Monday, October 02, 2023

Tracing North Fork columnists

| August 30, 2023 2:00 AM

In light of Larry Wilson’s well-deserved retirement from writing his weekly column about the North Fork, after nearly 40 years of faithful reporting, I decided it would be interesting (and fun) to document the history of North Fork columns in the local newspapers and to credit the people who contributed them.

In his first column on April 4, 1985, Larry noted that when he was a young boy living at Kintla Ranch in the summers, Mrs. Phil [Ethel] Stevens, better known to her friends as “Toots,” gathered the news on a weekly basis and submitted it to Mel Ruder’s then new Hungry Horse News.

“Toots” was not the first, by far. Coverage of happenings in the North Fork was common in the earliest local newspaper, The Columbian, which ran from 1891-1897 and then from 1903-1925. Early articles focused primarily on extraction of natural resources in the North Fork—timber, coal, and oil—and the people involved in those endeavors.

But gradually, mentions of local settlers and homesteaders began to appear in columns entitled “News of the Week” or “Town and County News.” In February 1911 a new column called simply “North Fork” appeared, with no particular author attributed. One suspects it might have been the local postmistress.

By late 1915, there was a weekly column entitled “What’s Doing in Town?” News from the North Fork was often included in this section when there wasn’t a specific “North Fork” column. By June 1917, there was a regular weekly column, sometimes titled “North Fork,” sometimes “Upper North Fork,” and sometimes both. A specific author was never mentioned.

In 1925, the editor of The Columbian decided to move his operation to Whitefish. He renamed the paper The Whitefish Independent. Luckily, the correspondent who had been supplying the paper with regular North Fork news continued the practice. Starting in April 1926, the column was headed “Polebridge,” rather than “North Fork.” The Whitefish Independent ran from 1925 to 1931.

Then there was a gap. The Columbia Falls Review was published from 1935 to 1940. It featured no regular North Fork column, only occasional mentions of North Fork happenings, and only through 1938. Then there was another gap from 1940 until 1946, when Mel Ruder began publishing the Hungry Horse News.

Thus began a series of columns authored by well-known North Fork ladies. From August 1946 through January 1948, the column was written by Mrs. Ben [Annette] Rover, a proprietor of the Polebridge Store (now the Polebridge Mercantile). Ethel “Toots” Stevens picked up the column in April 1948 and continued it until September 1950.

Mrs. Tom [Marie Price] Peterson authored the column from September 19, 1950 until April 1952, when Mrs. Walter [Ethyl] Block’s name appeared on the byline. In December 1952, Marie Peterson again picked up the reins and submitted columns until at least May 1955. In December 1955, the column is attributed to Mrs. Frank [Ella] Wurtz.

These ladies often covered for each other when the regular author was away. All five names appear from time to time as they worked to keep North Fork coverage consistent.

To my knowledge, there was no regular correspondent in the late 1950s and during the 1960s, but I continue to research those papers as time allows.

In 1971, local resident H. Frank Evans took up the task. A retired professor, Frank wrote a folksy, witty, and not-infrequently opinionated column that was thorough in its coverage and entertaining to a broad spectrum of readers. His “Up the North Fork” column was no doubt responsible for a goodly number of regular subscriptions.

After Frank Evans’ unfortunate suicide in August 1982, a relative newcomer, John Frederick, owner of the North Fork Hostel, began writing the column “North Fork News” in February 1983. In November 1984, the newspaper began the practice of giving the column a regular headline, rather than calling it the North Fork News. John continued the column until March 1985.

Larry Wilson picked up the column in April 1985. Over the years he has written about North Fork history, especially early settlers and homesteaders. He has covered the road, the river, seasons in the North Fork, local schools, teachers, and mail delivery, North Fork businesses and civic organizations, relationships with the Park, the Forest Service, and other state and federal agencies, local flora and fauna, the timber industry, holidays on the North Fork, land use planning initiatives, the Interlocal Agreement, the border, environmental concerns, Sondreson Hall, hunting and snowmobiling, North Fork artists, parades and dog sled races, fires and fire prevention, floods—you name it, he’s written about it. He’s kept us informed, he’s entertained us, and he has freely shared his opinions with us. And we loved it!

Larry has always said that the hardest columns to write were those reporting on friends who have passed over the Great Divide. That was certainly true this past May, when on the day of his 86th birthday he lost his near and dear friend Becky Braunig, and then later in the day learned that his son David had been involved in an accident that nearly took his life.

In earlier times, Larry would have reported the loss, helped us resolve our sorrows, and then climbed back in the writer’s saddle and continued his tradition. But this double-whammy was too much of a blow to his good spirits. And so, this long-standing tradition comes to an end. We will miss his coverage of North Fork news, weather, and happenings, his humor, his wit and satire, and of course his honest opinion.

I’ve printed out the entire run of Larry’s columns for him (six large binders worth), so that he can read and reminisce to his heart’s content. Perhaps his loyal readers would like to send him letters, expressing how much they have enjoyed his columns over the years. He’s at POB 3, Columbia Falls MT 59912.

Lois Walker


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