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How I (almost) Out-Foxed
the Fort Dodge Messenger

Jerry Farlow
Professor of Mathematics
at the University of Maine
Orono, Maine
farlow@math.umaine.edu
Rolfe High School Class of 1955

They were the worst of times; they were the worst of times. No pal, there were no best of times, they were all bad. I should have read the small print, but who would have thought the Fort Dodge Messenger would try to pull a fast one on some stupid 14-year-old kid.

In 1949, there were nine paperboys in Rolfe; seven delivering the Des Moines Register and Tribune, and two delivering the Fort Dodge Messenger. I use the word paperboys, not to be sexist, but because they were all boys. I delivered the evening Tribune, and my route covered the southwest corner of town, running up the street west of the Methodist church to the top of the hill, eventually ending up at Thompsonís pond, then heading back east along the highway ending up at Wickreís mill.

Itís funny, I canít remember what I did yesterday, but I can still remember most of my customers up the street west of the church: the Molyneuxs kitty-corner across the street from the church; the Porters two houses down; the Dickeys right after the railroad tracks; next door the Tiernans; further down the street the Loxtercamps with the little boys in the yard, Ö. . The one person I will always remember is the lady who once gave me a cinnamon roll that still causes my mouth to water. She met me at the door and told me she just took a batch out of the oven and gave me one. After that whenever I delivered her paper and smelled baking coming from the kitchen, I tried making my presence known by delivering the paper with a little more gusto, but unfortunately my cries went unheeded and my fantasy of an endless stream of cinnamon rolls was only that.

I had 20 daily Tribunes and 30 Sunday Registers. The Tribune cost 30 cents a week, and the Sunday Register 15 cents, which meant every Saturday morning Iíd collect a total of six dollars from my Tribune customers and $4.50 from my Register customers, which amounted to a weekly collection of $10.50. Of course, most of that money went to the Des Moines Register and Tribune company. After my Saturday collections, I dutifully headed for the Rolfe State Bank, where Bill Spencer would count all my dimes and nickels, make out a money order and mail it off to the Des Moines Register. For me, my take was a penny and a half for each daily Tribune, and three cents for each Sunday Register, which amounted to a weekly take of $2.70, more than enough for me to head off to the Cozy Corner at the south end of main street to play Knockout or Mermaid for hours on end on their pinball machine. One of the most exciting times in Rolfe in those days was when the Cozy Corner would get in a new pin ball machine.

The Fort Dodge Messenger had a more laissez faire attitude towards its paperboys and allowed them to roam the town at will. I remember after I retired from my Tribune route and started delivering the Messenger, Iíd meet Herbie Bishop, the other Messenger paperboy at the time, ten times a night as our routes crisscrossed each other. One nice thing about delivering newspapers in a small town is you get to know every nook and cranny in town, who were the nice people, who were the cheapskates, even who was growing the watermelons.

It took me a little less than two hours to deliver 73 papers. I started on the east side of town, eventually working my way to Main Street and Monk Taylorís Royal 400 garage. Sometimes I would stop and treat myself to a Mallow Cup or maybe a Royal Crown soda, about the only place in town that sold them. Monk Taylor was a nice man and would kid me about my Mallo Cup addiction. I was one of the few kids that liked Royal Crowns. It didnít have the fizz of a Coke, but it was a lot bigger and for me quantity always trumped quality. I was considered a soda pig by my peers.

But the sad state of affairs I found myself in the summer of 1951 had nothing to do with Herbie Bishop or Monk Taylor, but with my ill-conceived plan to win a new Schwinn Phantom, the crŤme de la crŤme of bicycles, from the Fort Dodge Messenger company.

One year, the powers that be at the Messenger decided on a plan of action to increase their circulation by giving prizes to its paperboys for bringing in new customers. I forget the exact number, but it was something like five new customers and the Messenger would give a paperboy a trip to Fort Dodge to see a circus. (It wasnít Barnum and Bailey.) Well, they didnít exactly send out a limo or anything like that, but they did put the paperboys up in a hotel room (with about a dozen other paperboys). I donít remember the name of the hotel, but the name Central Hotel rings a bell, and it was on Central Avenue right in downtown Fort Dodge. It has been a long time, but I do remember something about bombing bags of water from our third floor window, as well as a lot of cursing from below as well as a rabid hotel manager pounding on the door screaming at the top of his lungs. You would have thought he was yelling at a pack of feral animals. He was so excited when he came in the room he didnít know who to yell at, but by the time he left, all us paperboys knew our behavior wasnít standard fare at the Central. I suspect, too, the Messenger heard of our exploits from the hotel manager and might have had second thoughts about their ingenious marketing plan.

I personally didnít really care about the circus. My goal was to win the grand prize. My own Columbia bike, which I acquired from the Des Moines Register and Tribune company after 52 weekly payments of $1, was falling apart, so when the Messenger announced a new bicycle as the grand prize, my mind started to work in overdrive, which in my case was not always for the good.

At first I didnít think I had much of a chance of winning the bike since Rolfe didnít have as many prospective new customers as places like Fort Dodge or Humboldt, but when I learned that someone in a previous year had won with only ten new customers Ö hmmmmmm. I figured that if a new Schwinn Phantom cost $60, and if the weekly subscription rate for the Messenger was 30 cents, that meant Ö hmmmmmm. Well, Iíve never claimed to have the business savvy of a Warren Buffet, but suppose a few persons were to sign on as new subscribers, but then after a couple weeks decided the Messenger was, well, uh, it wasnít all it was cracked up to be. So with a little third-grade arithmetic, I figured there was a Schwinn Phantom in my future.

Over the next few weeks, I started giving birth to phony Messenger customers. I donít recall their names, but to this day there are people in Rolfe that never knew they subscribed to the Fort Dodge Messenger. In the final analysis, I got five new bona fide ones, which I padded with eight bogus ones, giving me a total of 13, which increased my customers from 73 to 86. The whole thing was so ridiculously simple, the silly people at the Messenger didnít have the foggiest idea they were in way over their heads.

I donít remember if the award ceremony for handing out prizes for new customers was before or after the circus, but I remember sitting in a big tent with about a hundred other paperboys and some guy comes in wheeling in a brand new Schwinn Phantom. Then another guy says something to the effect that some kid is going to get something very special, but then announced the fifth place winner had something like 15 new customers. It struck me like a ton of bricks. Fifth placeó 15 new customers!? Not only was I not going to win the Schwinn Phantom, I wasnít even going to get a booby prize! I donít remember how many increases it took to get the bike, but it was something like 21, and I do remember it went to a girl, and if I remember correctly, she was from Boxholm. Boxholm, I thought, where the devil is that?

After a few minutes, I started to get over my disappointment when some man on stage told us that if our new customers thought about stopping the Messenger after the mandatory 10-week period, we should point out benefits of a continued subscription. Ten weeks! The words "ten weeks" was not lost on me. In my zeal to get new customers, I never read the small print in the customerís contract. I thought the customers could stop their subscription any time they wantedólike next week! The small print said something like a new customer got a couple weeks free, after which they had to maintain their subscription for ten more weeks! Aggggggggggggggggg. And I had eight phantom customers on the books, each of which had to pony up 30 cents a week.

My cash flow for the next couple months was barely above water and my mother kept asking why I always had all those extras. I told her the Messenger often messed up and sent too many.

But the thing thatís really galled me for the past 60 years, is thereís an old woman down in Boxholm with a beat-up bike in her garage, laughing her head off and telling stories to her grandkids about how she out-foxed every Messenger paperboy in Northwest Iowa.

- the end -

  
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