Hints of History: Richard Copeland: McHenry County’s first newspaperman

Richard “Dick” H. Copeland

As a young man Mr. Richard “Dick” H. Copeland started early in the newspaper business by working as a “printers devil” in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1851. Dick established his first newspaper, the Sparta Democrat, in 1859.

Dick arrived in McHenry County from Grand Forks. which was a trading post, in 1881. He had become restless and traveled to Villard in 1886. When he arrived, the village was “mostly a minus quantity and not a single house graced the prairies in the Mouse River area.” He had been enticed by rumors of a kind of Klondike.

The village of Villard was named for Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and must have had a great boom on the day Dick arrived with several other settlers. Dick was an Englishman; the Swenson family, August, his wife and four children were Swedes; and George Hofmann and his wife and two children were German.

The cabins that housed the Villardites were made of logs, the floors were comprised of dirt and the windows were…well…not very helpful in keeping out insects, blowing dirt and the cold. Groceries were packed and carried over a 130-mile trek from Bismarck. Towner, Minot, and Washburn were meager outlets in the distance that appealed to the lonely prairie wonderer.

With the knowledge of the Villard community living conditions, Dick established The Villard Leader newspaper. This was the first newspaper west of Devils Lake and north of Washburn. It is a mystery to see the need for a newspaper, although the editorials published and “stone throwing and mudslinging” between rival publications made for interesting reading. The Villard Leader did have a rival in the Mouse River Advocate newspaper owned by Mr. Frank W. Spears (editor) and printed at Newport (now Towner). Mr. Olaf Bergh (county auditor) was president and Mr. George Hofmann, treasurer. The Advocate’s home was in Burlington but used a third table in the courthouse at Scriptown as an office.

Dick had been viewed as a combative, hard-hitting editor in all the newspapers he owned in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Idaho. His career spanned 76 years.

He was a man of many talents in McHenry County including notary public, postmaster, coroner, and took care of collections for the county. Another talent of Dick’s was being a “teacher” in the first school in McHenry County. The children who attended were Albin and Fritz Winquist, Herman and Theckla Hofmann, Willie, Oscar, and Anna Swenson.

Dick moved on to Washburn in 1890 and founded the Washburn Leader. In 1895 he moved to Williston and established the Williston Graphic.


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