It was spring cleanup time in Grafton, North Dakota, and the curbs were lined with trash.
But Bethany Narveson spotted her first treasure.
An antique beveled mirror, 4 feet by 2 feet, its plain wooden frame on the verge of falling apart. She loaded it into her car and carried it home.
“It was really cool,” she said. “But it sat in our basement for six months until I decided what to do with it.”
And that’s when she spotted her second treasure. From behind the mirror’s backing, she pulled out an old newspaper. And then another, and another. She ended up with a stack of five papers from three states, spanning 1909 to 1943.
The oldest? The Lincoln Freie Presse, a newspaper that had served the city’s growing German population — many of them immigrants from Russia — in their own language.
At the time the paper was published, Germans from Russia and their descendants made up a third to a fourth of Lincoln’s population, said Sherry Pawelko, executive director of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.
The men were recruited to work on the railroads, the women often found jobs cleaning homes in affluent areas. Salt Creek flooded their own neighborhoods north and south of downtown regularly, so land in the Bottoms was cheap.
But the people were proud, Pawelko said. They built houses with higher foundations to withstand the water. They kept their sidewalks swept and scrubbed. They raised big families. And they didn’t forget where they came from.
“In this area, you would have heard much more German spoken probably clear through the '30s than you would have heard English,” Pawelko said.
They also kept track of what was happening in their homelands.
“The news was very important to them,” she said.
She was familiar with Die Welt Post — The World Post — another German-language newspaper published in Lincoln in the early 20th century, but she’d never heard of The Free Press until Narveson contacted the Journal Star.
The news behind the mirror had left the North Dakota woman with questions she’ll likely never answer. Who collected these papers and packed them behind the backing? How did they end up on a curb, 50 miles from the Manitoba border?
She’s searching the internet and working her phone, trying to return them to where they came from. Denver and Sterling, Colorado. Clinton, Iowa. Lincoln.
The papers are too valuable to simply store or throw away. “I love history, especially the pieces you can hold in your hand,” she said. “And there’s too much history here to let go.”
The Journal Star called Pawelko, who studied a photo of the Freie Presse’s front page from Dec. 15, 1909, and was able to make out a few headlines.
The biggest? An invitation to subscribe to the weekly, 85 cents a year.
Another headline translated to The Revenge of the Creole.
Another: A Little News from Nicaragua. Strange choice for the front page of a German newspaper in Lincoln.
“I don’t know why that would be important to them,” she said.
But the history is important, and Pawelko is grateful Narveson is sending it to the society, perhaps the same newspaper’s second delivery to the South Bottoms, nearly 110 years after the first.