WALHALLA, N.D. -- Rodney Huffman suspects Walhalla Mountaineer subscribers won’t know what they’ve got until it’s gone.
If Huffman’s hunch is correct, the newspaper’s readers will find out next week.
Huffman and his right-hand man, Stevie Lorenz, put the Walhalla Mountaineer to bed for the last time Monday, Feb. 24. On Wednesday, the newspaper’s final edition – Volume 119, No. 19 – was in subscribers’ mailboxes.
The newspaper has been in Walhalla since Charles H. Lee began publishing it in 1896. The Walhalla Mountaineer is the latest small-town newspaper in the rural northern Plains to shutter its business. The Warroad (Minn.) Pioneer closed its doors in May 2019, after 121 years in business because its owner couldn’t make a profit and no one wanted to buy it.
Huffman, 75, closed the Mountaineer after unsuccessfully trying for a few months to find a buyer. He has health issues and Lorenz, his lone employee, already had announced his retirement plans.
Huffman will miss the business in which he has worked his entire adult life. He started at the Walhalla Mountaineer June 21, 1965, at age 21, as a linotype operator after earning a degree from the Wahpeton (N.D.) State School of Science.
He had his schooling at Wahpeton State School of Science paid for by the Walhalla School District through a strange twist of fate. Bob Wentz, then-Walhalla High shop teacher, asked the district to pay for Huffman’s post-secondary education at Wahpeton State School of Science after an accident with a saw severed two fingers from Huffman’s right hand.
“Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college,” said Huffman, whose graphic arts degree from Wahpeton State School of Science taught him the skills he needed to work at his hometown newspaper.
“I graduated on a Friday afternoon, and I went to work here on Monday morning,” Huffman said Tuesday from his chair behind the desk in the iconic Walhalla Mountaineer office downtown in the community of about 930 people, 102 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
Before Huffman became the newspaper’s editor in 1973, he spent eight hours a day, three days a week operating the linotype machine.
“It made a big racket and it was hard work, but I enjoyed it,” Huffman said. “I was not really fast, because of my hand, but I set a pretty clean type.”
Though the newspaper switched to computers in 1973, the linotype machine still sits in the office where it did then, and for 39 years before that.
He and his wife, Karen, bought into the newspaper when Huffman’s boss, Everett C. Knudson, sold it in 1973. The Huffmans bought the Mountaineer outright in 1978. At the time, they didn’t conceive of still owning it in the next century.
“I didn’t think we were going to be here that long. Pretty soon, it was 10, 20, 30, 40 years,” Rodney Huffman said.
In the early years of the Huffman’s newspaper ownership, Walhalla had a bustling business community and about 500 more people living in the town, he said. The number of Mountaineer subscribers hasn’t dropped so much as the town’s population has declined.
“We used to print for 1,200 subscribers,” Huffman said. “We’re under 800 now.”
That, along with fewer Walhalla businesses that buy advertisements in the newspaper, has resulted in tight margins, he said.
While Huffman is looking forward to not spending his days working, he will miss the day-to-day interaction he has with community residents.
“Visiting and meeting the people every day,” he said. “A lot of people will come in to visit.”
Dennis Dame is one of them. Dame stopped in the Mountaineer office Tuesday to visit with Huffman and to pick up a couple of editions of the newspaper’s final edition.
“It will be lonesome without it,” Dame said, picking a paper off the stack on the office counter. “There’s a lot of stuff in there.”
Other Walhalla residents also will feel the void the newspaper’s closure will leave in the community, Huffman predicted.
“A lot of people are going to miss reading the everyday stuff that’s going on. We’ve been Walhalla’s voice for 124 years," he said. “It’s too bad, a town without a newspaper."