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Riverviews: The joys of perusing old archives

Computers are a great tool. I couldn’t do without mine.

People often ask me where I get ideas for this column, and there’s no doubt that most of the material comes from computer research (an impressive name for aimless browsing) on the Sun Journal’s digitized archives.

It’s all there, just a click or two away. But, as remarkable as computerization may be, it doesn’t measure up to the dedication of a man from Minot when it comes to preserving the printed page.

I came across the story of Elbridge O. Butler in the Oct. 11, 1930, edition of the Lewiston Journal Illustrated Magazine Section. He was 90 years old at the time, and he was believed to be this newspaper’s oldest and most consistent subscriber. He saved every issue of the paper for 62 years, and never once let his subscription expire.

The 1930 account of Mr. Butler’s accomplishment was written by G. Minot Pulsifer. He noted that the Lewiston Journal was a weekly newspaper when Butler became one of the original subscribers.

“After reading each copy, he folded it carefully and put it into a wooden box,” Pulsifer said. “As soon as the box became filled, he nailed down the cover and packed it away.”

After some 30 or 40 years, Butler changed his routine a bit. Instead of packing the papers in boxes, he piled them up in a spare room.

“As the years went by, the stacks grew higher and higher, until some of them reached nearly to the ceiling and virtually filled the entire room,” the news story said.

There was a fire at the Butler house not long before the story was written. The barn burned flat and part of the house was damaged, but the room containing the papers was spared. Unfortunately, some of the boxes of the older papers were in the barn. It was such an inferno that firemen could not get near it.

A few days later, as he searched the ruins, Butler found that the wooden box had burned, but it was protection enough to keep the papers mostly undamaged.

“They had been pressed so tightly together within the boxes that the flames had burned only the outer edges,” Pulsifer wrote. “When these were removed, the unharmed papers were revealed.”

In early October 1930, Pulsifer and 90-year-old Elbridge Butler browsed through some of those brittle and yellowed newspapers, much as I sit at my computer and lose all track of time as I read old news.

They picked out items of interest or humor and read them to each other and chuckled over the report of a woman who, when caught with her arms around the neck of her landlord, told her husband that she was trying to persuade him to reduce the rent.

Butler told the writer that he believed the most interesting feature of the old papers, outside of the local news, was the columns called Condensagraphs. Pulsifer said those columns were probably the forerunners in type of the present-day (1930s) popular columnists, including O.O. McIntyre and Walter Winchell, but in those days, there were no bylines on every column.

All of this took place more than 80 years ago as Butler and Pulsifer picked through the old publications.

To me, it seemed a lot like my own experiences in the early 1960s when I was a young reporter for the Lewiston Daily Sun. That’s when the newsroom was filled with the clackety-clack of manual typewriters and the ringing of dial telephones rather than the glow of computer screens.

Sometimes, I had to do some research in the old newspapers stored in the Sun Journal building’s attic. The papers were bound flat and full-size in large scrapbooks. They were stacked high on very dusty racks under bare light bulbs.

Many of you are probably reading this column online. There are still lots of readers who prefer a print copy of the news. Unlike Elbridge Butler, we are inevitably adapting to a world of online news and research.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email (yes, online please) to davidsargent607@gmail.com.

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