Historical Gems


Newspaper finds friend in foe when disaster hits

The Rochester Post-Bulletin
Friday, January 6, 2006

In August of 1883, Basford Block, on the west side of Main Street, collapsed. The block is home to Solner and Morgan's Store, Merrick and Knox Hardware, Jones Stoves, a grocery store, a restaurant and the Austin Register Printing House.

Sometimes big stories fall in the laps of newspaper publishers, sometimes the roof falls in.

One Austin newspaper — the Austin Register, formerly known as the Mower County Register — found itself at the center of a major story in 1883, as its office building collapsed.

"In August 1883, the Register office, with the balance of Basford's brick block, fell to the ground," states the 1884 edition of the "History of Mower County."

Basford refers to one of the Register’s publishers — H.O. Basford. He published the newspaper from a Main Street building generally known at that time as "Headquarters."

Basford considered the event worthy of local news coverage, publishing the story in the Aug. 9 edition of the Register. "On last Monday morning, it was discovered that the central wall of the Basford's block was giving way."

Workmen struggled to shore it up, to no avail, and by noon the breach had increased to 20 feet.

In the afternoon, "the immense pile of masonry collapsed and our engine, type and presses crashed through the building to the first floor."

Though everyone had left the building, some bystanders had to leap for their lives when the block came down. Basford's father was struck by a piece of the north wall but was not seriously hurt.

The publisher describes a frantic scene. Hundreds gathered to the wreck. Word spread that people were trapped in the rubble and rescue workers scrambled to save them. There were none. Firefighters stood by to put out flames that never appeared.

In the wake of such a disaster, how did Basford manage to publish the story?

The rival newspaper owned by C.H. Davidson, The Transcript, allowed Basford to use its press. The Register did not miss a single issue because of the disaster.

Mower County residents have long turned to newspapers to find out the happenings in their community.

In the mid-1800s, two rival newspapers — the Mower County Transcript and the Mower County Register — were active in printing news in long, narrow columns of small print.

The early Transcript and rival Register appear unencumbered by local reporters. They relied instead on the incoming mail and items from other newspapers in the country and state to fill their columns.

Both papers unabashedly proclaimed political affiliations: "Our paper will be Republican in politics," says the Mower County Register of July 9, 1863, "always battling for Constitutional liberty, the Union of the States and Free Government."

Charles H. Davidson took over publishing the Austin Register after his brother H.R. Davidson died.

The Register, later known as the Austin Register, was published by H. R. Davidson. After his death, it was published by his brother, C. H. Davidson, and H.O. Basford "with office on Main Street in the building generally known as 'Headquarters.'"

Davidson later sold the Register and bought the Transcript.

First draft of history

The Register's longest story on July 9, 1863, heralds "Victory over Lee's Army — A dispatch to Forney's Press says that General Longstreet's whole division surrendered, laying down they arms, and delivering up their colors."

Lee's army would hold together for another two grueling years.

On July 13, 1876, the Transcript included this item from out West:

"The terrible fate of Custer and his command, by being butchered by the Sioux, on the Little Big Horn, a few days ago, has created the most profound sorrow among the intimate friends of the unfortunate victims, and the people at large in a great degree of sorrow. It appears from the reports that Custer was, in a message, at fault, relying on his strength too much."

Following is an item from the July 6, 1876, edition of the Austin Register — likely the talk of the town — "From Colonel Stewart Wertley, an English officer in the Crimean War.

"After the French troops had taken the Malakoff, I was sent into it on duty and found an unhappy cat bayoneted through the foot and pinned to the ground. I took her to my tent. She was carefully tended, and every morning taken to the doctor to have her wound attended to.

"Four or five days afterward, I was too ill one morning to get up and puss came and scratched at my tent door. I took no notice; but not long after the doctor came to say that mine was a wise cat for she had come to his tent and sat quietly down for her foot to be examined and have its usual bandage."

And here's an item from Page 2 of the April 3, 1879, Transcript that has a contemporary sound to it:

"Some interesting experiments and observations have been made by two French savants at Marseilles on a disease resembling diphtheria, which attacks hens and pigeons with fatal results. It was proved that the disease could be communicated to Mammalia, and it was found that diphtheria was very prevalent among the people at the time the fowls suffered from the like malady. It was suggested that the fowls should not be allowed to be brought into the city."

Local news items begin to creep into the pages as the year progress.

By July 1876, there's a column in the Transcript devoted to Austin and county news: "On the Fourth a pickup nine of Austin boys beat the Rose Creek Base Ball Club, at a game of ball, with a score of 30 to 11, so we are informed. The game was played on the Driving Park Grounds."

Local reports would not become a staple of the press until the advent of the Mower County Democrat in 1881 and its experiment with home delivery. The Democrat became the Austin Daily Herald in 1891