In 1905, a 19-year-old founded, published and edited a newspaper in North Dakota that is still in existence today.
In 1912, Ben Hur Lampman sold this paper, the Michigan City Arena, and relocated to Oregon, where he established a reputation as one of the country’s best writers in several different categories. For the newspapers, Lampman was a reporter, editor and columnist. In the literary world, he wrote essays, poems, short stories and books (both fiction and nonfiction).
His writings were often featured in many newspapers and a host of popular magazines, including Reader’s Digest, Atlantic, The Saturday Evening Post, Sunset and Nature. Lampman also wrote the lyrics to a song honoring Theodore Roosevelt.
Alexander Woollcott, the famed literary critic, wrote that Lampman was “the greatest writer of Americana today.” John Findley, editor of the New York Times, claimed that Lampman was “one of the five greatest editorial writers in the United States,” and Palmer Hoyt, editor of the Denver Post, named Lampman “dean of American editorial writers.”
The governor of Oregon proclaimed June 6, 1947, to be Ben Hur Lampman Day, and in 1951, the Oregon State Legislature named Lampman as Oregon’s poet laureate. In 1952, the Legislature made Ben Hur Lampman Wayside, a state park. On Aug. 29, 2019, Douglas Perry, the entertainment editor of the Oregonian newspaper, compiled a list of the “100 greatest Oregonians ever” and ranked Lampman at No. 58, ahead of such luminaries as Danny Ainge, Woody Guthrie, Norm Van Brocklyn, Jane Powell, Clyde Drexler, Courtney Love and John McKay.
Ben Hur Lampman was born Aug. 12, 1886, in Barron, a town in northwestern Wisconsin, to Herbert and Viola (Emmons) Lampman. At the time of Ben’s birth, Herbert was a farmer and an avid reader of popular literature, and he named his newborn son after the hero in Lew Wallace’s blockbuster novel, "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," which was published six years earlier.
Shortly after Ben’s birth, Herbert got into the newspaper business in Wisconsin, publishing the Barron Shield, the Eau Claire Sunday Morning Forum and then the Rice Lake Chronotype. Charles Lee was the editor of the Oak Leaf, a newspaper in Neche, N.D., and in 1897, he moved to Walhalla. Herbert relocated his family to Neche to take over as editor and publisher of the newspaper, and renamed it the Neche Chronotype.
Ben, along with his older brother, Rex, assisted their father in putting out the paper. When Ben turned 15, he became a “tramp printer,” traveling around the state “helping out at a variety of newspapers.” In November 1905, Jerry Bacon, the principal owner of the Evening Times, a new daily newspaper in Grand Forks, hired Herbert to be the editor-in-chief. Herbert turned the Neche Chronotype over to his sons, Rex and Ben, and moved to Grand Forks.
Meanwhile, C. B. C. Doherty, the founder and editor of the Nelson County Independent in the town of Michigan, N.D., had died in 1895, and the paper struggled for 10 years before publishing its last issue on May 4, 1905. Ben saw this as an opportunity, so he moved to Michigan and, with a fellow named Mr. Hood, established a new newspaper called the Michigan Arena. Ben operated as both editor and publisher, and the first paper was printed on Oct. 6, 1905.
Rex stayed in Neche as editor of the Chronotype and, for the next six years, the three male members of the Lampman family edited three different North Dakota newspapers. In 1919, the name of the newspaper in Michigan was changed to the Nelson County Arena, which it is still called today.
Along with writing, reading and his wife, Lena, Ben’s other great passions were fishing and observing the wonders of nature. On a fishing trip to the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon, Ben discovered the idyllic location where he wanted to live. Near this site was the small town of Gold Hill, which had a weekly newspaper.
In 1912, Ben convinced his brother and father to move to this area with him and help him purchase the Gold Hill News. Ben and Rex ran the paper, with Ben as editor, and Herbert purchased a plot of land in the nearby hills, where he raised pigs, and he named it the Hill Billy Ranch.
With little local news to report, Ben loaded the paper with poems and essays that he wrote, which were mainly about the animals and scenes that he observed. His vivid descriptions and precise choice of words painted images and actions in the readers’ minds and the newspaper subscribers dubbed him the “Oracle of Gold Hill.” Eventually, Ben’s literary newspaper works were seen and appreciated by readers outside of Gold Hill, and in 1916, Edgar Piper, editor of the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, offered him a job to work for his paper, which Ben accepted.
Ben had misgivings about leaving, but with only “500 subscribers,” the income from the newspaper could not support the needs of both his and Rex’s families. Especially since Ben and his wife, Lena, had three children.
For the first 14 months that Ben worked at the Oregonian, “he covered police-related news, but also wrote editorials from time to time.” He then became a reporter, and the paper increased the number of editorials he wrote. In 1922, “the paper made him a full-time editorial writer and an associate editor, and he also wrote nature essays.”
The Oregonian had “the largest circulation in the Pacific Northwest,” and soon Ben’s essays and poems were being printed in newspapers all across the U.S. He was also solicited by nationally distributed magazines to submit his work to them.
One of Ben’s most loyal readers was Dr. Henry Coe, a prominent Portland physician who had been a very close friend of Theodore Roosevelt when the future president lived in Medora, N.D. After Roosevelt’s death in 1919, Coe had three large bronze statues made depicting the gallant Rough Rider astride his horse, and he planned to donate one statue each to Portland, Minot and Mandan in public ceremonies. Ben wrote a poem, "The Rider," which was then put to music and sung at the ceremonies.
Besides his articles and poems for various publications, and his work at the Oregonian, Ben authored 14 books. Ben humanized everything he wrote about, capturing the speech and concerns of the people around him. “His sympathetic understanding of the life and work of the common man endeared him to many readers.”
Ben found insight in the mundane and made it interesting, but his primary goal was “the preservation of the natural world.” He wrote that, if his readers exhibit “kindness towards all creatures great and small, I am repaid and well content.”
I hope he found great contentment. Ben Hur Lampman died on Feb. 9, 1945.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.