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Highlights from 150 years of news reporting in Detroit Lakes: A journalistic trip down memory lane

The times have changed. The machinery has changed. The reporters have changed. But one thing that has held true over the 150-year history of the Detroit Lakes newspaper are the stories that tie a community together. Here are a few highlights from stories-past to show how far we've come.

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Front page of the Weekly Record, Sept. 5, 1874.
Contributed / Becker County Historical Society
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As the Detroit Lakes Tribune celebrates its 150th birthday, it's interesting to look back through the headlines to see how far we've come. As a reflection of the community we serve, and a historical record of the important events that happen here, the newspaper reports of yesteryear can give us a good idea of how we've grown and changed as a community in West Central Minnesota.

The following are just a few of the many noteworthy stories that have been published in this newspaper over the last 150 years.

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Front page of the Detroit Record, featuring the death of Jesse James. April 8, 1882.
Detroit Lakes Tribune archives

Killed in his tracks: Jesse James, the sovereign brigand shot dead in shanty at St. Joseph, Missouri — April 8, 1882

Jesse James, the notorious outlaw, made the front page of the Detroit Record with his death in 1882. The story describes an alleged plot by brothers Charles and Robert Ford to capture the outlaw for a reward of $50,000. But, ultimately, they decided at the last minute to not arrest James, and instead James was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford — reportedly while cleaning dust off of some pictures that hung on the wall of the residence.

As written in 1882: Breakfast was over and Ford and Jesse James had been in the stables currying the horses preparatory to the night ride. On returning to the room where Robert Ford was, Jesse said, "It's an awful hot day."
He pulled off his coat and vest and tossed them on the bed. Then, he said, "I guess I will take off my pistols for fear that somebody will see them if I walk in the yard."
He unbuckled the belt in which he carried the forty-five caliber revolvers, one Smith and Wesson and the other a Colt, and laid them on the bed with his coat and vest. He then picked up a dusting brush with the intention of dusting some pictures which hung on the wall. To do this, he got on a chair.
His back was now turned to the brothers, who silently stepped between Jesse and his revolvers and, at a motion from Charles, both drew their guns. Robert was the quickest of the two.
In one motion, he had a long weapon to the level with his eye with the muzzle no more than four feet from the back of the outlaw's head. Even in that motion, as quick as thought, there was something that did not escape the acute ears of the hunted man. He made a motion, as if to turn his head to ascertain the cause of the suspicious sound.

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But too late. A nervous pressure on the trigger, a quick flash, a sharp report and the well directed ball crashed through the outlaw's skull.
There was no outcry, just a swaying of the body, and it fell heavily back upon the carpet.
The shot had been fatal and all the bullets in the chamber of Charley's revolver, still directed at James' head could not have more effectually decided the fate of the greatest bandit and freebooter that ever figured in the pages of the country's history.

In today's journalistic standards, the moment-to-moment details of a criminal event are rarely included in initial reporting. Most cases are under active investigation for hours, days or weeks, until details are released by law enforcement. First-hand accounts, as long as they are verifiable, are sometimes included in public safety reporting, but rarely will readers ever find details like those included in the killing of Jesse James.

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Front page of the Detroit Record, featuring an assault involving two Detroit Township residents. March 5, 1909
Detroit Lakes Tribune Archives

Immoral brute gets beating: William Gammel, disreputable character, received severe trouncing Sunday evening — March 5, 1909

As the Detroit Record reported an assault involving two local farmers, a lot of colorful language was used to describe a man's beating and the circumstances surrounding that incident. The writer clearly has a slanted opinion of the man in question, who was accused of making improper advances on a 16-year-old girl — and all of Detroit Township shared that opinion, apparently. Today's reporting standards surrounding truth and objectivity — not to mention the societal idea that people are to be treated as innocent until proven guilty in a court of law — make old articles like this seem absurd to modern readers. But such tales are now interesting case studies in how standards have changed.

As written in 1909: An incident that brought more or less satisfaction to a great many people of this city and vicinity occurred Sunday evening when Wm. Reibhoff, a well known farmer of Detroit Township, used a small elm club to good purpose and advantage on the person of William Gammel, also a well known farmer of the same locality, but one whose actions of the past have acquired for him a very unsavory reputation.
The particular grievance which brought on the clash between the two men was the allegation that Gammel had made improper advances to Mr. Reibhoff's 16-year-old daughter, with whom he had made a date for a meeting on the evening in question. The contemplated meeting came to the knowledge of the girl's father and he took steps to see that the honor of his family was protected and, from all accounts, he carried out his intentions in a manner that must have been as highly satisfactory to himself as it was to the friends and family in this city and elsewhere.
A nicely trimmed and well balanced elm club was used and when Gammel finally escaped from the clutches of the outraged father, he bore numerous bruises and wounds that will leave their scars during the rest of his natural life...
After officials had made an investigation and Dr. Frasier had stitched Gammel's cuticle together, Mr. Reibhoff was released on his own recognizance and at once returned to his home. Gammel is confined to his bed, it will be many a long day before he forgets the unmerciful and well deserved beating which he received.
The despicable action of Gammel is all the more intensified by the fact that he is a man nearly 50 years of age and has a wife and three children.

William Gammel filed no complaint over the assault.

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Front page of the Detroit Lakes Record, featuring a fire that swept the north shore of Lake Melissa. May 7, 1936
Contributed / Becker County Historical Society

$7,000 blaze sweeps beach; 3 cottages burn — May 7, 1936

Two residences along the north shore of Lake Melissa burned to the ground and a third was partially burned before Detroit Lakes Firefighters could bring the fire under control. According to the report, at 10:45 p.m., more than 100 people were watching the fire from nearby and light from the flames could be seen for several miles in all directions.

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As written in 1936: The flames made quick work of the frame buildings, aided by a steady breeze that imperiled the entire row of cottages situated east of the burning structures. Causing its destruction in less than a half hour, the blaze was finally subdued when the firemen backed their No. 2 truck to the lake shore and brought the force pump into operation...
Embers from the burning buildings were carried for more than half a mile, endangering cottages far removed from the immediate vicinity of the fire...
Only the stone fireplaces were left standing. Trees in the surrounding yards caught fire and were badly burned. A power line pole bordering the road north of the buildings was charred.
No explanation was forthcoming as to the cause of the blaze. The buildings burned were not occupied. Defective wiring was considered, but this theory was discounted by many.

This fire brief is similar to briefs that journalists would write today, although the theory about defective wiring that was discounted would probably be omitted. As journalists, it can be imperative to form relationships with members of the fire and police departments so events can be reported accurately and in a timely manner.

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Front page of the Becker County Record, featuring Larry Buboltz, who was listed as one of Minnesota's top young men at the statewide Jaycees convention in Rochester. Feb. 21, 1973
Contributed / Becker County Historical Society

Larry Buboltz listed among state's top 10 young men — Feb. 21, 1973

Larry Buboltz served as Mayor of Detroit Lakes from 1989 to 2008, with an additional 12 years as an alderman on the city council before that, giving him more than 30 years in Detroit Lakes' city government. But before joining the city council, he was the Detroit Lakes Jaycees Distinguished Service Award winner in 1973. He went on to the statewide Jaycees convention in Rochester and was presented with one of the group's "Outstanding Young Men" awards. Buboltz was the third Detroit Lakes Jaycee to win the statewide award in three years, the others being Emil Maortzke and former Detroit Lakes Tribune Columnist Lynn Hummel.

As written in 1973: What apparently is becoming a tradition to Detroit Lakes received greater impetus Saturday evening when Larry Buboltz was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in Minnesota at the Jaycees' TOYM Convention held at the Rochester Civic Auditorium...
Buboltz, who is director of the Minnesota Youth Experimental and Demonstration Project headquartered at Rural Minnesota CEP in Detroit Lakes, received the award from Gov. Wendell Anderson before some 1,000 Minnesota Jaycees and their wives.

As journalism advances through the decades, the writing styles keep changing, but often the kinds of stories that get reported on do not. This is one example of that: a 'good news' story about a local resident winning an award. Positive stories about people and events in the community continue to be as well-read and well-received today as they were 150 years ago.

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Front page of the Becker County Record, featuring the Holmes School fire. Sept. 22, 1980
Contributed / Becker County Historical Society

Fire destroys Holmes — Sept. 22, 1980

On Sept. 20, 1980, a fire ripped through the historic Holmes School, destroying the original building, constructed in 1895, and the addition that was constructed in 1909. An addition that was completed in 1931 was saved by local firefighters, although it did suffer some smoke and water damage. Following the fire, the building would stay vacant for more than 20 years before funding could be secured to transform the burned structure into what would become the historic Holmes Theatre, which has become a staple of arts and entertainment in the area.

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As written in 1980: An estimated 1,000 spectators watched as 75 firemen from Detroit Lakes and four area towns battled the blaze for (another) 2-3 hours before it was contained. There were no injuries. The fire was reported at 10 p.m., but the cause was not immediately known. Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Arville Thompson and State Deputy Fire Marshall Rusty Tallman of Detroit Lakes plan to inspect the charred remains today (Monday)...
The flames were prevented from reaching the 1931 wing by fire doors, which automatically closed and locked on each floor of the three-story corridor that connects the 1909 and 1931 additions...
Wilbur Joy, president of the historical society, said the 1895 building was historically significant to the area. The architecture was unique because the building was built of stone taken from area lakes. Also, many area residents attended classes there during the building's history as a grade school, junior high school and senior high school.
"It was something pretty discouraging and saddening," Joy commented. He said the loss of the building will be felt by the community and the county.

The Holmes School fire was the kind of impactful and emotional event that the newspaper staff knew would be remembered forever by those who witnessed the blaze or were touched by its aftermath. The 1980 report reads much like a report on such an event would read today: a mix of 'must know' basic facts about the fire — when it happened, the extent of damage, whether anyone was hurt, etc. — along with some contextual perspective and a quote from a relevant source within the community to relay to readers the full significance of the event.

These are five stories, but there have been tens-of-thousands more published by the Detroit Lakes Tribune and its predecessors over the past 150 years.

The work continues today, and will continue into the future. The Detroit Lakes Tribune and its online companion, dl-online.com, are still telling the stories of this community, day in and day out. And who knows? Maybe one day, perhaps another 150 years from now, a whole new generation of readers will be looking back on the Tribunes of today and reflecting, just as we've done here, on all the ways in which things have changed...

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Editor's Note: This story is part of our special Tribune Sesquicentennial coverage, in honor of the Detroit Lakes Tribune's 150th anniversary on May 18, 2022.

Multimedia News Lead Reporter
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