By Tom Larson, Sun Tribune
In the mind of Carol Day, the news item from many years ago probably played out as vividly as any on a large movie screen.
Two men, in Western Minnesota, engaged in a gun fight on top of a train. It started in Breckenridge and continued on until the scofflaws were apprehended near Willmar.
"People forget that this was the wild west until the west moved further out," Day said. "All the stories of the wild west were here -- robberies, shootouts, saloon brawls, the whole thing. But there were also stories of law and order. That is, thank goodness, what survived."
And thank goodness Carol Day diligently brought those stories back to life through 30 years of editing the "Looking Back" column in Morris newspapers.
Failing eye sight recently led Day to retire from her love of delving into the area's history and providing twice-weekly glimpses into that past.
But macular degeneration won't prevent Day from finding a way to continue doing what she enjoys most.
"History was always one of my favorite subjects," she said. "It's something I came by naturally."
Day, 80, grew up in Evansville, graduating high school there in 1945. She earned a teaching degree at what was then the Moorhead State Teachers College. She married her husband, Eugene, who ran a road building business while she taught school for four years. They moved to Morris in the late 1950s and had a daughter, Candace.
During Minnesota's centennial year in 1958, Day began working with the local historical society, headquartered in the Armory, where the Morris Public Library now stands. She helped with cleaning and other duties, such as judging contests involving local school children.
One day, at her husband's boyhood home, Day found a book titled "The Illustrated Biography of Pope and Stevens Counties," published in 1888.
The book featured many profiles of the first people to settle in the area.
"If you paid in advance for a copy of the book," Day said with a laugh, "they printed your life story. Smart publisher."
The book hooked her with its compelling stories.
"That whetted my appetite," she said.
In 1970, Day began writing "Yesterday ... In Stevens County," under the byline Mrs. Eugene Day. She wrote the column every other week, while the newspaper's editor compiled the "Looking Back" column.
In 1976, Day commemorated the U.S. centennial with an ambitious project, editing "On This Day ... In Stevens County." The project entailed collecting one of the top news items for each day of the year -- 365 news stories.
"I can't imagine doing that now," she said with a smile, "but when you're young you decide you can do most anything."
The project was undertaken in the days before computers, electronic data bases and cut-and-paste editing capabilities. Day didn't mind at all.
"I like reading the newspaper," she said. "There's something about handling the material. There's a closeness to the material. Since childhood I've had the ability to scan material quickly, and then I had a teacher who had us practice scanning. It was all very useful in doing this."
Day also researched and wrote extensive features on Morris' Merchants Hotel, the Longfellow School, the Stevens County Fair and the history of flour milling along the Pomme de Terre River.
In 1978, the Sun Tribune's Jim Morrison called and asked Day if she wanted to edit "Looking Back." She jumped at it.
"It certainly has been fun, and if it weren't for my vision problems I certainly would continue," Day said. "I can honestly say I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Day wants to remain active in compiling histories. She's planning to write a book, which will correspond a recounting of the first 14 years of her life on the prairie with photographs her sister took with a box camera.
She's also exploring ways to work and indulge her love for history and reading given her visual limitations. She remembers fondly the hours getting lost in the details of life long ago while putting together "Looking Back" columns.
"You'd get sidetracked on something all the time," Day said. "You knew you weren't going to use the whole story but you couldn't stop reading, it was so fascinating. You developed an appreciation for the early settlers in the region -- the hardships and their determination."
No doubt Day will bring similar purpose to her post "Looking Back" endeavors, and there's something that failing eyes can't take away.
"A good thing," she said, tapping her temple, "is that I have all this filed away in my memory bank."