Old news links us to our history

Newspaper people are attached to the idea that journalism is the first rough draft of history. And even though historians prefer to pull the past from primary sources whenever possible, there are countless times when an old newspaper clipping provides a clue that is crucial to unraveling a mystery or revealing a personal story that is dear to family members.

Recently, we’ve been reminded of the importance of those first drafts.

A story the Kentucky New Era published in 1899 preserved the names of 227 Confederate soldiers who died in Hopkinsville during the winter of 1861-62 and were buried at Riverside Cemetery. That story helped an archaeology team find some of the graves. In fact, the 116-year-old newspaper archive survived when another historical record — a memorandum book last seen in a desk drawer at the Bank of Hopkinsville — was lost. The small book contained the names of the soldiers and information about the placement of graves in Riverside Cemetery, according to the newspaper article. Thankfully, those details were transcribed into the newspaper story.

The newspaper’s historical record even outlasted physical clues in the cemetery. After 101 of the bodies were exhumed and moved to an area near a Confederate memorial in 1866, wooden markers were placed at the graves. Twenty years later, the markers bearing the names had rotted away. But the newspaper, preserved in old bound volumes and on microfilm, is still available.

In October, 69-year-old archaeologist William Meacham, who has family connections to Hopkinsville, and his team found the remains of several dozen Confederate soldiers who were among those 227 who died in 1861-62.

The newspaper’s record was crucial to the discovery.

Also in October, we heard from a woman who recently visited relatives in Hopkinsville and made time for research at the public library. Teresa Davis scrolled through microfilm of 1950 New Eras to learn more about her late father, Ray Imler, who played with the Hoptown Hoppers from 1949-52.

Davis described becoming emotional as she read this description of her father: “Third baseman Ray Imler . the youthful Ohio boy who came here on his own last spring and was considered one of the league’s best prospects, should be considerably better this season .”

The paper’s record of her father’s glory days in baseball gives her access to part of his story she didn’t ask about when he was living.

“But as I have time and opportunity, I will keep searching the New Era microfilms for all the information contained there about my Daddy. I want to share it with my sons,” Davis said in an email.

Learning how newspapers from 1899 and 1950 are being used today to solve mysteries and build a family narrative reminds us that the papers we print today will serve a purpose long after the news of the day as been consumed.

Kentucky New Era, Hopkinsville

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