at most newspapers, including this one. Our computer files are then e-mailed to our central printing plant in Amery.

All of this technology and saving of labor made weekly newspapers profitable and prime targets for acquisition by newspaper groups, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s when many small towns were still buzzing with commerce. It ushered in an era of bean counters and absentee owners, although Barron County is fortunate in that all five of its weekly newspapers are still run by family enterprises. But the bloom from that rose diminished with the advent of harder times in small-town America and competition for news and advertising from sources not anticipated just 10 years ago.

The rule of thumb in this business now, like most others, is that change is the only predictable certainty, and it is no secret that adapting to that change has been challenging for newspapers. But weekly newspapers have fared much better than their daily counterparts with circulation steady if not growing. That formula for success, hardly a secret, jumps back to the time when ready-print news faded from the front pages of weekly newspapers to be replaced by the local news that still sells newspapers today and hopefully will well into the next hundred years of Barron history.

For those of you interested in such things, the Barron News-Shield became a part of Bell, Press, Inc., in 1979. Its sister newspaper is the Ladysmith News.

Bob and Betty Swenson were the former publishers. They purchased the newspaper in 1969 from Harold and Vivian Newton, and some in town have memories long enough to recall Triple 'S' Press, which owned the newspaper for 29 years before the Newtons, the three Ss being Emanuel "Manny" Stern, Julius Stern and Clarence Seidl.

Current employees are Mark Bell, Publisher; Jim Bell, Associate Publisher; Bob Zientara, editor; Val Gieseke, officer manager; Jennifer Cox, advertising manager; Tami Schoenecker, computer graphics; and Diane Crotteau, newspaper routing. Retired editor Bob Groshong is also a frequent contributor of news.

Jim Bell represents the fourth consecutive generation of his family to publish a newspaper in Wisconsin. Mark Bell represents the fifth. Printer's ink apparently still does get into one's blood.

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