People behind the paper: A look back on some big players, and big personalities, from DL newspaper's history
Starting with George D. Hamilton and continuing with Lou and Jack Benshoof, most of the Detroit Lakes newspaper's leaders over the past 150 years were long-haulers. Read on to learn more about some of these leaders, along with other well-remembered editors, columnists and other characters who've worked at the newspaper, in light of the paper's Sesquicentennial on May 18, 2022.
From primitive to ‘prosperous’: Early owner George D. Hamilton transformed the paper
The Detroit Lakes community didn’t have to wait long for its first great newspaperman.
George D. Hamilton came to the up-and-coming little village of Detroit, Minnesota — as Detroit Lakes was called then — on a cold and stormy November evening in 1878, after a patience-trying 12-hour train ride from St. Paul.
There was no gliding down Highway 10 in those days, cruise control on and news or music streaming into the climate-controlled car.
He rode in on a Northern Pacific train consisting of “a small wood-burning engine, baggage car, a combination express and smoker, and one passenger coach.”
The small train “stopped at crossroads and embryo stations, with many bumps and much noise, by reason of the link and pin connections and hand brakes,” he later reminisced in a column in the Dec. 7, 1928 edition of the Record.
Detroit had a population of 500 or 600 people when he arrived, although Hamilton said that from the time he got there, “it was the custom of this valiant band of promoters and builders to claim a population of 2,000 — this was a convenient number to keep in mind, and the claim was maintained at this fixed figure for a number of years.”
That was nothing unusual for the time; even big cities did it — Minneapolis and St. Paul at the time both claimed an “extravagant” population of 30,000, each vehemently pointing fingers at the falseness of the other’s claim, as Hamilton said in his column.
Looking back, it seems the big city population claims weren’t so far from the truth. Populations in both Minneapolis and St. Paul were at about 20,000 in 1870, and had jumped to 40,000 by 1880.
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Detroit, for its part, hit a population of 2,800 in 1910, according to U.S. Census information, which listed no population for 1900. However, Frazee hit 1,600 people in 1910, up from just over 1,000 residents in 1900, so perhaps Detroit had a similar rate of growth.
Becker County as a whole went from fewer than 1,000 people in 1870 to more than 5,000 in 1880, thanks largely to the Northern Pacific rail company coming through in 1871.
Hamilton came to the area intending to get into newspapering, after being tipped off by childhood friend A.R. Ames about the potential growth of Detroit, which was already the Becker County seat.
Ames was staying at the Lake Park Hotel and spent a day on Hamilton’s behalf at the newspaper office in Detroit.
“He found that the Record had passed a precarious existence during the past four or five years of rough and rugged pioneer days, the management changing frequently, sometimes three or four times each year,” Hamilton wrote.
The Record at that time was being run by an efficient, friendly young Civil War veteran named Arthur Linn, “a capable country newspaper man, but who for the lack of patronage was ready to move on to greener pastures,” Hamilton wrote.
The newspaper equipment, he added, “was owned by Col. George H. Johnson, founder of the village of Detroit and head of the so-called Boston colony,” a group of settler transplants made up mostly of Civil War veterans from the East Coast.
“Col. Johnson offered to Mr. Ames the entire newspaper equipment, which, by the way, was very meager — together with good will and the subscription list, for the munificent sum of seven hundred dollars,” he wrote.
Ames liked the idea so much that he joined Hamilton in buying the paper, providing the money while Hamilton provided the know-how.
“The equipment of the office consisted of an old Hoe hand press that had seen much service, and had not stood the strain any too well; a few cases of well-worn type, an imposing stone, just large enough to enable the making-up of a one-page form. There was no paper-cutter, and for this service a jack-knife and straight edge were used,” Hamilton wrote.
In spite of the primitive conditions, they managed to publish their first issue of the Record — 250 copies — on Nov. 23, 1878.
Money was tight in those days, and about the only way Hamilton could get merchants to advertise was to run up a bill with them, and then explain that the only way he could pay the debt was by running free ads for them in the newspaper.
But he persevered, and as Detroit Lakes grew and thrived, so did the newspaper.
“Improvements were gradually made, and the Record became one of the prosperous businesses of the county,” he said. “The circulation gradually increased until it covered the county thoroughly, and I believe I may say without seeming egotism, wielded considerable influence for the betterment of the community.”
It was my surroundings in the Record office that opened my eyes to the meaning and privilege of being an American citizen, and created in me a desire for an education that I might become a more useful and worthy citizen.
George Hamilton always steered by his conscience, according to his son, Hubbard Hamilton, who wrote about growing up in the family of a newspaperman in the same Dec. 7, 1928 edition.
“Within our recollections, were many stirring events which aroused the keenest interest among the people of this community and county,” he wrote. “During these times of stress, and guided by a clear consciousness of the right as God had given him to see the right, the policy and course of action of the editor of this newspaper was always definitely and steadfastly defined and followed, fearlessly and unselfishly.”
Hamilton wasn’t just a good family man, he was a good businessman, meaning he was good to his employees, according to former reporter Henry Jenson, who joined the staff out of high school in 1905.
Writing in that same Dec. 7, 1928 edition, Jenson said “the so-called ‘Labor Question’ was never a question with George D. Hamilton. He not only gave labor all it was entitled to, but his kindly attitude and generous spirit towards his employees made them feel that to work for the Detroit Record and for him, was a privilege and pleasure.”
Former printing apprentice H.J. Jager wrote in that same issue that working around Hamilton and the Record staff changed him for the better.
“I began working in the Record office as a ‘printer’s devil’ at a salary of $2.50 per week,” Jager wrote. “I slept on a cot in the pressroom and boarded at Trimlett’s Restaurant for $2.50 a week. Fortunately, my wages were increased, but my board bill was not.”
During the five years Jager was with the Record, Hamilton bought the Morrow Block downtown and moved the newspaper there.
“It was my surroundings in the Record office that opened my eyes to the meaning and privilege of being an American citizen, and created in me a desire for an education that I might become a more useful and worthy citizen of my adopted country,” Jager wrote.
“I was ignorant and narrow-minded, and Mr. Hamilton’s patience with me, and his absolute fairness, did a great deal towards broadening my outlook on life and making me respect the other fellow’s opinion, even though we disagreed... I shall never forget what I owe to the dear old Record office and its little staff of workers.”
I was ignorant and narrow-minded, and Mr. Hamilton’s patience with me, and his absolute fairness, did a great deal towards broadening my outlook on life and making me respect the other fellow’s opinion, even though we disagreed.
Former editorial foreman J.H. Maltby praised Hamilton as “an honorable gentleman, good businessman, efficient printer, good shot and competent disciple of (early environmentalist) Izaak Walton.”
The Record office was a busy place, and in the 12 years Maltby was there, “there was something to do every moment,” he said. “We were acquainted with probably half, if not two-thirds of the people of Becker County from their calls at the office.”
There were also many visitors from outside the county, he added, “for Mr. Hamilton had a wide range of acquaintanceships, some of them leading politicians of their own states; others were businessmen of ability and prominence, and still others were game and fish sportsmen, and each and every one invariably enjoyed their comradeship with the Record man.”
The Benshoof era: A remarkable 50 years of solid, stable leadership
After 33 years of newspaper work, Hamilton sold the Record in 1911 to Lou Benshoof and A.T. Thompson.
“And I am pleased to note,” Hamilton said in 1928, “that it has continued to prosper and that the general policy of the betterment and general upbuilding of the community has been consistently and ably maintained.”
As editors of The Record over nearly 60 years, both Lou Benshoof and his son, B.L. “Jack” Benshoof, were prominent members of the Becker County community.
Lou went to work at the Detroit Record in 1907, according to his grandson, Ward Benshoof.
“He ended up buying the paper in 1912 with Art Thompson of Lake Park, running it as editor until 1947 when he sold it to my father,” family historian Ward Benshoof said in a recent email for this article. “Jack and Roger Hamilton (grandson of George D. Hamilton) then formed a partnership to buy it, and operated it until 1961. Dad was the editor and Roger the publisher.”
That gave subscribers to the Record a remarkable 50-year run of stable editorial leadership, sound news judgment and institutional memory.
According to a special section published in the Aug. 2, 2015 Record, Lou Benshoof had no formal newspaper tracking, but learned the trade by doing, and spent four years as editor of the Barnesville newspaper before going to work for George Hamilton at the Record in 1907.
Lou Benshoof was passionate about conservation, and argued for the cause in many an editorial. He even ran for Congress, but didn’t get past the primaries.
In 1926, he took Teddy Roosevelt Jr. fishing on Toad Lake. Roosevelt, the eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt — an early conservationist himself — later went on to fame as a World War II general leading troops in the first wave that stormed Utah Beach in Nazi-held France.
And Lou Benshoof was active in his field: He served as president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association in 1937.
Lou’s son Jack bought the paper from his dad and ran it for a number of years. He was active in the community, and served as president of the Jaycees. But in 1961 he sold the paper to pursue other interests. He wanted to teach, and at age 51 he followed his heart and became a Detroit Lakes High School teacher.
“In 1961, both Jack and Roger went into education — Roger to Moorhead State and my father to Detroit Lakes High School, where he became chair of the English Department in 1967,” Ward Benshoof said. Jack also oversaw publication of a much-regarded collection of student writing called The Humanist.
"My father (Jack Benshoof) joined the Detroit Lakes High School faculty while I was still a student there," Ward Benshoof wrote in information sent to the Tribune. "But The Humanist was not born until after I graduated in 1964. I certainly heard a lot about it, though, as Dad would frequently share with myself, my siblings and our mother, Helen, the 'absolutely remarkable' work of his students. An accomplished poet himself, Dad never ceased to express to us his amazement at the tremendous literary and artistic creativity of his students."
But the students' gain was the newspaper's loss, "and so came to a close more than a half-century of a Benshoof being the owner and editor of the Becker County Record,” Jack’s son, Paul Benshoof, said in the 2015 article.
Bill Robbins, a Navy veteran and experienced newspaperman, bought the Record in 1961, but didn’t run it for long: He sold it in 1963 to Lakes Publishing Company. Among the three new owners was John Meyer, who ended up owning and publishing the Record for 22 years before selling it to Forum Publishing Company (now Forum Communications Company) in 1985. Forum still owns the paper today.
Modern times: Dennis Winskowski, Ralph Anderson and other personalities of the past few decades
Dennis Winskowski, who grew up in the Osage area, came in as publisher of Detroit Lakes Newspapers and wound up staying for some three decades.
“All the wonderful people that worked at that newspaper during my years there... It was easy to manage because we just had that great personnel,” Winskowski said in an interview with the Tribune for this article.
Chief among them was longtime Sports Editor Ralph Anderson.
Ralph was just such an exceptional, iconic fella,” he said. “He was a historian of sports, and also most other things about Detroit Lakes. But he was also, he had a real sense of what community sports journalism was all about, and he practiced it daily, and religiously, for that matter. He was also quite a participant in the programs, and the coaches relied on him heavily in many, many aspects.”
In his quiet, respectful, hard-working way, Anderson made such an impact on the community that the high school gymnasium was named after him.
When Anderson retired, his goodbye ceremony filled the Detroit Lakes Pavilion. And the publisher had to go about the tricky business of finding a replacement for a legend.
“I was very cautious of who (I hired),” Winskowski said. “I knew it was going to be tough for the person who took over from Ralph.”
But Brian Wierima wasn’t intimidated.
“I remember Brian Wierima when he came into the newspaper,” Winskowski said. “Ralph was not going to be an easy person to replace, no matter who came in, and you know, the gymnasium was named after him, so Brian walked into the gym for the first time, I would think, and saw it was Ralph Anderson Gymnasium, and thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I thinking here?’ and ‘What am I doing here?’
But Wierima, Winskowski said, “did a fabulous job. He fit into the community. He, too, understood exactly what sports in this community was all about.”
Former Editor Jamie Marks also left her mark on the community.
“Also a great journalist," Winskowski recalled. "Jamie had a commitment, and she is still involved in the community there. She was an import who became a lifer in Detroit Lakes, and we were lucky to have her at the newspaper for 10 or so years.”
There are few photographers that I’ve ever seen in the newspaper business that were any better, if any.
Also remembered well is photographer Brian Basham: “There are few photographers that I’ve ever seen in the newspaper business that were any better, if any," said Winskowski. "He brought outstanding photos to the community on a weekly basis.”
In the newspaper’s production department, he added, “Sara Leitheiser was such a committed and talented person that still is working for Forum today, and Bob Jensen and his leadership — he was the glue that kept it all together and he made sure things got done on time.”
Jensen is retired now but still makes occasional appearances at the newspaper office, usually in the wee early hours to have his morning cup of coffee.
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.