100 years ago: Fire destroys Powell Tribune

Two Powell papers merged into one following fire

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Early on the morning of Sept. 6, 1918, the original frame home of the Powell Tribune burned to the ground — a fire completely destroying the contents of the building and the newspaper’s printing facilities. But the Tribune didn’t miss a single publication day and, out of the ruin, the paper emerged stronger.

It is a 100-year-ago story of triumph and cooperation in the pioneer community on the Shoshone Reclamation Project. Powell was only nine years old at the time, as was the Powell Tribune, both established in 1909.

Two newspapers vie

Powell was a two-newspaper town between 1914 and 1918. In addition to the Tribune, the Powell Leader also came out weekly. The Leader was the new name for the former Garland Courier, the first paper in the Powell Valley. B.C. Peterson founded the Courier in Garland, then moved his paper to Powell in November 1914 and renamed it.

The Powell Leader was published on Thursdays. The Powell Tribune, then located at 124 N. Bent St. (where the Red Zone sports bar now sits), appeared on Fridays.

Disaster struck in the early morning hours of the Tribune’s publication day on Friday, Sept. 6, 1918. The Tribune crew had worked late on Thursday night to ready the Friday issue of the newspaper for circulation. Workers left the building at midnight.

At 3 a.m., Will Baker, co-publisher of the Tribune, was awakened with the cry that the Tribune building was in flames. He rushed to the scene, but it was too late. The building was engulfed in fire, and none of the contents could be saved.

Powell’s fire department responded, and though unable to spare the newspaper office, managed to save the adjacent Loftsgaarden Bros. hardware building with only a badly charred wall.

The paper must go out

The Tribune plant was in shambles, but heroics and helping hands saved the day. Most of the Powell Tribune subscription list survived the fire in a safe, and the newspaper still hit the streets that fateful Friday, Sept. 6. As newspaper comrades do to this day in emergency situations, B.C. Peterson made his typesetting and printing equipment available for a hurried remake. The Tribune published an abbreviated, four-page issue, headlining the story from only hours earlier: “FIRE DEMON PAYS US ANOTHER VISIT.”

The Tribune acknowledged the kindness of the Powell Leader and put a brave face on the situation as it wrote:

“The Tribune, through the friendly courtesy of Mr. Peterson, proprietor of the Powell Leader, is permitted to issue in abridged form after a fashion this week, and effort will be made to install another outfit as soon as possible.”

“We hope the public will be charitable enough to overlook the deficiencies of the paper until we get on our feet again,” the article continued. “The subscription list is comparatively complete, but if any miss their paper they will do us a favor by notifying us of the fact. Likewise, our advertisers will kindly overlook any inattention to this branch of the service for similar reasons. Temporary office quarters are being installed in the rear of the Powell National Bank building.”

The new Tribune emerges

It turned out that rebuilding and re-equipping would not be necessary to put the Powell Tribune back together. Virtually overnight, an agreement was reached for the Tribune to purchase the Leader, and by the next publication date of Friday, Sept. 13, 1918, the masthead of the Powell Tribune declared “with which is incorporated the Powell Leader.”

The editorial column of the Sept. 13, 1918, Powell Tribune explained the acquisition of the Leader made good sense to both parties: “Mr. Peterson was in a mood to sell at this time because of other plans that would take him and his highly esteemed family from Powell, and the Tribune Company was desiring the Leader plant that they might without delay establish themselves in business.”

The Tribune publishers also managed to loftily cast the merger in keeping with the need to be frugal at a time when the country was involved in World War I.

“The publication of both newspapers was too much a duplication of effort,” opined the Tribune publishers. “At this time of a great world war, energy of Americans should be conserved, and the newspapers of Powell in thus consolidating their enterprises and effecting an economy of money and labor are practicing the principles of patriotism they both have been so earnestly preached since the beginning of our war for freedom.”

Early Tribune files lost

Files of the Powell Tribune since its founding were consumed in the 1918 fire. Some early issues of the newspaper are missing to this day.

The Tribune publishers bemoaned at the time the loss of “a history of progress, week by week and year by year, of one of America’s greatest reclamation projects.” 

W.H. (Will) Baker and R.T. (Ray) Baird, brothers-in-law, had been owners and publishers of the Powell Tribune for less than a year when the 1918 fire destroyed their operation. Their partnership lasted only two years, but it preserved the Powell Tribune through consolidation with the Powell Leader in the aftermath of the fire. Baird would carry forward as publisher of the Powell Tribune for 37 years before turning over his life’s work to his son-in-law and daughter, Curt and Dorothy Whaley, in 1955.

(Editor’s note: The Whaleys sold the Tribune to a new ownership group in 1964, made up of Bob and Roy Peck, Ron Lytle and current Tribune publisher Dave Bonner.)

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