You never know where you’ll find news. I certainly didn’t expect it in a farmhouse built at the turn of the century in upstate New York.
Once a duplex with an outhouse, the house is in sorry condition these days. It has not been lived in for more than a year when mold was suspected as the cause of persistent headaches and discomfort experienced by the farmer’s wife. The only tenants in recent times are field mice and maybe an occasional red squirrel that chewed a hole in the eves.
But there’s a future for the house, although that hasn’t been decided. The immediate plan of the extended family is to gut the building and then decide whether it’s worth keeping.
This past Friday, I hoped to see how that project was going as well as learn from those doing the interior demolition what they’d found. As the car thermometer registered minus 10 degrees, I imagined a chilly, dark interior and a crew, wearing heavy coats, gloves and hats, welding sledgehammers and crowbars pulling lath from the walls.
Instead, in addition to the single bearded worker wearing a pork-pie hat, respirator and black plastic bag fashioned into a smock to protect him from dust was the farmer and members of his family. Better yet, it had to be a toasty 70 degrees.
Dan, the worker who was using a cordless screwdriver to remove what had been a hood over a stove, had some good news. He hadn’t found mold, as feared, and only signs of a few minor leaks. Bringing back life to the house seemed doable.
The farmer, Tim, and his sons Matthew and Mark had found something else. Matt held up a newspaper. It was a giant compared to today’s papers, with a 48-inch center spread. The headline screaming across the top of page three of the Oneonta Star read, “Stanton Double Murder Case Opens in Cooperstown Monday.” The dateline was Friday, June 22, 1956.
“Look here,” said Mark pulling back the corner of a worn dirt-filled rug to reveal more copies of the Star covering the floor. “They were used as insulation.”
He picked up another paper, a page filled with wedding photographs measuring 5x7 accompanied by equally large stories describing the occasion down to the bride’s bouquet, the types of flowers and their colors. The mothers of brides and bridesmaids received equal coverage.
“Maybe we’ll find your wedding,” he said to his father. Tim wasn’t going to hunt for his wedding announcement.
But I was fascinated by the find and the differences and similarities to what made news then and what makes news today. It’s extraordinary if the Beacon runs more than two wedding announcements a month and when they do (yes, there’s still no charge) they’re pretty much abbreviated to the names of the immediate family with more information on the bride and groom, their educational background and employment. Looking through the Star announcements of 1956 there was no indication of the personal achievements or ambitions of the principals. I find today’s announcements far more interesting, an improvement.
The society page, interestingly enough, carried an ad for sterling silver place settings – $29.75 for a six-piece setting – and a story datelined Miami on a hair replacement expert.
The pre-trial double murder coverage was extensive, including a picture of the suspect wearing a tie and jacket, troopers photographing the scene the night of the murder and the lakeside cottage where it took place. Given the size of the page there was ample space for other stories, in fact eight of them, ranging from a report from the 4-H Club to the information of a series of seminars on American life covering the history of jazz, creative writing and genealogy. Such a wide format surely offers the opportunity for a diversity of stories on a single page, which led me to thinking about the Internet.
Browsing the Web could be compared to the multiple of topics offered by the broad sheets of the 1950s. Of course, not only is the Internet infinitely broader in material but also remarkable in retrieving what you want, as obscure as it might be. It’s no wonder that it’s been blamed for the demise of newspapers, although it doesn’t offer a compilation of stories, photos and opinions as gathered by reporters and editors under the banner of a news organization. The Internet offers no insulation from raw facts, which are not always facts and opinion. That sifting of the news and discourse is on the Internet with a digital subscription to a number of publications. For that matter, you’ll find the Beacon there, too.
That said, and surely not surprising to our readers, the Internet can’t replace the tactile feel of paper and, as I discovered with the Star, that transportation to another time.
I can’t say what will become of the farmhouse, although I have the feeling it will be a home once again. No doubt there will be better insulation than newspapers, but somewhere in its walls I want to secure a copy of the Star from the 1950s and, why not, a copy of the Beacon nearly 70 year later.
Who knows when those copies could be discovered and whether, like Mesopotamian tablets, are considered artifacts of a distant past. But the publications will offer a snapshot in time and place. Newspapers keep doing that.