In my last post, I mentioned my boyhood infatuation with the 1965 Bloomfield, Nebraska Diamond Jubilee book. Growing up outside Bloomfield, the book was a terrific way for me to learn who was who in "The Busy City" (as it was called in the mid-20th Century) and who was who in its founding days of 1890. The oversized book, more than 100 slick two-column pages, was full of facts, figures, anecdotes and sponsor ads that seem anachronistic fifty years later. (My great-uncle Richard Wearne's TV Repair Center for example, or the Bakery's invitation to its Lunch Counter and Fountain Drink service for another.)
As a kid, I was entranced by the photos. Studying the earliest pictures of Main Street, I tried to determine which buildings were still standing. Reviewing dozens of portraits, I tried to find family names and resemblances. Most compelling of all was a supposed photo of Frank and Jesse James next to one of Bloomfield's oldest residents, W. H. Harm. The picture came from the archives of photographer E. S. Kibbe of Hartington, and for decades was considered authentic in its portrayal of the famous brothers. I sure thought it was real. After all, rumors that Jesse had retired to nearby Devils Nest to lick his wounds after his Northfield adventure were locally considered to be facts. As recently as the 1930s, a man in the area claimed to be Jesse's son, and other old timers told stories about their "days with Jesse."
When I got older, I found a few more regionally produced histories, similar to the Jubilee book. Wausa, Nebraska, where my mom grew up, produced one at its 75th birthday, and Nellie Snyder Yost edited a hard cover treasure trove for all of Holt County called Before Yesterday. These were the kind of small, special interest, trivia-ridden offerings that big publishers wouldn't bother with, so the communities took it upon themselves to get them printed and distributed. In those days before computers or copy machines, newspaper publishers often handled the job. If the local paper didn't have the binding equipment, a regional paper might take on small book printing job as a specialty.
Such was the case with the printer of the Jubilee book. Ludi Printing Company of Wahoo, Nebraska was the publishing wing of the Wahoo paper. Started in 1902, when Nelson James Ludi purchased the New Era and changed the name to the Wahoo Democrat, it operated until 1948 when Nelson's son, Guy, and his sons, purchased the paper and combined it with another local, the Wahoo Wasp. The Wahoo Newspaper continued with the family until the 1990s.
"The Ludi Printing Company, along with many other small newspapers that did other printing, including small numbers of books, stationary, invitations, etc. were They were the Kinko's of their day," according to Saunders County Historical Society curator Erin Hauser.
A brief web search reveals a compelling list of obscure titles printed by Ludi, including History of Burt County, Nebraska from 1803 to 1929 (1929), Ancient Ohioans and Their Neighbors (1946), and The Saga of Glover's Cave (1956).
As the photo cutline about Jesse James attests, authors and editors (usually groups of editors) intimately familiar with the subject matter, weren't immune to making mistakes. Then, as now, researchers and casual readers alike had to be wary of prejudice and tall tales sneaking in to the manuscripts. But that said, I believe these local histories are well worth seeking out, especially when you're planning to set a piece of fiction in a particular area. As a way to immediately access the local flavor of a setting long vanished, they're invaluable.
After growing up on a Nebraska farm, Richard Prosch worked as a professional writer, artist, and teacher in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Missouri. In the early 2000s he won two South Carolina Press Awards and founded Lohman Hills Creative, LLC with his wife, Gina. His western crime fiction captures the fleeting history and lonely frontier stories of his youth where characters aren’t always what they seem, and the windburned landscapes are filled with swift, deadly danger. Richard and Gina live with their son, Wyatt, in Missouri. Read more at www.RichardProsch.com