Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (2024)

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (1)

OCONTO – Last month, I wrote an in-depth (and hopefully interesting) story aboutthe Great Peshtigo Fire on its 150th anniversary.

The conflagration decimated Peshtigo, hamlets and forests from northern Brown County to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Related fires in Door County and Lower Michigan also occurred on Oct. 8, 1871, killing an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people.

Just over a month later, as the survivors continued to clear damage and started rebuilding, a new newspaper opened for business in Oconto.

The Oconto County Reporter, first published on Nov. 11, 1871.

Recently, I stopped by Farnsworth Public Library, which generously agreed three years ago to house dozens of the Reporter’s bound volumes, to examine the first few issues in hopes of finding a few details about the newspaper'sfounding.

After donning a pair of white gloves and lifting back the sheet of plastic protecting the first three decades of issues, I scanned the faded bindings for 1871.

Most were fragile at best, with worn covers and loose pages. I carefully removed the first few volumes and opened Vol. I.

The first issue inside wasn’t No. 1, though.

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (2)

It’s No. 10, published on Jan. 13, 1872. The first nine issues had been torn from the book.

Just when that happened, it’s hard to say. For years at the now-former Reporter office on Brazeau Avenue, those volumes in poor condition were kept in a cabinet that was rarely opened.

The pages of that 1872 paper are gray with type, meaning little art and someads that featurefonts of various kinds. Mostly national news items dominate the front page. One is about the death of five people in a Detroit fire. There are numerous one- or two-sentence notes from around the nation.

There’s state and local news, as well. On Page 3, just to the left of a brief “All Around Town” section, blares a small but bold headline: “Great Row Among The City Officials of Oconto!”

Three smaller headlines follow beneath, all for the same article, including “Ex-Superintendent and teacher arrested!” and ending with: “The City Council Call A Meeting and Perfer [sic] Charges Against The Board.”

The story concerns the hiring of a teacher, then placed in charge of school, against the wishes of the school board. In a subsequent investigation, the board found that the superintendent who hired the teacher was not qualified for the office and replaced him.But the now former superintendenthad taken the key to the schoolhouse and the school register. The board then had the superintendent arrested, but two board members broke into the building and damaged it, leading to the charges.

Why the board members broke in, the story doesn’t say, but it’s nice to be reminded that newspapers of the day — even weeklies — covered local controversies but were also the main source of information from marriages and deaths to international doings.

Along with the first nine issues, however, any information about the Reporter’s founding is apparently lost to history.

Still, there’s a story under the heading of “Salutatory” that provides a tiny insight into the next owners. It’s to the left of the story on the school scandal, below a header that says “Reinhart & Gilkey, Editors and Proprietors.”

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (3)

“Having purchased A.R. Bradbury’s Printing office we design to continue publication of the Reporter in this place,” it begins.

“It is with fear and trembling that we assume the duties of an editor, realizing to some extent, the responsibility and perplexities connect therewith,” they continued. “But feeling a deep interest in the development, growth and prosperity of this county socially, morally, intellectually and politically, we have ventured to embark in the undertaking, depending on the enterprise and generosity of the public to assist it, by their aid and influence to furnish them with a LIVE FIRST CLASS LOCAL NEWSPAPER.

(Unfortunately, the word first was actually spelled without the “r.” Spellcheck would not have helped then, either.)

The Reporter was sold to Cyrus S. Hart a few years later. Reinhart then started the Oconto Times, but it was absorbed by the Reporter a year later.

The Times was among several other papers that served the city of Oconto in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, several which of were consolidated into the Reporter.

That included The Republican, which opened in 1880 but lasted only a year.

The Oconto County Enterprise, which started around the turn of the century and became one of the Reporter’s strongest competitors, was absorbed in 1920, which resulted in a new newspaper mastheadcalling the publication the Oconto County Reporter-Enterprise. Another paper, The Enquirer, ended its 43-year run when it was consolidated with the Reporter in 1924.

The Reporter also absorbed other papers in the county, including the Suring Sun, which operated from 1915 to 1926, along with the Lena News and the Pulaski Herald. (In all, nearly 20, and perhaps more, newspapers served portions of the county at one time or another over the decades, although most were short-lived.)

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (4)

One paper that resisted consolidation was The Lumberman. That paper itself had absorbed the city’s first paper, aptly named The Pioneer, which started in June 1859. The Lumberman lasted 50 years, though by the end in 1914, its printing press was held together with hay wire, according to a story outliningthe history of newspapers in Oconto, published in the Reporter on its 100th anniversary in 1971.

“It takes no feat of imagination to appreciate the intensity of the competition which must have existed then or to understand what a scramble there was for advertising, job printing, legal notices, county business and circulation,” reads that 1971 story.

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (5)

Cyrus S. Hart appeared to agree in a column published on Nov. 7, 1874, the start of the Reporter’s fourth year.

“The struggle of country editor to make his Journal a success has become proverbially known as ‘tough.’ To depend upon the products of the farmer and dairy man [for]the necessities of life is one of the first ordeals to which a rustic newspaper-man has to pass,” he wrote. “To convince the public of the need and propriety of taking and supporting the Paper is one of the hardest tasks devolving upon the publisher."

Still, Hart added, he started with 200 subscribers but currently had nearly a thousand paying customers.

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (6)
Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (7)

He also had a few choice words for the competition.

“As to what may be said of us by jealous or malignant neighboring Journals we shall neither disgust our patrons with peddling their offal nor attempt to refute what the people in this county already know to be not only false but an emanation from liars and Oconto’s father of political lies,” he wrote. “We are well known, and have been for years, to the people of this county, and are willing, with all our faults and with whatever merits we possess to abide by the judgment of the people, and let them show to the traducer and slanderer how well they can see the asses ears under all this terrible roaring and growling.”

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (8)

Hart sold the paper around 1880 but rebought it five years later and ran it for another decade. A man named J. H. Waggoner bought the Reporter in 1895 and served as publisher and editor.

Over the next 111-year stretch, there were just three men who managed the Reporter.

  • W.M. Comstock, who with a partner took over the paper in 1900. He became sole owner three years later, serving as publisher until his death in 1952.
  • Duane McCall, who had joined the Oconto County Reporter in 1933 as editor and business manager, purchased an interest in the business after his former boss died. He gained the majority interest in July 1965 from Comstock’s son, W.T., who served as editor from 1921 to 1925 but departed to work in magazines.
  • Bill Borneman purchased the paper from McCall in March 1972. McCall stayed on for a time asgeneral manager. In September 1992, Borneman and his wife, Dorothy, sold the newspaper to Denmark-based Brown County Publishing, but he continued as general manager, editorand ad salesman.

Borneman stayed on to run the paper after Gannett acquired the Oconto County Reporter and 22 other newspapers from Brown County Publishing in July 2004. Long a fixture at Oconto High School games, he continued working until a few months before succumbing to cancer at age 84 in June 2011.

I was hired as the new editor in July 2011, although my primary duties were writing news about Oconto County. Seven years later, just after the office on Brazeau Avenue was closed, my title was changed to reporter, and I was assigned to focus most of my attention to writing.

Fortunately, there’s rarely been difficulty finding a topic. I think there was just one quiet week in the last 10 years. In fact, I’ve often told family and friends there’s more news here than anywhere I’ve ever worked, and Oconto by far is the smallest community I’ve served since my first full-time newspaper job 37 years ago.

At the top of the front page of that 10th issue of the Oconto County Reporter, just above the 1872 date and below the nameplate, is the motto of the paper:


While newspapers large and small have changed much over the last 150 years — dramatically so in the last 20 — I’ve tried my best to maintain that standard while reporting on countless stories about local government, crime, businesses, tragedy and the successes of the people of Oconto County.

While no newspaper can come close to covering or including everything of interest, the Reporter strives today to provide news that’s of the greatest impact or the most interest to readers, both online and in the paper.

And besides, think of the value of your subscription — just $26.09 for 52 papers (for county residents). It's been that price since before I arrived.

In 1872, the price — as listed at the top of the front page — was “Two Dollars per Annum, in Advance.”

Adjusted for inflation, that’s $48.12 today. A good deal indeed.

RELATED:150 years ago, the deadliest wildfire in American history devastated Peshtigo, northeast Wisconsin

FOR MORE OCONTO COUNTY NEWS:Check out our website!

Contact Kent Tempusat (920) 354-6075 or ktempus@gannett.com.

Oconto County Reporter turns 150: How the newspaper evolved and outlasted 20 others (2024)


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