WILLMAR — The West Central Tribune has been a news and information source for its readers in Willmar and west central Minnesota for 125 years.
The first issue of the Willmar Tribune, the newspaper’s original name, rolled off a borrowed press as a weekly print edition on Feb. 19, 1895.
The newspaper, now known as the West Central Tribune, publishes in digital, print and e-edition formats and also offers commercial printing. The Tribune is owned by Forum Communications Co.
“The West Central Tribune has been part of the fabric of west central Minnesota for 125 years,” said Bill Marcil Jr., Forum Communications’ president and chief executive officer. “We are proud of the newspaper’s heritage and excellence in journalism that is unrivaled.”
RELATED: West Central Tribune's timeline
In recognition of this anniversary, the Tribune will publish historical pages once a month through June. The newspaper will also hold a public event in June recognizing the 125th anniversary.
“The West Central Tribune is extremely proud to be able to bring our readers the news and information that matters for these past 125 years. Our newspaper is about serving the communities in our region," Tribune publisher Steve Ammermann said. "The success of this newspaper is largely due to the dedication and determination of its employees.”
The Tribune was not the first newspaper in Willmar, a city founded in 1870 that will be celebrating its own sesquicentennial this year. At least five newspapers were started in Willmar’s first quarter-century, but most lasted only a few years. Many newspapers of that era tended to be highly political and espoused news with a specific political direction.
The Tribune’s founder and original owner, Dr. Christian Johnson, promised a different paper of a broader nature.
The Tribune will “be a newspaper in the broadest sense, a medium for the interchange of thought of our local talents, irrespective of political beliefs, on subjects ranging from co-operative creameries to university extension,” Johnson wrote in the first issue.
Johnson had immigrated to the United States at the age of 16. After studying medicine at the University of Maryland and in Europe, he set up his first practice in Morrison County but moved in 1884 to New London after his first wife’s death. He later resided in Kandiyohi and then Willmar, where he practiced until 1920.
Johnson hired Victor Lawson, the former editor of the New London Times, as the associate editor to help launch the new Willmar newspaper in 1895. Lawson would shape the Tribune’s direction for the next 40 years, later becoming the owner in 1901 and serving as publisher until 1940. He retired in 1947.
Throughout its 125-year history, the Tribune has had only five publishers:
Victor E. Lawson — 1895-1940
O.B. Augustson — 1940-1979
Paul E. London — 1979-1998
Steve K. McLister — 1998-2000
Steve W. Ammermann — 2000-present.
The Great Northern Railway in 1869 chose the Willmar area as a location for a hub and, by 1870, the city of Willmar was founded. The railroad today is the BNSF Railway and maintains its Willmar location as the second busiest rail yard in Minnesota.
When the Tribune started publishing 25 years later, the city of Willmar had only 3,000 residents and had a developing business community. The majority of Kandiyohi County residents were farmers and their families.
The Willmar State Hospital would not be established until 1907 — another 12 years. And Jennie-O Turkey Store was not founded until 1949 — 54 years later.
Willmar’s first newspaper, founded in 1871, was the Willmar Republican, founded by an attorney who later became a judge.
A competing newspaper — the Willmar Gazette — started publishing in 1874.
Two years later, the two newspapers merged in 1876 and were re-named the Republican Gazette. The combined Republican Gazette would continue publishing until folding in 1943.
The Willmar Argus was also established in 1895 but was purchased by the Willmar Republican Gazette in 1899.
The Alliance Standard was published by the Kandiyohi County Farmers’ Alliance in Willmar, beginning in 1891, but it ceased publication in February 1893.
Willmar was also home to a Norwegian-language newspaper, called the Western Minnesota Press, which was founded in 1880 and ceased publication in 1883.
The Tribune’s first weekly edition in 1895 was four pages. All 1,100 copies of the first edition sold out. The second issue the following week printed 1,200 copies.
The newspaper cost a nickel for a single copy or $1 for a one-year subscription. The subscription price remained the same $1 per year for 24 years through 1919.
The Tribune was founded on a minimal budget at the time. The first few issues were printed on a borrowed press loaned at an exorbitant rental rate from a competing newspaper, The Republican Gazette.
The fledgling Tribune within the first three months was nearly broke but was saved by a $500 loan from the egg money fund of Mrs. Peter Dale, wife of one of the Tribune’s early supporters. With this life-saving loan, the Tribune owners were able to purchase the defunct Alliance Standard’s printing equipment and the Tribune began printing on its own printing press in June 1895.
In the first 25 years, the Tribune would have three different locations in Willmar, before moving in 1920 to a new building at 311 West Fourth St. in downtown Willmar. The newspaper was published at that site for the next six decades.
In 1980, the Tribune published its last edition at its downtown location and moved to 2208 Trott Ave. S.W. in the Willmar Industrial Park. The newspaper was the last daily newspaper in Minnesota to publish on letterpress equipment.
In 1979, the daily West Central Tribune was purchased by Forum Communications Co., which owned the Fargo Forum, WDAY-TV and WDAY Radio in Fargo, North Dakota. The company is privately owned by the William Sr. and Jane Marcil family.
The Tribune purchase was the first newspaper addition to Forum Communications. The company today owns 25 newspapers, various magazines, a printing company, television and radio stations in the Upper Midwest.
“Congratulations to the West Central Tribune and their team on their 125th anniversary," said Ken Warner, Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce president. “ ... The Tribune has been and will continue to be an important part of the quality of life in west central Minnesota.”
The West Central Tribune today publishes on three different platforms:
A print edition Tuesday through Saturday printed on its own Goss Community Press. This press was installed in 1980 at the newspaper’s Trott Avenue building.
A website format updated daily at the wctrib.com domain, which was established in June 1996.
An e-edition format published seven days a week. This format has been published since 2003.
Retired Tribune reporter Anne Polta contributed to this article through her research and story written in 199