After the last issue of the HistoryBuff.com newsletter was sent, and contest winners notified, subscriber Laura Miller sent an email and wanted to know how HistoryBuff.com got started. I replied to her, but also feel that this may be of interest to other subscribers as well.
When I was a junior in high school in 1965, I was reading a Popular Mechanics magazine. In the classified ads section, one ad in particular jumped out at me. The ad offered a free catalog of old newspapers. Although at the time history wasnt on my favorites list, I sent for the catalog. To me, history was just a bunch of dates and about dead people. When the catalog arrived, I spent hours trying to decide which one to order. I settled on an April 28, 1865 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer with coverage of the capture and death of John Wilkes Booth; A one-hundred year old newspaper at the time.
When the newspaper arrived, I was amazed on two factors:
1) The newspaper was in solid condition and not brittle at all. (I soon learned that the better condition was due to the fact that newspapers printed prior to 1876 were not printed on wood pulp newsprint, but rather rag linen - paper made from cloth.)
2) The coverage of the capture and death of John Wilkes Booth filled about 75% of the issue. There was literally 20,000 words of eye witness testimony in that edition. (Today, for a major event, newspapers print short sentences for eye witness accounts - It was horrible. It was devastating. etc.) History books tend to dwell on the famous people and generalize about the population at large. Reading the personalized testimony made history come alive for me. The accounts were emotion-packed and it humanized the historical event for me.
After my first historic newspaper purchase, I ordered several more. I then started going to antique shops searching out more newspapers. Before I knew it, my apartment was filled with hundreds of historic newspapers. I was running out of room - and money. I then started selling off some of my archives; All except Lincoln assassination newspapers. By 1983, thousands of historic newspapers passed through my hands. In my spare time, I read many of them and found them fascinating. I learned that the history books were dead wrong in a few cases. For example, history often paints George Armstrong Custer as being a blood-thirsty savage. In reality, he was the opposite. Custer was very passionate towards the Native Americans and did not want to participate in the Indian Wars. At one point, about 3 weeks prior to the Custer Massacre, he went to Washington, DC and pleaded with some generals and President Grant to stop the killing of the Native American men, women and children. He was then told he had two choices; Go back and kill off the Native Americans as ordered; or stay in Washington, DC, be court marshaled, and hung. Newspapers of this period ran editorials against the persecution of the Native Americans and the meeting between Custer and Grant and taking Custers side. In other cases, I found events that are more fascinating than what is in our history books. For example, James Garfield would have lived if he had been on a hay mattress instead of one with wire coils. Curious? Read all about it at http://www.historybuff.com/library/refgarfield.html
I soon began writing articles about major, and not so major events in American history that I learned from newspapers.
In October 1984 I started a publishing a magazine for historic newspaper collectors and history buffs. Ninety-percent of the articles were written by me. I also did all of the typesetting and graphics. Not only individuals subscribed, but many major institutions also paid for a subscription - American Antiquarian Society, Library of Congress, New York Historical Society, New York Public Library, Wisconsin State Archives, to name a few. The content of my magazine could not be obtained elsewhere. It was a struggle, but I managed to maintain a constant subscriber list of about 300.
I first discovered the Internet in the Fall of 1993. I started with one of the free trial offers from America Online. From my first log-on I was hooked. At the time, AOL was charging $3 per hour to use their service. I wanted to keep the service, but it became quite expensive since I was online dozens of hours per month. I then started looking for an Internet service provider that was less costly. I found a local service provider that offered unlimited access for a flat rate of $20 per month! (My average AOL monthly bill was $100.) It was then that I was able to connect to the real Internet.
After surfing the Internet for about a year, I started wondering how someone went about making their own Web site. I went to the Michigan State University bookstore looking for books about the Internet. One of the books I purchased was one that explained how to do HTML. I then experimented in creating pages for a Web site. (This was long before HTML editors and generators. To this day, I still do HTML by hand in Notepad.)
I decided to put a Web site on the Internet and use articles I had written for my magazine for content. My first Web site opened in October 1995. It consisted of 23 articles I had written and had been published in my magazine. Over the next two years I added almost a hundred more articles. While my magazine maintained a readership of 300 people, by March 1997, HistoryBuff.com was receiving 40,000 plus page views per month. It was then that I quit publishing my magazine and concentrated on adding to the Web site. Today, 2007, HistoryBuff.com Exceeds 500,000 page views by 85,000 plus unique visitors on a monthly basis and has over 3 gigabytes of files on the site.
I have partnered with the History Channel and Casemate books. They provide some of the prizing for my monthly trivia contests. Paid banner ads by Bags Unlimited (archival supplies) and Norwich University help defray the server and Internet access costs.
Hoping to obtain grants to provide funding for expansion of HistoryBuff.com, I filed for and obtained a Nonprofit - 501c(3) - status from both the federal and state (Michigan) government in 2003. After finding several grants that fit the requirements of the various foundations, I wrote and submitted about ten grant applications. None were approved and I did not receive even an acknowledgement from five of the ten. Much later, going to a seminar for Nonprofit organizations, while talking with the keynote speaker after the seminar, I discovered why I cant obtain grants. Every grant application has a section to enter operating expenses. I enter Web server fees and Internet access in this section. (About $1,600 a year.) Since I do all of the labor out of my home, I do not enter any figures for lease/mortgage payments, payroll, utilities, office equipment, etc. Seeing an operating expense of only $1,600, those reading the application figure that since my operating expenses are so small, and only one unpaid person (me) doing the labor, funding is not needed.
One project that has been a dream of mine for years to is to place a historical database on HistoryBuff.com. There are plenty of Today in History databases on the Internet - Enter a date, say April 15, and the database gives a list of events that happened on that day of the month throughout history. Mine would be entirely different. It would integrate several aspects of history into one database. Instead of entering a month and day in the search engine, users would enter a month and year. Results returned would contain a list of historical events that happened that month and year and, where applicable, would be linked to original newspapers from my Online Historical Newspaper Archives so they can read about the event first-hand.
In addition, the results would contain data for wages for various occupation (teacher, carpenter, sales clerk, etc.), prices for various foods (dozen eggs, loaf of bread, etc.), prices for various commodities such as a home, automobile, etc., movies that were released that month and year, as well as other pricing categories yet to be determined. Phase one would include data from 1900 to 1949, phase two, 1950 to date, and phase three 1850 to 1899. The last phase would cover the years pre-1850. All four phases would consume 3 to 4 years.
To build this database will be quite expensive. I will need to purchase several books published by the United States government, hire people go through hundreds of microfilm reels at the library to obtain day-by-day historic events based on headlines in the newspapers as well as movie release dates and primary stars. In addition, it would require a custom program developed to run the database on HistoryBuff.com.
I would also like to expand the online newspaper archives. I have a few hundred I could add now. However, my ten-year-old large format scanner died about 6 months ago. Also, to add more newspapers would require a new custom program. The current programing has hit its limit.
Having nonprofit status, however, has helped me in other ways. When contacting various historical site operators about permitting me to shoot panoramas at their site, when I tell them HistoryBuff.com is a nonprofit organization they grant the permit. Without nonprofit status, three-quarters of the sites would not have permitted me to do the shooting.
For my pay-the-bills job, I work in the electrical department at a chain of home improvement stores in the Midwest (Menards.) All of my disposable income goes towards improving HistoryBuff.com.
My purpose of maintaining and improving HistoryBuff.com is the desire to inspire others to enjoy history as much as I do. It doesnt matter if they become newspaper collectors as a result. It is hoped that by seeing and reading about people and events NOT in their history books, that it will increase their interest in history.