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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 27 2009

Eriksmoen: Man raised in North Dakota started publishing company

One of the largest publishing companies in the country was started by an adventurous young man raised in North Dakota.

The Fawcett Publishing Company began when Wilford Fawcett printed his first issue of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang in 1919. At one time, the company published 63 different magazines (True Confessions, Family Circle, Women’s Day, etc.); had a comic book empire with sales of 4.5 million monthly (“Captain Marvel,” “Captain Midnight,” “Spysmasher,” etc.); distributed paperbacks for Mentor and Signet; and had their own popular paperback line, Gold Medal Books.

Gold Medal launched the writing careers of Mickey Spillane, Louis L’Amour, MacKinlay Kantor, John D. MacDonald, Kurt Vonnegut, and many other popular writers.

Wilford Hamilton Fawcett was born April 27, 1885, in Canada, to John and Hannah Maria (Bird) Fawcett. At the time of Wilford’s birth, John was superintendent of the Winnipeg school system. While serving as superintendent, John was also working on his medical degree at the University of Manitoba.

The next year, John became a doctor and, in 1888, moved to Cando in Towner County. In 1892, the family relocated to Grand Forks. Dr. John Fawcett specialized in “women’s diseases” and gained a reputation for his work in abdominal surgery. He also became active transporting grain by Red River steamboats for the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Wilford attended school in Grand Forks but dropped out at the age of 16 to join the Army. After serving 18 months, he was shot in the leg while trying to help subdue the Philippine Insurrection.

When the Army doctors were unable to cure the infection that set in, he was shipped home and discharged. After the infection was treated, Wilford hitchhiked back to Grand Forks and returned to finish high school.

Wilford apparently inherited his creativity and yearning for adventure from his father. John Fawcett had led an ill-fated expedition to northwestern Canada during the gold rush. While still a long distance from their destination, the expedition encountered a blizzard that forced them to turn back. It was reported that one-third of Fawcett’s party died.

According to the account of one of his grandsons, Dr. John also had an inventive mind. While in Grand Forks, he designed a workable model for an airplane but was unable to find investors willing to finance a prototype. After the success of the Wright brothers in 1903, he abandoned this project.

About 1905, the Fawcetts moved to Minneapolis and, in 1906, Wilford married Viva Meyers, a girl from rural Iowa. He took a job as a railway clerk and, to supplement his income, worked as a cub reporter on the night copy desk for the Minneapolis Tribune. Because of his journalist abilities, Wilford received a number of promotions and was hired as city editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

With the outbreak of World War I, Fawcett enlisted at Fort Snelling and was stationed at Camp Georgia in Virginia for the duration of the war. While there, he wrote for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and rose to the rank of captain. This gave him the moniker “Captain Billy,” which he would use for the rest of his career.

When the war was over, Fawcett returned to Minneapolis and was rehired by the Tribune. He was fired and then landed a job with the Chicago Tribune.

One of the things that Fawcett took great pride in was telling jokes. He had been collecting them for years and, while stationed at Camp Georgia, realized how popular risqué humor was appreciated by fellow servicemen. Because many in the military had experienced a bawdier lifestyle, this led to a more morally relaxed environment in postwar America. Fawcett believed the time was ripe to launch a new publication that catered to the prurient appetite held by many young men in this country.

Fawcett moved to Robbinsdale, northwest of Minneapolis, and put together a collection of jokes, lurid prose, and a few illustrations. In October 1919, he ran off 5,000 copies of what his booklet called Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.

Fawcett gave away free copies to veterans’ hospitals and distributed the remaining to newsstands in hotels. They quickly sold out and, with each succeeding edition, he increased the number he had printed. By 1921, Fawcett claimed that he was nearing a million in monthly sales. This financial success enabled him to purchase land at Breezy Point on Pelican Lake near Brainerd, Minn., which he built into a popular resort.

During the later 1920s, Fawcett brought his four sons into the publishing business, and they began to create magazines. They started with Modern Mechanix and soon added to the list Motion Picture, Cavalier, Daring Detective, and Battle Stories. Their biggest success was True Confessions, which reached a circulation of 10 million sales a month.

Toward the end of the 1930s, the Fawcett Publishing Company had 63 different magazines. Time magazine reported that Fawcett “probably bred and killed more magazines than any two other U.S. publishers.”

Wilford H. Fawcett died on Feb. 7, 1940, but his company and legend continued to grow through the hard work and dedication of his four sons. In 1940, they launched the comic book division of their company. In 1945, Fawcett Publishing began to distribute paperback books for Monitor and Signet and, in 1949, published their own paperbacks under the name Gold Medal.

Every summer, the city of Robbinsdale celebrates “Whiz Bang Days.” Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang was immortalized in 1957 when Meredith Wilson introduced the song “Trouble” in his popular Broadway play, “The Music Man.” The song goes, “Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang? …Well, if so, my friends, ya got trouble, right here in River City.” What was trouble for River City proved to be a huge moneymaker for Captain Billy Fawcett and his family.

I want to thank Bruce Gjovig, entrepreneur coach and founding director of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota for suggesting this article and for providing much of the information used in writing it.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.