The Campsite snatchers
Sunday, August 10, 1997
Rock Creek, Montana -- He came over and introduced himself to me. His name was Doug. He had a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a beer in the other. "I got some whiskey," he slurred, "and a beer" holding them both up for me to see, as he walked into the light of my Coleman lantern.
He was wearing a floppy canvas hat and a T-shirt that showed signs of being present at more than just the most recent meal. I must have been staring, maybe glaring, and somewhat apologetically he told me, as he staggered, backing away, "We’re just a bunch of butt-heads from the Bitterroot."
They had invaded my isolated, much-anticipated, perfect campsite. It was dark. Water was heating for the pasta. The sauce was warming. While my stove labored I was immensely enjoying The Insult, by Rupert Thomson. Through the trunks of the giant red pines, two headlights emerged, slowly picked their way along the pine needle-carpeted, primitive road to where my kitchen was set up. The four-wheel Chevy stopped and someone emerged from the driver’s side. It was a woman and she made her way around back of the car and into the light.
She looked around, letting the familial images return. The woman in the passenger seat rolled down the window and sneeringly suggested they should leave. They backed around and slowly melted into the night. Five minutes later, they were back.
Two beat-up General Motor four-wheel drives. Husband Doug. Their two-year old son, Andrew, affectionately nicknamed, Bubba. A big teen-ager, Jeremy- their other son. The woman from the passenger side and a blind, deaf gray dog, that in the ambient light had the silhouette of a pig, named Sister.
They began to unpack their vehicles. Living room chairs, inner tubes, coolers, and various boxes. The cars’ dome lights providing the illumination. Tents were set up.
Throughout it all Doug sat on a box and drank his whiskey, ruminating about his mother and her grave; how he wanted a bon fire 20 feet by 20. It was like a Fellini movie. Or maybe John Waters. Doug approached me while I was eating, carrying a large can. Holding it up, "I have five gallons of fresh water," he told me, as if water was a precious commodity, clear, freezing Rock Creek roaring in the night, 50 feet away. He looked askew at me. "You’re a poet," he mumbled. I gazed back somewhat unbelieving. He retreated. As he sneaked away to his box, I heard him mutter under his breath, "I hate poetry."
And here they stayed. Chairs set up, 25 yards across the little clearing, directly facing my kitchen; the area under my tarp, where they would sit, play Rolling Stones and Hank Williams Jr., making cheese sandwiches and loud noises, drinking, all the time never quite sure of where exactly young Bubba was. Rock Creek- one of my very favorite trout rivers in all of Montana.
This is the story of the founding of a newspaper, as told to me by publisher Michael Howell. Mr. Howell is, for the most part, a soft-spoken man, who will often punctuate his comments with loud, erupting laughter. He is somehow tanned with a graying, thinning ponytail and sideburns that are showing white. I guess him to be in his early forties. Along with his wife, Victoria, he founded and has managed The Bitterroot Star/Expresso coffee shop for 12 years.
Zen and the art of newspaper creation
Trained in philosophy, disillusioned by the teaching profession, skilled at carpentry, building boats, and washing dishes, and unsure of what next to do, he, Victoria, her two children, Jared, 3, and Rose, older, set off in their 60’s Chevy station wagon.
They spent time in New Orleans and McAllen, Texas, eventually leaving the car and traveling by bus throughout Mexico until the money was gone. They returned to the car and the stashed $100, which got them barely out of Texas into New Mexico.
There he worked as a carpenter at odd jobs, which allowed them to live, but little else. They bought an old school bus to live in and eventually ferry them back to Missoula, for which they had grown homesick, but where nothing in particular awaited them. Or so they thought. From here, Mr. Howell recounts the events:
" We had enough gas to get us to Missoula and $2.50 in our pockets. There was a guy hitchhiking on the side of the road, who we couldn’t stop to pick up because if we stopped on the hill, the bus wouldn’t get going again on that kind of incline, so we went on to the top and waited for this guy to walk up.
We said we’d give him a ride. He said there’s fish in that creek there, so instead of going on, we did some fishing, with Jared, and got to know him better while fishing. He turned out to be quite a character and so much so, he was incredible. And the things he was telling us were incredible- incredulous. I wasn’t ready to doubt him, but it was all pretty wild if it was all true.
On one hand he’s telling me he was a sports editor at the Houston Chronicle and why is he hitchhiking? With nothing but a backpack? Eventually, that whole tale unfolded as we drove. He heard our story about whom we were, traveling around, going to Missoula. He was actually headed to Billings. He told us he had been an editor at the San Francisco Examiner and at that point discovered himself to be a total alcoholic. His wife had left him, he was a drunk, he couldn’t understand why he was wearing this suit and tie, going into work every day, so he took off. Left everything.
Hitchhiking across country, writing a book titled, Sally Ann Still Loves You. He would stop at Salvation Armies and hang out, get assistance, check out the scene- who was there, how they were getting by, what their lives were like. It was a book on homelessness, 12, 13 years ago, before the homeless were a national issue. He was also, according to him, starting newspapers here and there.
"And as we pulled into Deer Lodge, he was going one way and we were going to Missoula. And as we were about to drop him off he asked us what we going to do when we got to Missoula. ‘Didn’t know. Carpentry like before.’ Then he said, ‘Why don’t you do a newspaper? We could do a newspaper.’
"He told us about him going through Idaho, in an area where a guy named, Hagadohn was buying up all the local newspapers. So Hagadohn had come into this town, bought the newspaper, and fired almost everyone working at it. So there were all these discontented ex-workers all over town.
He met two guys who were literally sitting in the gutter drinking wine. He flopped down next to them, shared their wine, and asked who they were. One used to be the printer at the paper, the other worked in circulation and they were complaining about this guy firing everyone and bringing in outsiders.
And Harry- Harry Van Horn, was the guy’s name- he said, ‘Why don’t you start your own newspaper? All it takes is you, you, and me and we can do it.’ So they started one.
He told me, ‘You can check it out.’ And within five years the other paper closed down. They eventually put all the old employees back to work. Got the community support.
Harry was on his way to Billings to set up a senior citizen’s newspaper. He’s like a little Johnny Appleseed of newspapers as he traveled the country.
"I began to believe his story. ‘Let’s give it a try! Where?’ Victoria and I didn’t know anything about anything. So we said, ‘Flathead seems like a nice valley. Let’s go there.’
So the first town we come to is St. Ignatious. ‘Let’s try here.’ ‘OK,’ just following
along. It turned out to be the worst choice in the world. We weren’t ever aware there were already two weekly papers in the Flathead area and a daily in Polson. We were going to get nowhere with a third weekly, but we started anyway. The St. Ignatious Enquirer. Harry immediately got a hat made with a backwards ‘R’. ‘That’s just to let them know what to expect,’ Harry laughed. But he was somewhat of a genius at what he was doing.
We pulled into town and he wanted to go into the drug store first. ‘I’m not going to tell you why. I don’t have time to explain it all.’ He said he was starting here for a reason. He told me he wasn’t going to get an ad here and that I could either come in with him or stay out in the car. I waited in the car. So Harry went in, talked to the drug store owner, came back out, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he doesn’t want to take out an ad, but that’s OK. He’ll buy an ad when we come back. And now let’s go to the hardware store.’ So we went over to the hardware store and he said, ‘I’m going to get an ad from this guy.’ So he went in and, sure enough, came out with this ad.
He told him was the publisher of the St. Ingatious Enquirer. The guy said, ‘What?’ And he would say, ‘Your local paper.’ ‘We don’t have a local paper. What’s going on?’ He would say, ‘You’ve got a local paper now. We’re it. We’re coming out next week. Do we get an ad from you?’ And they don’t know what to think. He didn’t ask for any money up front, wait for a bill. ‘Sure, I’ll take an ad.’ And we got several that day. Everyone was intrigued. Everybody would like a local paper, so people naturally went along. Harry just talked away. Picture some guy, smoking a cigar, looking important, saying, ‘Yeah…’ mumbling about the press and this and the run of that…he is a newspaper guy.
"So I said, ‘So, Harry, what do we do now?’ ‘We’ll go up to the next town, Arlee.’ So, we pulled in to Arlee, which had a much bigger business area and said, ‘Hi, we’re from the St. Ignatious Enquirer.’ ‘The what?’ ‘St. Ingatious’ newspaper.’ ‘I didn’t know they had a paper.’ ‘Oh, yeah…and you know next week is graduation. Don’t you want to be on the Congratulation Arlee Graduates page? We’re going to have a big picture of the whole class. Don’t you want to be on that? The paper is distributed here too.’ ‘Yeah, well, sure. How much?’ ‘Ten dollars.’ ‘OK.’ And they pulled it out of the register. The ten-dollar bills accumulated to something like, $120 to be on the Arlee Graduation Page. So, then we headed out and went back home.
"The next day we went into downtown Missoula, to Railroad Street, where all the pawn shops were and with the $120 bought an old Royal manual typewriter and a Pentax camera. We went to the office supply store and bought a few sheets of these rub-on letters, some razor blades, tape to make borders and some other stuff and went home. He then started calling locally owned printers. It turned out the closest locally owned printer was in Anaconda. He agreed to meet with us. He was the owner of the Anaconda Leader. I think, Knight, was his name. He listened to what we were doing, starting this newspaper. Would he print it for us and let us pay him later. ‘OK.’
"Harry took some pictures, like of the owner of the hardware store, got a graduation picture from the high school principal. We bought some chemicals. Developed the film in my friend’s closet. Rented a darkroom for an hour, printed the pictures, and sent them to the printers. Then he went around town in one day writing stories. One was a feature about some old lady in town; one was about the sewer line they all wanted. Typed it all up on the old Royal, made ads with the same old Royal. It was funky. You gotta believe.
Wavy lines of type. Something like a junior high class might put out, while they’re still learning, without much instruction. And it went over great. People loved it. And it just so happened, or so it seemed, it was the end of the month and even though we were telling people to not pay now…the bills went out. Got that money. Got us going. Putting it together on my friend’s living room floor. We could see the paper was never going to grow, so we started another paper, the Senior Citizen Voice for Missoula, the same way as before. It’s the most amazing thing…without a penny in your pocket, this way you just walk into businesses, get their support for a publication that doesn’t even exist yet, and make it work.
"The Missoula Senior Citizen Voice was very successful. So we said, let’s start another one- a Bitterroot Senior Citizen Voice. It was an immense success. The banker in Stevensville asked if we had ever thought about doing a weekly paper in Stevensville.
It turned out that the civics group had been meeting all summer about starting up a local weekly newspaper, and how go about it and all. Eight years ago, Scripps had bought the daily paper in Hamilton and the two area weeklies, which were immediately shut down. Since then the Bitterroot Valley had had only had a daily.
Given this set of circumstances, the rest was easy. So, in 12 years we have grown to become Montana’s sixth largest weekly, out of 64 papers."
So where is Harry Van Horn now?
"One day Harry was selling a ad in the Jocko drug store, up near the St. Ignatious area, met a pharmacist, and he fell in love with her. And she fell in love with him. They got married and moved to Wallace, Idaho, where they started a newspaper. Now he’s in Grangeville, selling ads. Ads on bowling score sheets. The ads are unlimited. Drive around until you find a bowling alley, sell ads, and create a bowling score sheet. Works the same for park benches. He’ll sell ads for anything. He’s like the Music Man- the band needs new uniforms. It’s exciting. The town does need a weekly paper. And the band gets the uniforms!"
A footnote: Harry Van Horn says he was imprisoned for murder in Washington State- one he didn’t commit, but then he murdered a guy while in prison, he had no choice, he said. Got pardoned by President Reagan. If you were to ask him about it, he would, I’m sure, tell you to, "Check it out."