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Tales from the Grubby End: The history of Newberg's microfilm treasure


Entrepreneur and philanthropist James Hill had an important impact on Oregon history

He was born in Eramosa, Ontario, Canada, in 1838. To the native ancients of the region, Eramosa was their word for “dead dog.”

Growing up as a child, he had lost his right eye to a bow and arrow. His formal education never went beyond the ninth grade, but it was enough for him to become adroit in English and math, skills he would later put to good use to fashion an extraordinary career.Louis Hill

When he was 14, his father’s death forced him to move to Kentucky, where he worked for a time as a bookkeeper.

Deciding he wanted to settle permanently in the United States, he moved to St. Paul, Minn. He found employment as a freight clerk for a wholesale grocer and quickly learned all aspects of the transportation business.Maud Hill

One winter day in the 1860s, while looking out at steamboats unable to move on the frozen waters of the Mississippi River, he used his business connections to beat the ice by finding alternative ways to transport goods to market.

The extra money he made, he invested. From this point forward, everything James Jerome Hill touched turned to gold.

Known to American history as the Great Empire Builder, Hill went on to found the Great Northern Railway (from St. Paul to Seattle). He also held significant investments in everything from banking to real estate to timber to natural resources and utilities to collectible art and much, much more. He also fathered 10 children.

By the time of his death in 1916 at age 77, his fortune had grown to $2.5 billion. Some of this he gave away, with charitable donations going to a thick portfolio of philanthropic causes that included colleges and universities, protection of the nation’s natural resources, historical preservation and libraries.

In 1964, through a foundation later established by his fourth child, Louis W. Hill, and Louis’ wife, Maud, the Newberg Public Library benefitted from the Hill family largesse with receipt of a microfilm collection that is at the heart of the richest depository of local history in existence.

The now-forgotten story of how this film got to our library is both fascinating and worth retelling as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this important event in Newberg’s past.

From its founding in Portland in 1898, the Oregon Historical Society had always taken seriously its responsibility to serve as an official repository of back issues of the state’s daily and weekly newspapers. The home of the collection was on the third floor of the Portland Auditorium (today, the Keller Auditorium).

Within this veritable mountain of newspaper hardcopy sat the state’s weekly papers. Eight hundred thousand pages from these smaller publications were chosen for microfilming. This amounted to 20 tons of newsprint, about one-fifth of the society’s total collection.

Tucked away in there was The Newberg Graphic, with issues starting in October 1899. The Graphic was chosen as one of only two “community” newspapers in the Willamette Valley to be part of the project. The other was in Forest Grove.

Sent to Cleveland, Ohio, aboard what was described as a “40 by 8-foot highway trailer,” the papers were photographed by the Micro-Photo Division of Bell & Howell Co., later returned to Portland as 1,000 four-inch diameter reels of film.

Moving the bundles from the third floor of the auditorium to ground level was no easy undertaking. Scaffolding had to be erected at the rear of the building so the papers could be lowered from a fire escape platform to the waiting truck.

Today the Newberg Public Library has the largest collection of old Newberg newspapers on microfilm available in Yamhill County.

Included are the reels from the 1964 project. The boxes are labeled with the name of the Oregon Historical Society and the first frame of film of every reel is marked with the imprimatur of the Bell & Howell Co. The years available are from 1899 to 1943. In many instances, the images on film are all that survive of issues of The Graphic lost from the collections at the newspaper or in the library.

Other reels covering other time periods, plus other Newberg newspapers, are not part of the OHS collection and have come to our library from a similar microfilming service sponsored by the University of Oregon.

Also, a recent search for The Graphic on the UO’s new website, Historic Oregon Newspapers Online, showed no results. This means that the microfilm collection at our library remains the most up-to-date technology available for rapid access to the treasures of Grubby End history.

By the way, the Hill name also shows up elsewhere in our region.

Louis and Maud owned 38,000 acres of timber property in Linn County.

James J. Hill’s second child, daughter Mary, wed a Washington, D.C., Quaker named Sam Hill. Thus, she became Mary Hill Hill.

The fortune they amassed helped spearhead the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway, the Beaux-Arts styled Maryhill Museum of Art high on the bluffs of the Washington state side of the river east of The Dalles, and the nearby Maryhill Stonehenge, the first monument in the United States dedicated to the dead of World War I.

Newberg resident George Edmonston Jr. is the retired editor of OSU’s alumni magazine, the Oregon Stater, and is a frequent contributor of history features to this newspaper. Contact him at edmonstg@ comcast.net