25 April 2011

The Life of the Community: The Fort Benton River Press 1880-2010

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Special 130th Anniversary Edition of the River Press 13 April 2011]

This continues the series of frontier historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

Journalism in Fort Benton has a proud tradition. Only the Virginia City/Ennis Madisonian (which was established in 1873) is an older weekly newspaper than the Fort Benton River Press, which first published on October 27, 1880. One River Press editor, William K. Harber, is in the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame, and another, Joel F. Overholser, should be. On this 130th anniversary of The River Press let’s look at this proud history.

Fort Benton’s first newspaper, the Benton Record, was established February 1, 1875. This was eleven years after the first Montana newspaper, the Montana Post in Virginia City. The long delay in starting a paper in Fort Benton likely resulted from the “wild and wooly,” transient nature of the town’s population, with just a handful of white women resident until the mid-1870s. By 1875, the fur trade and gold rush days were past, and Fort Benton had weathered a long depression lasting until the birth of the Canadian trade including the arrival of the Mounted Police. Fort Benton was becoming a stable, prosperous, and growing town.

The Benton Record became a daily on Feb 2, 1881, and continued until owner-editor W. H. Buck went broke in 1884. The Record is an important source for area history covering the early boom years of the town as it emerged from fur trading post to a regional transportation hub. The Record carried lists of steamboat arrivals, passengers, departures, and cargo, many historical articles by Montana’s first great historian Lieutenant James Bradley, and Frontier Sketches from the pen of wildly colorful Sheriff Johnny J. Healy, who was also business manager of the paper. Exceptionally valuable coverage of the Sioux, Nez Perce, and other Indian Wars flowed through the pages of the Record. The paper strongly advocated free navigation on the Missouri River and championed Fort Benton as the head of navigation. The Record was close to Benton’s Irish Fenian residents, and passionately Democratic in politics.

The Record had been in existence five and a half years, when the first steps were taken to found The River Press. James E. Stevens had gone to work for W. H. Buck on the Record in 1880, but disliked his boss intensely. When H. C. Williams and Thomas D. Wright suggested Stevens join them in a newspaper venture, he jumped at the chance. Stevens later admitted, “the three of us together didn’t have $50. . . but we had lots of days work up our sleeves.” After a talk with Timothy Collins of the Bank of Northern Montana, the trio found backing from local citizens, chiefly on the partisan Republican political side.
James Stevens continued, “We bought a $2,300 outfit from the Helena Herald, which was then putting on a new dress and making other changes, including a new press. We paid the Herald $1,500 down and gave a mortgage for the balance. We borrowed $1,700 from the citizens of Fort Benton and it cost the other $200 for the freight from Helena. That was the start of the Fort Benton River Press . . . The first issue of The River Press was dated October 27, 1880. Timothy E. Collins, Scott Wetzel, John W. Tattan, John Power, Jeremiah (Jerry) Collins, Billy [William H.] Todd, and other leading citizens of Fort Benton took a turn at the crank in honor of the event. Billy Todd, who was managing Murphy, Neel & Co.’s store was an old Helena Gazette printer of former years.”

H. C. Williams, editor for the initial issue, proclaimed, “We present to our readers this week a paper which in typographical execution and general appearance is equal of any in the west.” Editor Williams claimed Fort Benton was big enough for two papers and said they had not come to sow seeds of dissention, but dissention there was. The first issue of the new River Press was printed in a large log cabin with an adobe exterior, once Jim Nabors’ “hotel,” near Main Street. This building was on the site of the current H-O Parts Plus. With Editor Williams, J. E. Stevens operated the mechanical department and Thomas Wright served as business manager.

Fifty years later, in 1900, old time Fort Benton resident Al. G. Wilkins sent a letter of congratulations to the editor of the River Press recalling that first winter. Wilkins wrote: “I am pleased to congratulate the River Press on its 50th birthday as I knew it in its infancy, just fifty years ago, and helped to keep the fires burning through the hard winter of 1880-1881 by hauling cordwood fourteen miles through two feet of snow to enable the force to continue their good work. I am proud to reflect back through so many years and note the progress of the River Press. There were two papers printed at Fort Benton at that time—the Benton Record and the River Press. It was an evident fact that through lack of business one or both had to fall, but the friends of the River Press helped to boost it over the hump and today, I believe the few old timers that are fortunate enough to be alive are elated over the outgrowth of their work. I received eight shares of stock in the River Press for the wood it took to carry it through that memorable hard winter, and I am pleased to know that it has not been snowed under since.”

The River Press started with two disadvantages: its publishers were comparatively new to this part of Montana; and there was already an established newspaper in the town that many thought too small for two papers. Editor Buck of the Benton Record was not amused and sourly welcomed its new competitor, proclaiming that the new upstart would not live a month. The stage was set for dueling editorials over many issues over the next few years such as the hot topic in 1882, when the staunchly segregationist Benton Record argued for a separate school for Benton’s growing number of African American and mixed race children. The River Press argued forcefully for integrated schools, supporting the school board in their decision for a single school. Despite a boycott promoted by the Record, the integrated school prevailed. The journalistic squabbles in fact helped the circulation of both papers—after all, you had to buy both papers so that you did not miss anything.

To put pressure on its upstart competitor, the Record started a daily in February 1881, doubtless aiming to kill the upstart with a five days to one volley of abuse. The Press countered with The Daily River Press, also a five-day-a-week publication, which began operation on June 6, 1882 and remarkably continued until January 1, 1920. The daily began as a four-page paper, while the weekly was a 5-column eight-page newspaper.

By June 1881, Jerry [Jeremiah] Collins bought the interest of H. C. Williams in The River Press, and later in August Collins and Stevens bought out T. D. Wright. By then they had dressed up the look of the newspaper and considerably expanded the job printing department. Advertising patronage increased and public acceptance grew, and The River Press rapidly gained a dominant position in Northern Montana.

In August 1882 shares of stock were sold, and The River Press Publishing Company incorporated in December 1882, with Collins and Stevens taking half of the stock and being retained as editors in charge. At the first annual meeting of the stockholders December 4, 1882, J. C. Bothine, President, was in the chair. Trustees elected included J. E. Stevens, Jerry Collins, George Steell, W. J. Minar, and H. G. McIntire. The next day the stockholders met again and elected J. E. Stevens, President; George Steell, Vice President; H. G. McIntire, Secretary; Jerry Collins, Treasurer. Collins was appointed General Manager (and editor) at a salary of $30 per week. About twenty others held stock in small amounts, including William J. Harber, who bought the Stevens stock in 1883. While earlier The River Press had been a republican-leaning independent in politics, with the organization of the stock company, controlling interest moved solidly to republicans, and The Press became recognized as a republican journal.

By late 1884, Editor Buck went broke and the Record financially went under after sporadic publication for several years. Its fine printing plant was moved to a warehouse in preparation for a Sheriff’s sale. The River Press was quartered on Main Street in the lower floor of the Odd Fellows Hall, beside the new furniture store of Ferdinand C. Roosevelt. This building was on the site of the current home of Wally and Muncie Morger. On July 8, 1885, the River Press building burned out along with Roosevelt’s store. Fortunately, the Record’s modern press was available for the Press to continue operations in a new location. Only one edition of The Press was missed due to the fire. The Press moved into a fine brick building at 1212 Front Street, which had been the home of the Davidson & Moffitt Saddlery from 1881 to 1883. The River Press stayed in this location for more than 108 years

Jerry Collins was instrumental in the formation of the Montana State Press Association in Butte August 20-21,1885. Editor Collins was elected the Press Association’s first “corresponding” secretary and printed the proceedings at The River Press. By 1887, Collins had moved on to the new town of Great Falls, where he became publisher of the Great Falls Tribune. The following year, Collins sold the majority interest in The River Press to William H. Todd, a committed Democrat, and Democrats had taken over the board of trustees led by Charles E. Conrad as Presiden. On August 13, 1888 William H. Todd became manager, and he named Daniel Searles, also a partisan Democrat, editor.

Several men and women left marked imprints on The River Press. One was William K. Harber, an Englishman, who stepped off a stagecoach in Benton on January 23, 1884. Fort Benton’s population at the time probably was 2,000. It was the smallest city in the nation with two dailies. The town and the papers were in trouble. The Canadian trade had ended in 1883 with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Empty storefronts were appearing on what had once been busy Front Street. Steamboat traffic from St. Louis and upper Missouri river ports was declining as the railroad moved westward.

As the 1880s passed, Montanans were looking forward to statehood, and in 1889 Choteau County merchant giant Thomas C. Power, a Republican, campaigned for governor. During the campaign, Editor Dan Searles turned his River Press against the favorite son, and Democrat Joseph K. Toole squeaked into the governor’s office by 576 votes, carrying Choteau County by 32. In addition, Editor Searles urged the defeat of T. C. Power’s brother, John W., running for state senator in Choteau County.

As consolation after his narrow loss in the governor’s race, T. C. Power with Wilbur Fisk Sanders, both Republicans, in a hotly contested election, were selected by the Montana legislature for the U.S. Senate as the state’s first two Senators, serving from January 2, 1890. Throughout this campaign, The River Press became even more vitriolic against Power and the Republicans. After Power’s selection for the Senate, The River Press refused to honor Power with the title “Senator Power.”

In October 1890, The River Press declared war on Senator Power, his brother John W., and their empire, T. C. Power & Brother. In an editorial on October 15th entitled “The Power Bros.” Editor Searles wrote:
“The River Press did not propose to enter into a discussion of the business affairs of the Power Bros. or of their business relations with the citizens of Fort Benton and of Choteau county. The people of northern Montana know all about the firm and have formed their opinion concerning it. They generally concede that its grab all policy has seriously injured this city, but they know that all the Powers in the world cannot kill it. The firm may succeed in crushing out all opposition as it has succeeded in crushing out many small houses, but it cannot destroy the natural advantages of the place which, some day, will make it one of the most prosperous cities in the state.
“Neither the [Helena] Independent nor [Butte] Miner correspondents, nor the [Helena] Journal man nor his correspondent “Old Timer: can give the people of this county any pointers concerning the firm. They know all about it, and the River Press, recognizing this fact, was content to leave Mr. John W. Power and his candidacy for the state senate to their tender mercies. But the truth of history must be vindicated, and the Journal’s “Old Timer?” in his amusing floundering in fact and fiction, makes it necessary for the River Press to vindicate it. In giving the history of the early settlement of Fort Benton “Old Timer” either ignorantly or purposely leaves the impression that John W. Power was in front of the procession of that noble army of men who blazed the trail into Montana and made it possible for others to follow them without enduring the hardships and privations of pioneer life. The impression is a wrong one. The house of T. C. Power & Co. was not established in Fort Benton until 1867. John W. Power was then selling hay in Dubuque, Iowa. He came to the then territory in 1868—a year in which over 40 steamboats landed at Fort Benton and when it was the liveliest and most prosperous town in Montana. John experienced his first dangers and trials of pioneer life in the wild and wooly west when he stood behind his brother’s counter in his city and traded a cup of sugar for a buffalo robe with the Indians who daily flocked to the place with furs and pelts of all kinds. The next year found the blooming modest John in Helena in an agricultural implement house, next door to John R. Watson’s on Main street, owned by his brother Tom and in charge of the late John M. Sweeney.
“We have traced the personal history of Mr. John W. Power thus far simply to prove that “Old Timer” knows nothing about it. It is not necessary to look farther into it. He became the junior member of the firm of T. C. Power & Bro. and there he is found to-day. What that firm has done from the year 1873, when it was mainly instrumental in causing all of northern Montana to be set off into one vast Indian reservation that it might, with others, control the whiskey and fur trade of the northern Indians, down to the present time is, as we have stated, pretty well known to the residents of Choteau county. “Old Timer” is ignorant or purposely misleads the readers of the Journal. We will show it.
“It is a well known fact that when the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba railroad entered the state it proposed to make Fort Benton its western terminus and that the Montana Central would be built from this point. In anticipation of this all the ground between the bluffs upon both sides of the river was surveyed and platted. A large flat a mile and a half below the city was also surveyed and platted. A fine imposing court house, the largest public school building in the state, a larger hotel than either Butte or Helena has, and several fine business blocks and private residences were erected.
“All this was done in anticipation of Fort Benton becoming a railroad center. The place was booming and times were lively. Men came in from Helena and from the east to invest their money and grow with the place. But they were crowded out or crushed out. Col. Broadwater, A. J. Davidson and Paris Gibson were among the number. The latter started a small lumber yard here. T. C. Power & Bro. shipped it in by the steamboat load and by selling at cost drove him out of business. Lumber then went up. A. J. Davidson brought in a big stock of harness and saddles, etc. T. C. Power brought in a larger one and undersold him. Col. Broadwater proposed to build a saw mill here. He was swindled out of his mill site. Men brought in drugs and medicines. T. C. Power & Bro. brought in drugs and medicines. Others started jewelry shops. T. C. Power & Bro. soon had more clocks and watches and silver and plated ware to sell than any one in town. A furniture store was started only to be closed by a larger one opened by T. C. Power & Bro. Wholesale liquor and cigar stores were met by a wholesale liquor and cigar department at T. C. Power & Bro.’s. Books and stationery stores were compelled to compete with T. C. Power & Bro. And so it ran along through the whole line of trades. They even started an opposition hotel to the Grand Union because the latter was not built where they wanted it built. Their latest venture is the starting of a newspaper in the city to run out the River Press because the latter cannot conscientiously recognize the senior member of the firm as a United States senator.
“The hoggishness of the firm became so pronounced that before the railroad reached here Mr. Paris Gibson, who had been one of the greatest sufferers by the oppressive dealings of the Power Bros., pulled up stakes, went to Great Falls and obtained a title to some land there. He then directed the attention of Mr. James J. Hill to the place, and we all know the result. Fort Benton was left out in the cold and one by one those in the city who had been victims of the Power Bros.’ oppressive competition followed Mr. Gibson to Great Falls and are now among the most prosperous and enterprising citizens of that phenomenal town.
“These are the facts in the case and every old timer in the country knows them. If the Journal’s “Old Timer” had confined himself to the truth the River Press would have had no occasion to refer to them at all. It has done so now simply to preserve the integrity of the record. Now that the Journal has invited a discussion of this subject we propose to notice in the near future other matters in which it will appear that the Power Bros. propose not only to override all opposition in business matters in Choteau country, but to ride into office on the backs of the very people who are striving to build up a living business here which the firm itself has done so much to cripple or destroy.

Editor Searles continued his attacks against both T. C. Power and his brother John throughout the fall of 1890. By the end of November, Senator Power had had enough, and he retaliated against the River Press by withdrawing his substantial advertising patronage. In response, Jerry Collins blasted back with an editorial headlined “The River Press Boycotted.
“The firm of T. C. Power & Bro. has commenced a boycott against the River Press. The motive is easily surmised. During the past campaign this paper was outspoken in its denunciation of the course pursued by Thomas C. Power to obtain a seat in the United States senate. It also gave a number of good and sufficient reasons why the people of Choteau county should not support John W. Power for the state senate. To avenge itself for the unpleasant exposures which the River Press was forced to make the arrogant, domineering firm now seeks to drive the River Press out of Fort Benton or to seriously cripple it. The firm started the boycott by withdrawing all its patronage from the office, stopping its papers, daily and weekly, and advising its friends to do the same. The attitude of the firm towards this paper is on a line with that which it has pursued toward every other business enterprise in the city during the past few years. It evidently thinks it owns the bodies and souls of the people of northern Montana and proposes to ruin any man or set of men who dispute its claim or title thereto. The firm will tolerate no opposition and seeks to destroy what it cannot put down by fair business methods. In pursuance of this well known and long continued practice the selfish, partisan outfit has turned its batteries against the River Press. As this paper has no apologies to make to Tom Power or his big fat brother [Author’s emphasis] for what it has said concerning them, the boycott which they have inaugurated against it means war to the knife and the knife to the hilt. If the River Press go down in the fight it will go down with its flag nailed to the mast head and unfurled to the breeze.”

In addition to the boycott, Tom Power started an opposition Republican newspaper, The Benton Review, under editor Charles L. Harris. A group of leading Republicans, Jere Sullivan, Charles L. Harris, J. M. Boardman, George W. Crane, and Charles E. Miller, incorporated The Review Publishing Company. In the first issue of The Benton Review on August 28, 1890, Editor Harris proclaimed, “Politically, the Review will be republican, but not one of that rampant class which can see no good in anything that did not spring from its own party and which is continually on the war path in search of the scalps of those who are disposed to differ with it in regard to what each may consider to be the proper mode of dealing with public affairs, either local, state or national, as is so frequently the case among journals in all parties.”

On October 1, 1890, Searles’ River Press carried a long, critical article about the T. C. Power firm and his new newspaper. This editorial was followed by another, blasting Tom Power’s company for crushing opposition and driving Paris Gibson out of Fort Benton.

By 1891, T. C. Power was acquiring a majority interest in The River Press from W. H. Todd, who saw the handwriting on the wall, and Editor Dan Searles moved on to Great Falls in April to work for the Democrat Tribune. Todd’s resignation as manager and treasurer of The Press came on September 19, 1891. By January 1892, the Republican take-over was complete with the election of Republicans Thomas A. Cummings, President; George D. Patterson, Vice President; and Jere Sullivan, trustee. William K. Harber became editor and manager of The River Press with Tom Power’s take-over, and continued until Harber’s death in 1922. Editor Harber satisfied Power, and the ads came back to help keep the Press alive. The Benton Review quietly closed down operations in January 1892. In Joel F. Overholser’s opinion “there were never any efforts by Thomas C. Power, or brother John, local manager of Power businesses here [Fort Benton], to control or influence stands taken by the River Press except the implied ‘just keep off my back.’”

By the Presidential election in the fall of 1892, The River Press was safely back in Republican hands, featuring on its editorial page large woodcut portraits of Republican candidates Benjamin Harrison of Indiana for President and Whitelaw Reid of New York for Vice President. Featured also was the slate for the State Republican ticket. In a bit of bi-partisanship both Republican and Democrat tickets for Chouteau County were listed. The Press took special pleasure in opposing Timothy E. Collins of Great Falls, Democrat candidate for Governor, with headlines such as “Caught in the Act. T. E. Collins Makes a Futile Attempt to Steal Valuable School Lands.”

A quiet, soft-spoken Englishman, William K. Harber was skilled in the newspaper trade from experience in England, including serving as the London correspondent for the Northwest at Deer Lodge, Montana Territory. His arrival at Fort Benton in January 1883, from England was to protect a loan he made to a brother, W. J. Harber, for an interest in the River Press. W. K. Harber returned to England to marry Fannie Hart at Saffron-Walden February 6, 1889, and they spent the rest of their lives in Fort Benton. Harber was editor during the great open range ranching days, and he invested in local ranches. As editor and manager, Harber showed skill and a fine command of language. One Montana editor reflected, “He seldom wrote an editorial, but when he did it went the rounds of Montana’s newspapers.”

Safely republican, during the 1900 election of William McKinley as President, The River Press lamented, “Choteau County Laurel’s Lost. A few days after the presidential Election the River Press claimed for Choteau county the distinction of being the banner republican county in Montana, her plurality of 469 for McKinley electors being the largest among the official returns made public at that time. We must now regretfully surrender the palm to Custer county, which comes to the front with a McKinley plurality of 503; which secures to her the proud honor that we fondly hoped was ours. We doff our roughrider hat to the loyal republicans of Custer county.” This commentary was carried in the Anaconda Standard of December 15, 1900.
During the turn of the 19th century battle of Montana’s Copper Kings, William Andrews Clark emerged successful in controlling most Montana’s newspapers including the Great Falls Tribune. Clark became U. S. Senator by buying votes and newspapers. Some publishers were able to remain independent, especially those in rural areas. Dennis L. Swibold in Copper Chorus, his study of the Montana Press, wrote, “Men such as William K. Harber of Fort Benton’s River Press . . . would come to deplore the corruption that scrambled Montana politics and corroded their profession’s credibility. After the storm, they and other Progressives would argue passionately for reform—and Montanans would listen. But the stain on Montana journalism would linger for decades. The legend of the state’s copper-collared press was no mere fiction.” Ironically, in 1886 W. A. Clark had bought 8 shares in The River Press, which he later transferred to Jerry Collins and W. H. Todd. The River Press was one newspaper in Montana the infamous Clark did not control.

The little River Press spoke loudly during this period as Editor Harber took on the corporate giants and their mouthpiece newspapers. Writing in the September 13, 1903, Press, Harber asked, “Is it not the mission of these newspapers to serve their masters? When the interests of the corporations and the general public conflict, is it not reasonable to assume that corporation-owned newspapers will work for the success of their proprietors?”

In the words of Dennis Swibold, “Harber’s criticism of the [Clark’s Amalgamated Copper] company and newspapers carrying the company’s water rang loudly in rural areas beyond Anaconda’s direct influence.” Editor Harbor wrote on November 18, 1903, “Corporation ownership of Montana newspapers and corporation interference in Montana politics are not dictated by an unselfish desire to promote the welfare of the general community.”

Editor Harber led promotion of reforms such as a direct primary law in Montana, woman’s suffrage, higher mining taxes, legislation by initiative. Dennis Swibold writes, Harber “made an elegant spokesman for Progressive Republicans east of the Continental Divide.” President Teddy Roosevelt and his Republicans in Montana such as Congressman, then Senator Joseph Dixon enjoyed the strong support of The River Press.

In the Republican landslide election of 1906, Choteau County’s “favorite son” Charles N. Pray, just 37 years of age, was elected to serve as Montana’s Representative in Congress, defeating popular Democrat Thomas J. Walsh.
The River Press of September 19, 1906, headlined on its front page, “Pray For Congress. The Favorite Son of Chouteau County Is Highly Honored by Montana Republicans. Nomination Made By Acclamation and Followed By Enthusiastic Demonstration.
“The happiest people in Montana Saturday night were the friends of the Hon. Charles N. Pray, Chouteau county’s popular and efficient prosecuting attorney, who was the recipient of congressional nomination honors conferred by the republican state convention at Helena. It was a red-letter occasion for Mr. Pray and his multitude of friends in various parts of the state; it was a day of triumph for those who, to the best of their ability, have urged and worked for the nomination of the favorite son of Chouteau country for representative in congress. . .”

With the strong backing of The River Press, Pray swept to victory throughout Montana, carrying Chouteau County by 1310 votes to just 395 for Democrat Thomas J. Walsh. Within ten years of his arrival in Montana from Vermont, young Pray was serving as Montana’s lone Congressman and working to create Glacier National Park. The River Press supported Pray throughout his six years in Congress as he skillfully moved the park legislation through the House despite the opposition of powerful Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Pray succeeded in passing important new homestead legislation, increasing the patent to 320 acres and reducing prove-up time to three years. In this and many other measures directly impacting Choteau County and its homestead boom, Pray enjoyed the solid support of The River Press.

A decade later, Editor Harbor was still taking on the Great Falls Tribune and its master, Amalgamated Copper, writing in the River Press on March 26, 1913, “It has been announced from time to time that the Amalgamated is ‘out of politics,’ but its lobby and other legislative agencies have not yet disappeared from public view.”

The River Press had one other competitor over the years, the Chouteau County Independent, established by the Schmidt Brothers in 1910 at the beginning of the homestead boom in the area. The Independent operated by B. H. Kreis and William H. Jenkinson, lasted well into the agricultural depression until 1925 when it was purchased by The River Press and discontinued. Other Chouteau County “boom” newspapers popped up at Highwood, Carter, Loma, Square Butte, Montague, Floweree, Genou, though most of these lasted but a few years. In addition the Geraldine Review published for fifty years, 1913-1963, and the Big Sandy Mountaineer, begun in 1921 continues today.

Chief assistant over the years to Editor Harber was Nicholas T. Chemidlin, who first tried to emigrate to Montana Territory in 1864 with Captain James L. Fisk’s wagon train from Minnesota. The Fisk train was turned back by the Lakota in Dakota Territory with a bloody loss of twelve dead. Chemidlin came to Benton via Helena in 1883, and bought an 8th interest in The River Press. Harber and Chemidlin, often with transient printers, kept both the weekly and daily newspapers going through the quiet years leading into the homesteading boom of the 1910s.

On to the scene came young Joel R. Oversholser to homestead in the Egly community near the Goosebill in Chouteau County in 1913. Oversholser, born May 31, 1885, on a farm near Polen, Iowa, worked for several newspapers in Iowa, before he and his new bride Beulah Fuller joined the homestead stampede promoted by the Great Northern Railroad. Overholser proved up his 320 acre homestead and worked for The River Press as time permitted, until he got title to the land in 1916. He then bought the Moore Independent in the Judith Basin and operated it for three years.

In early 1920, Editor Harber offered Overholser the opportunity to replace the retiring Nicholas Chemidlin. In return, Overholser asked two conditions: that he be allowed to buy stock in The River Press and that the struggling daily be discontinued. Editor Harber agreed, and Overholser moved his family to Fort Benton to join the operation. His son, Joel F. then age nine, remembers being impressed by Mr. Chemidlin, the Sioux Indian fighter, at his retirement banquet at the Grand Union.

The great editor William K. Harber died in 1922, and the Tom Power stock came on the market upon the latter’s death the following year. With financial help from Mrs. Fannie Harber, Joel R. Overholser, by then editor of the paper, was able to take controlling interest. Mrs. Harber loaned the needed money to the new editor with no security beyond his signature, saying “my husband trusted you also.”

A high point for the memory of Editor Harber and for The River Press came in 1970, when the Montana Press Association elected Editor William K. Harber to the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame.

Nora E. Harber, a daughter, had inherited her father’s fine editorial writing and business abilities, and she continued to worked at The River Press for many years until a stoke, ultimately fatal, ended her long career on December 3, 1967.

Editor Joel R. Overholser kept The River Press operating during the agricultural depression of the 1920s that extended into the national depression in the 1930s. In 1930, Editor Overholser wrote: “With this issue of the River Press this newspaper completes fifty full years of service to Fort Benton and Chouteau County. Fifty years in any line of business for an institution is a long time, but in the western states where settlement was of a more recent date than throughout the eastern portion of the United States, this is indeed, a long period of time.
“Twenty-six hundred weekly publications have been issued from the River presses in that length of time to say nothing of the hundreds of daily issues which have been put out. From 1883 to 1920 the River Press issued, in addition to its weekly newspaper, a daily and possibly 11,100 days news was chronicled before the daily passed into history. For a good many years Fort Benton had the distinction of being one of the smallest cities in the northwest to be furnished with a daily newspaper.
“. . . There have been ups and downs in the newspaper business in Fort Benton the same as in all businesses but throughout the years the company has been able to meet the demands of the people of this section, and gradually add to its equipment until today, we believe that we are safe in saying that this newspaper has one of the best equipped newspapers plants in the state for a city the size of Fort Benton.
“It is interesting to go through the old files of this newspaper and see the progress that has been made in Fort Benton. A copy of every paper printed in this office, with the possible exception of a very few, is on file in bound volumes in this office. [Note: This is true today in 2011.] The publication of items of 41 years ago and twenty years ago was started about 1920 and has proved a very interesting feature of this newspaper for the past ten years and we believe that all, both old and young, are interested in these items as shown by the numerous letters received at this office and the many words of comments expressed.
“It has been the aim of the present publishers of the River Press to give to our many readers a newspaper furnishing as nearly all the news of the county as is possible of interest to Chouteau county readers. That we have partly succeeded in our efforts is manifested by the growing list of readers in all parts of the county.”

One of Editor Joel R. Overholser’s four sons, Joel Francis, showed early interest and ability in the newspaper business. Joel F., who was two years old when his father came to Montana to homestead in 1913, graduated from Chouteau County High School in 1928. He received a B. A. degree in journalism from the University of Montana in 1932, after working on the student newspaper, the Kaimin, and returned to Fort Benton to work on the River Press. Joel F. served in the U. S. Army during World War II, from 1942 to 1946, and then returned once again to Fort Benton to work with his father on The River Press.

Joel R. Overholser, his son recalled, “spent more than seventy years at the printing trade and a half-century of those in The River Press. . . For forty-seven years, he was the guiding spirit . . .” At one period, Joel R. was an officer of the Montana State Press Association, but he resigned in panic when scheduled to be elected president at the next convention.

The decades of the 1940s and 50s were golden years for the Press, and Joel F. emerged as Montana’s premier newspaper historian, injecting a steady diet of historical articles in the small weekly. During these years, The River Press was far more important than most Montana newspapers, and it is likely that the River Press carried more significant history in its weekly pages than most dailies.

Over the years, The River Press has published historically important special editions. The first, in July 1926, honored the annual meeting of the Sons and Daughters of the Society of Montana Pioneers in Fort Benton. A second special edition was issued in honor of the 10-12 June, 1937, St. Louis to Fort Benton Boat Race. The Fort Benton Centennial Special Edition, published August 21, 1946, received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History in recognition of its outstanding contribution to American local history. Joel F. Overholser wrote this edition shortly after his return from service in the U. S. Army during World War II. In 1960 Overholser assembled a Centennial Steamboat Edition of the River Press to commemorate the arrival of the first steamboats at the Fort Benton levee in 1860. For the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, The River Press issued a Bicentennial Edition. More recent special editions have honored the 125th Anniversary of the Grand Union Hotel and the 150th Anniversary of The Mullan Military Wagon Road.

With a seamless transition from father to sons, Joel F. Overholser took over editorial operation of The River Press while Leland, Joel’s brother, took over bookkeeping. During these years, Joel F. published the weekly paper and spent countless hours reading and researching Montana history, building meticulous and extensive index entries and vertical files.

In 1973, The River Press converted from letterpress to offset printing, and began to have the paper printed in Shelby.

Joel F. Overholser served as a member of the Montana Constitutional Convention in 1972, and wrote a pageant, “Wagons to Whoop-Up,” that was presented during the Whoop-Up Trail celebration. He served as a member of the Montana Lewis and Clark Memorial Committee in 1976, and in 1984 he received the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees Award as Fort Benton’s resident historian. A final tribute came in February 1995, when he was honored at a reception in Fort Benton attended by many residents and Governor Marc Racicot. The day was proclaimed Joel F. Overholser Day in Fort Benton by Mayor Roger Axtman.

In 1980 Joel F. Overholser retired to write a book based on his lifelong research on the history of Fort Benton and the Upper Missouri. Joan Stewart, daughter of Leland Overholser, took over editorship of the newspaper. Joel’s book, Fort Benton, World’s Innermost Port, was published in 1987, packed with great detail and insight into Montana’s most historically significant region.

The day after the sale of The River Press in 1993, Joel sadly came to visit John G. Lepley at the new Museum of the Northern Great Plains/Montana State Agricultural Museum. Joel said, “What am I going to do, I don’t have an office any longer.” Lepley’s answer came back, “I’ve got an office for you, here at the Ag Center.” They quickly made arrangements for Joel’s historical archives to be merged with the Museum archives. Joel’s office in the Ag Center from 1993 until his death in 1999 was a welcoming research center for a constant stream of historians and researchers. Today, this operation continues under the non-profit River & Plains Society as the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center, named in his honor.

In 1992, as The River Press owners Leland Overholser, Joan Stewart, and William A. Johnstone worked toward selling the paper, they had a four-person staff from the Liberty County Times in Chester come in to manage The River Press. Sharon Dunham, who had been a reporter-photographer for the Liberty County Times, became The River Press editor in January 1993. This relationship lasted for three months, and then Leland Overholser and Joan Stewart again took over the publication of The River Press. In May, 1993, Stan and Esther Tichenor, who had previously owned The Townsend Star, purchased The River Press. At this time, Stan’s brother, Daryl Tichenor, owned The Madisonian, Montana’s oldest publishing weekly newspaper, so the two brothers owned the two oldest weekly newspapers in Montana.

The week after purchasing The River Press, Stan and Esther Tichenor hired Tim Burmeister as a writer and photographer. The Tichenors moved the printing of The River Press from Shelby to Great Falls. In February 1994, they moved The River Press office from 1212 Front Street to its current location at 1114 Front Street, the former location of the Farm Service Agency offices.

Tim Burmeister was named editor of The River Press in 1994. While Burmeister was gone from February 1998 to February 1999, Curt Wall was editor of The River Press for four months, and Larry Thornton was editor for ten months. Tim Burmeister returned as editor in May 1999. Mike Tichenor purchased The River Press from his parents, Stan and Esther, in July 1999. Tim Burmeister purchased The River Press from Mike Tichenor in October 2007.

Recent years have seen a shift in form and substance with a heavy emphasis on local photography, Chouteau County community reporting, and historical sketches by historians from the Overholser Historical Research Center.

The River Press continues operations today as it celebrated its 130th Anniversary on October 27, 2010. Locally owned and community focused, the Press carries on its proud journalistic tradition.

[Sources: River Press Minute Book and Stock Book; Joel F. Overholser Vertical File Notes; The Press Gang A century of Montana newspapers, 1885-1895. By Sam Gilluly; Copper Chorus Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press, 1889-1859. By Dennis L. Swibold; various Fort Benton River Press; John G. Lepley Oral History; Tim Burmeister.]


1. River Press issue No. 1 [Tim may want to take a photo of this first issue]
2. The First River Press building, a long wood and adobe building.
3. Second River Press Building [This is the Lithograph I set this morning. The second River Press location in first floor of the Odd Fellows Hall on the corner of Bond and Main streets
4. W. K. Harber, famed editor of The River Press 1891-1922, member of the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame
5. Joel F. Overholser
6. The Third River Press Building.

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