There’s a time portal to North Platte’s past — one created by local historian Ruby Coleman and her fellow members of the North Platte Genealogical Society.
Without it, this newspaper and especially this writer, wouldn’t be poised to retell the finest story of our region’s past 150 years.
“Canteen: As It Happened,” which The Telegraph will release May 5, simply would not exist without the Genealogical Society’s searchable database of historic North Platte newspapers that went online in January 2018.
By entering the single word “Canteen” and searching the 51 months of the World War II Canteen’s operation, we found nearly 5,000 “hits” from the two papers — The Telegraph and the original North Platte Daily Bulletin — that merged in 1946 to form our current newspaper.
It took dozens of hours from October to February to sort, choose and weave them into 377 story excerpts, front pages and ads (including the Canteen’s World War I precursor and its postwar legacy) to accompany 86 Lincoln County Historical Museum images and five of our own.
Without the Genealogical Society’s database northplatte.advantage-preservation.com, it would have taken hundreds of hours of microfilm work just to find them all — assuming tired eyes didn’t overlook some.
Many family genealogists and history buffs have used the free database over its first 15 months, said Coleman, 75, the society’s president most years since 2009.
She admits the idea was hers — but she’s also quick to note the enthusiasm of her group’s two dozen active members and the North Platte Public Library after she got the idea in 2017.
As she did research on the internet, she said, she found the Albion and Seward libraries had put their communities’ old papers online with the help of Advantage Preservation (now Advantage Archives) of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
An Albion friend connected Coleman with her town’s library staff, who then linked her with the Iowa firm. It cost about $22,000 to create the database, which includes most surviving issues of North Platte’s papers from 1870 to 1963.
“I thought, ‘Well, it’d take two to three years to get it done,’” Coleman said Friday. “It only took less than six months.”
The North Platte library contributed $1,000 of the cost, she said, but the rest came from Genealogical Society funds bequeathed by the late Elden Burcham, a longtime member who died in 2012.
“The society backed me up on it, and I did the legwork,” Coleman said.
Most of the microfilm rolls used to build the database were pristine originals borrowed from the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Lincoln vaults. Twenty-five other rolls, covering issues that collection didn’t cover, were loaned by the North Platte library.
Thus database visitors can search, browse, print out or save electronic PDF copies of North Platte-based papers as far back as the New Year’s Day 1870 issue of the Platte Valley Independent (which actually launched in November 1869).
Papers that have come and gone since then are included as fully as possible, including the Tribune, which debuted in 1885 and published once or twice a week until 1963.
The Telegraph’s first issue of April 14, 1881, is there. So are surviving issues of our two ancestor papers (including the Daily Bulletin) no longer covered by our owners’ copyright. You’ll find issues of our newspaper up through the Telegraph-Bulletin of June 30, 1958.
A few copies of North Platte papers in the public domain were missed the first time around, but Coleman said the Genealogical Society has ample funds to fill the gaps.
The website doesn’t count its visitors, but “I’m on it all the time and I know it’s being used,” she said. “It’s being heavily used.”
Most modern newspapers have been saving their content digitally for up to three decades or more. If you visit our own website nptelegraph.com, for example, you can find Telegraph stories and photos from as early as March 2004.
It takes time, of course, to build the kind of “Earth central information net” envisioned by “Star Trek” and other science-fiction movies and TV shows.
But because Ruby Coleman took the initiative as she did, it became possible for The Telegraph to once more present the amazing story of the Canteen, as it unfolded through the pages of The Telegraph and the Daily Bulletin, while some of those who lived the tale are still with us.