E. R. Purcell Remembers Newspaper Career in Custer County

“I have recently rounded out fifty years of newspaper work in Custer County,” wrote Emerson R. Purcell in late 1942, shortly after the publication of the golden anniversary edition of his Custer County Chief of Broken Bow. In reminiscences on file at the Nebraska State Historical Society, he said: “Perhaps I can better convey to you the conditions that confronted the publishers of the pioneer days by a little of my own experience.

“It was the spring of 1884 that found me in Broken Bow, a sod town 75 miles from the railroad. On its principal corner was a sod printing office 22×50 feet. I found a job in that office. Talk about primitive equipment, that Custer County Republican had it.

“Custer was a cow country where cowboys shot up the town at occasional intervals. The bundle of ready prints (patent insides as they were called), came by stage from Kearney. The stage also brought a few jugs of whiskey and its arrival each evening was the signal for another wild night in Broken Bow, in which the editor for whom I worked was an enthusiastic participant.

“A checkless pay-day made rigid economy necessary. My brother [William G. Purcell] and I slept in the sod office and ate our meals from a grub box which my mother on the homestead [near Merna] always kept well filled. Two years later the railroad came. Towns sprang up over night. I decided to start a paper at Merna [the Merna Record], ten miles distant from Broken Bow. In order to get my meager equipment it was necessary to borrow $120 at two per cent a month. The regular interest at that time was 3 per cent a month, but as an editor is supposed to have some political influence, the bank gave me a special rate.

“My first issue, Thanksgiving Day, 1886, was gotten out during a blizzard. My office was a small shack not entirely completed owing to lack of lumber. The man who gave me free rent for the first three months, fed the stove with ten cent corn, and the first issue was printed while snow drifted in at one end of the building. . . .

“The Post Office was two miles away. Subscription price one dollar per year, but most of my subscribers thought it wise to risk only 25 cents for a three months trial. . . . Five years later I established the Chief at Broken Bow. [The first issue came out on April 22, 1892.] There were three papers there, all of them in a fighting mood and edited by able scrappers. I put in the fourth paper and entered the fight, with the usual view of an ambitious kid.

“Most of the towns in Custer County at that time had two and some of them three papers. There were usually just as many papers in the town as there were banks. Each bank headed a faction and of course each faction had to have its paper to lambast the other faction.” The Custer County Republican, Purcell’s first employer, was published until 1921, when it was bought out by his Custer County Chief.

“But what a change has come. The old time country editor and the old time print shop are fast passing. In the place of the dingy half-printed sheet of yesterday we find the modern Journal of today [1942]. . . . The country editor is taking on that spirit of modern enterprise and thrift that pervades every line of successful business.”

Photographer Solomon D. Butcher depicted the Custer County Republican‘s sod print shop at Broken Bow in 1886. Purcell worked here until he started his own paper at Merna. NSHS RG2608-1063


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