GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- When flood and flames destroyed the offices of the town's newspaper last weekend, residents lost a way to reach back into their past.

The blaze that destroyed the Grand Forks Herald's building was part of a huge downtown fire. Floodwaters kept firefighters from saving the building and the thousands of newspaper clippings, going back more than a century, stored inside. The newspaper covered the granting of North Dakota's statehood in 1889.

Most of the history has been saved, since copies of every paper for much of this century have been stored, as is required by law, in the North Dakota Historical Society in the capital, Bismarck, and transferred to microfilm.

But researching microfilm requires knowing the dates of an event. The loss of the newspaper's clippings, which were indexed, meant that many people might never be able to retrieve precious bits of family history.

"It's rural sociology: the names and places and connections," said Mike Jacobs, editor of the newspaper, which is operating out of a school north of the city. "And a lot of it is going to be lost."

The Herald moved just three years ago to the old downtown Sears building, which it refurbished. With water rushing down the street Saturday, the offices were moved temporarily to the University of North Dakota nearby. But flooding there chased the paper to the school, in Manvel.

Jenelle Stadstad, the newspaper's librarian, said people come to the newspaper almost every day asking for help in tracing bits of history, stored in 12 filing cabinets with eight drawers apiece. All were lost in the fire.

"It makes me feel like I want to cry," said Stadstad, 27.

The editor recalled a Kansas man writing to ask about a grandfather he had never known. He knew only that the man had been a printer in Grand Forks. The paper found articles about the man and sent them along.

Such clippings were not the only records destroyed. County land records dating to 1884 are under water, officials said.

When the flood forced the newspaper to move, its publisher, Mike Maidenberg, said there had been no question about continuing operations. He had said the paper would publish, "come hell or high water." Yesterday, he said, "As it turned out, we got both."

The paper, owned by Knight-Ridder Inc., is being printed by the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, which is owned by the same company. Copies are being flown to the Grand Forks area and distributed free at shelters and stores.

Jacobs said his paper had to publish because with the community "in diaspora, we're the touchstone. Besides that, it's a hell of a news story."

Some of the clippings lost were about one of the biggest stories in the city's history, which came almost precisely 100 years ago. It was the great flood of 1897.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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