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.” 

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

Purcell said: “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. . . . 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.” 

This undated photograph on a postcard depicted the Custer County town of Merna, where Purcell once published the Merna Record. NSHS RG3335.PH9-1

Read more of Purcell’s reminiscences in a Timeline column on the Nebraska State Historical Society website. The Nebraska Statesman newspaper, published in Broken Bow from 1885 through the end of 1890, was a contemporary of the Republican, and the subject of an article in the Fall 2011 Nebraska History magazine. Read an excerpt here. — Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor/Publications

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