|Vol. VII, No. 1, Summer 1993|
By Robert Gilmore
Robert Gilmore is an Editor of OzarksWatch
The editor of the Ash Grove Commonwealth was not amused. "A volley of ancient eggs" had been directed into the midst of a medicine show troupe, disrupting the free minstrel show they were performing on the streets of Ash Grove in October 1886. This was not the first time performers had been egged in this Greene County, Missouri town, and the editor, fearing for the good name of the community, wanted it stopped.
"This egg business has went to an entire extreme in Ash Grove," he thundered editorially, "and this extravagant use of them should be suppressed!"
The Commonwealth editor, like other editors of small town newspapers throughout the Missouri Ozarks, saw himself as guardian of his town's reputation and used his editorial voice to declare his concern. These editors all assumed other roles as well. Their best performances were as community gadflies and boosters. However, as circumstances demanded, they might play different parts, sometimes several at the same time--partisan politician, social arbiter, preacher, teacher, theatre critic, scolder, or cheerleader, to mention a few. Whatever the tone of the editorial voice, it was always raised with the purpose of promoting and improving the community of which he and his readers were a part.
Not long ago we heard one from a little town in the northern part of the state say that he did not care to live among such people as those of Taney County. Poor fellow, we'll try to get along without him. He did not know that in Taney County are found the direct descendants of the early English settlers of the United States. He did not know that most of the natives here are from the same stock with Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and others of like character. True, some of our people have not been out in the world much but they
are honest and honorable, kind and hospitable, and in nearly every case their word is as good as their bond. As neighbors and friends we much prefer them to some "cultured and refined" people we have met in the towns and cities.
--White River Leader Taney County
To a modern reader, old time weekly newspapers are not very attractive to look at. No color, boxes, or bullets. At first glance, they look like solid text--narrow margins, tiny print, small headlines, few pictures or illustrations. Much of the newspaper was made up of"boilerplate,"--syndicated, ready-to-print copy shipped in to the newspaper from outside sources. This boilerplate might consist of serialized fiction, sermons, Sunday school lessons, advertising, homemaking and fashion articles, historical essays, reprints of lectures, etc.
There would be a number of local ads--both display and text--as well as foreign ads with mail order addresses.
Most editors made liberal use of "exchange" items--news and comments borrowed from other newspapers. And there would be state, national, and international news. The local news items and editorials, however, were what gave weekly newspapers their distinctive character, and make them such a valuable historical resource.
The small town weeklies seldom had a large staff, or any staff at all beyond the editor himself and perhaps someone to help set type, often members of the editor's family. Local town news items were dropped off at the newspaper office by individuals, or picked up by the editor in his wanderings about town at the cafe, barbershop, and feed mill.
For news from surrounding rural communities, the editors depended upon volunteer country correspondents. Their copy included lots of names--who visited whom, who was sickly, who had sent a load of hogs to market. Names were the life blood of the newspaper industry.
Don Wilson and Oval Wilson made a trip to Springfield with fat hogs last Tuesday. They are planning to go again this Tuesday. Don is still reading "The People's Almanac." It's a very thick book.
l forgot I went to see Opan and Eldon awhile Saturday night.
Monday while in Crane I saw Lon and Bess Hudson and Bess had a hand wrapped up. She had caught her thumb in the wringer washing machine and went to the doctor every other day for a time.
Cane Bottom Correspondent
Stone County Republican
Some correspondents went well beyond a listing of names. With the encouragement and support of their editors they developed a journalistic style and a following among many faithful readers:
Shining gossamers flash and glimmer in the sunlight, carrying their burden of tiny live freight, where minute spiders ride the ether waves to new homes. Autumn truly is upon the hills.
Mae Trailer, Everton Correspondent Greenfield Vedette
Some of these correspondents reported incidents with a colorful abandon and a disregard of libel laws that would make a modem editor blanch:
The hop at Mr. Richards resulted badly. Mr. Richards caught Marian Pippins with his arm around his wife's neck and went for him with an old broken file. Pippens run out of the room and started for home on a run. He had Big Sugar Creek to cross and when he came to it he thought Richards was still after him. He was afoot and hit the water like a frog all spraddled out. The water ran up to his armpits and he went three miles in that shape, wet and wetter on a cool, frosty night.
There was quite a number of accessions from other churches [as a result of a protracted meeting] besides those who had heretofore joined and then danced themselves out of the church but came back to the fold. A few old toughs like Don Wilson, W. M. Randolph, H. W. Stewart, Alex West, Ab Stiffier and Mrs. Amos were all that made their escape and they had to hide out.
Christian County Republican
The Current Wave, a county weekly in Shannon County, began in 1874 an unbroken history of publication that extends to the present. Robert Flanders, an editor of OzarksWatch and director of the Center for Ozarks Studies at Southwest Missouri State University, has used the Wave in researching the early history of Shannon County. That newspaper, he believes, was perhaps the single most important cultural institution in the county. The Wave "proclaimed the gospel of optimism, growth, progress, respectability, and the Democratic Party, which it saw as inseparable doctrines of the Great Truth."
That litany of virtues, substituting occasionally "Republican" for "Democratic," might have served as the credo of most Ozarks weeklies. They were strongly supportive of their communities, and few were less than strongly biased in their political leanings.
One of the most colorful and most fiercely partian newspapers in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1890s was the Cassville Republican. Its editor delighted in excoriating Democrats, Populists, and a coalition party tagged the "Demopops" (or "Popocratsy"). During the presidential campaign of 1896 he declared, "We are taught that Christ was wise, honest, and a protectionist. Hence, McKinley and Hobart would head his ticket and it would be cast undefiled by blot or blemish." The editor and his correspondents liked to ridicule the opposition with mock prayers that they asserted were uttered at the Demopop meetings:
Oh Lord, we the mongrels of a happy union formed by bringing the two greatest of thy mortal creation together.. , beseech thee, Almighty Being, to prosper the most noble act of all thy life in bringing us any light at this critical hour, to save this our country from the clutch and grasp of the hateful Republican party ....
Oh Lord, do show to the world that thy mongrels are of thy chosen people by giving us our immortal Bryan to be our next president, and Adam Herd to be our next Eastern Judge, and all between them.
Upon McKinley's victory the paper erupted with huge bold headlines proclaiming the election of "The Apostle of Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity."
The Ozark County News in 1894 made an ad hominem attack on the portly Grover Cleveland in another "Democratic Prayer." After beginning an appeal to "Great Jehovah Grover... who holdest the offices in the hollow of thy hand and withholdest them from anti-repealers ...."the mock entreaty continues:10
Thy neck, oh Cleveland, is like unto a male cow's neck and thy head resembles a sickly turnip. The size of thy pants is enormous and thy lower bosom is beyond description. Thou art as graceful as a cow and as gentle as a hyena. The symmetry of thy person is like a mud fence after a rain storm.
And so on in the same vein.
The Democratic papers, of course, got in their strikes at the Republicans. The mayor of Kansas City spoke in 1902 at Licking in Texas County to a large crowd. "At times he held his audience spellbound," the editor wrote, "again tears would be brought to the eyes of his hearers as he eloquently portrayed the condition of the common people under Republican high tariff and trusts."
In 1893, after noting that neighboring Willow Springs had a new lighting system and was illuminated for the first time by electric lights, the Eminence Current Wave editor commented, "Hurrah for our neighbor! A Democratic administration works wonders."
The Salem Democratic Bulletin announced in 1902 that its columns would be open to "all candidates who wish to announce themselves for the nomination by the Democrats in Dent county in the upcoming primary elections." Candidates of other parties would have to seek other outlets.
The Unterrified Democrat of Linn, in Osage County, founded in 1866, is one of the longest continuously published newspapers in Missouri. The founder was Col. Lebbeus Zevely, who, although a native of North Carolina, was not a Confederate and believed in preserving the Union. After the War, Zevely refused to sign the loyalty oath required by the Drake Constitution and railed in print against it. As a result he was dubbed an "unterrified Democrat"-hence the newspaper's unique name.
Under its present owner and publisher, the Unterrified Democrat is listed in the Official Manual of the State of Missouri as a Republican newspaper. However, for many years the U. T. supported all causes Democratic, and missed few opportunities to direct sarcasm at Republicans:
On account of ballot box stuffing of the recent Republican primary held in Miller County the entire vote of Eldon was thrown out .... That we should be treated to this unexpected performance in the rural Republican County of Miller is too shocking for contemplation. Unterrified Democrat, June 21, 1905
Editors throughout the Ozarks were proud of their communities and were magnanimous with their editorial praise when they felt compliments were due. The editor of The Commonwealth could hardly contain his pride at the success of the Fall street fair in Ash Grove in 1905.
Taken all in all our fair was the biggest thing that ever happened in this part of the United States....It is conceded by all present that Ash Grove is at the exact center of the cosmos. The hub around which all created suns and worlds revolve.
Such bragging came as no surprise to the readers of The Commonwealth. After all, that paper for years carded on its masthead the modest slogan, "Official Organ of the World."
Civic success did not always come easy. For such jubilations as street fairs and Fourth of July celebrations, the editor of the local paper often took upon himself the task of gadfly, and for several weeks preceeding the upcoming event he annoyed, coaxed, begged, threatened, and bragged the town into action.
A typical opening shot is this one in 1891 from the Ozark County News, Gainesville. The comma-ridden copy discloses wry editorial humor:
The Anervesary of the independence of our country, comes on the forth of July, as usual, this year, no changes having been made. The question now, is, will Gainesville enthuse ? If so, it is a matter that should come under discussion, by our people at once.
The urging usually succeeded and the festival was a glorious success. If occasionally the plans for the celebration fell through, bitter editorials appeared. Only two years before the grand and glorious street fair of 1905, a disgusted Commonwealth editor wrote:
Ash Grove was not at home on the Fourth. Ash Grove did not celebrate and so it went to see the neighbors who did. Our town spread itself out over considerble territory that day. It went to Springfield and Fort Scott and Golden City and Walnut Grove and Dadeville and Cave Springs and Phoenix and Comet and Haven and several other places. It was quite promiscuous. It spent as much for railroad fare as two celebrations would cost and didn't have half the fun it would have had at a picnic at home.
While picnics and fairs were pleasant and obvious means of promoting neighborly togetherness and pride, small town editors found many other ways to boost their towns and communities. Baseball games, for example, were more than casual athletic contests; on the conduct and performance of a team rode the pride and prestige of an entire community.
In 1895 the Gainesville ball club, the Blues, was a real powerhouse, winning regularly, and gaining lots of front page publicity in the Ozark County News.
At the second game of a three-game series, the Blues whipped the Salem, Arkansas team by a score of 17 to 5. The News editor allowed as how "The Salem boys are all jolly good big hearted fellows and we like them all but they don't know how to play baseball and when they tackle the Blues they are out of their class as ball players and don't you forget it."
The Salem Banner carded an editorial riposte:
If we were forced to choose between Hades and Ozark County, Missouri as our future destination we would study long and loud before making the choice for we figure the odds are rather in favor of Hades.
The Gainesville editor, of course, replied.
The chances are that the Salem man or men will not be required to study on that proposition. A man who makes remarks like the above it seems to us is pretty well settled in favor of Hades in preference to any other place.
This was a mild exchange compared to the editorial eruption in 1892 brought about by the Mountain Grove baseball club's informing the Ava, Missouri club that it would be "unable" to play a scheduled game. The editor of the Douglas County Herald wrote what started as a good natured jibe but developed into a bitter harangue against the Mountain Grove club, startling in its vehemence considering the triviality of the provocation. Of the cancellation he said:
That is a wise step. They have outlived their usefulness, they have exhausted their "hoodoo, "have met and vanquished, cheated and bluffed several amateur clubs, had the egotism to cross bats with ball players and were used as mops, chewed up and spit out and in the vernacular of the day discovered that they were "not in it." Don't submit your citizens to any further humiliation, gag yourselves, take your ball bats and herd geese, and the first man that pokes his slimy head through the green scum of obscurity and yells "baseball," make an angel of him on the spot.
Preachers in Print
Few editors were bashful about assuming a preacher/teacher role whenever they felt their readers needed instruction or exhortation regarding any of a number of local issues. Anything was fair game. Economic progress, modernization, municipal organization, politics, farming, and community pride were just a few of the many topics explored in Ozarks newspapers.
"Support your local merchants," was the message many editors directed to their rural readers. Ordering from mail order catalogues was a convenient and economical alternative for farmers who often felt the town merchants not only had a limited selection of merchandise, but often charged too much as well.
The editors tended to support the local merchants, many of whom advertised in the newspaper. "We don't believe in people patronizing mail order houses," wrote the Ash Grove Commonwealth editor in 1904 in a column addressed to the merchants of the town, "and we are going to say so. A dollar spent with a mail order house never gets back home. A dollar spent here helps everyone. We mean to help the farmers remember this."
Two years earlier the Houston Herald editorialized:
Who sympathized with you when your little girl was sick? Was it your home merchant, or was it Sears and Roebuck? Who carried you last winter when you were out of a job and had no money ? Was it Montgomery Ward and Co. or was it your home merchant? When you want to raise money for the church or for some needy person in town do you write to the Fair Store in Chicago, or do you go to your home merchant... ?
Town folk came in for their share of criticism too, with editors haranguing about the conditions of the streets, the deterioration of sidewalks, animals running loose in the streets, the lack of town government---or the failure of merchants to advertise in the local paper.
But most editors directed their campaigns to all their readers, appealing for action and cooperation for the greater good of the community as a whole. Ash Grove Commonwealth editors conducted extended and intensive campaigns to have State Normal School Number Four located in Ash Grove (OzarksWatch, Winter, 1988) and to have the Nevada and Springfield Southern Electric railroad built through Ash Grove ("There should not be a dissenting voice in Ash Grove on this proposition .... "
Invariably, the local papers bragged about the beauty and serenity of the Ozarks, the quality of life here, and the goodness and character of the people. These were qualities mentioned by editors to entice outsiders to come and settle in their communities. Some editors also recognized the economic value of these features in attracting tourists as well as settlers.
"Shannon County is destined to receive much attention from tourists, vacationists, and lovers of the big outdoors in future years," announced the Current Wave in a 1924 front page story. A new north-south highway was to be built, opening the way to St. Louis people "to come to our country to recreate, hunt, and fish."
The editor of the Wave gave his local readers detailed guidance as to how to respond to the anticipated flood of visitors. He provided a list of 21 detailed instructions to be followed in preparation for the remarkable invasion that lay ahead.
It was a kind of ultimate fix-up-and-be-good set of activities which included tree and hedge trimming, brush burning, fence repair ("discard old rail fences entirely"), whitewashing offence posts near the highway, mounting of mailboxes on sturdy posts, gate repair ("A sagging, broken gate is a sign of laziness"), driveway building, garage and barn fixup, ditch clearing, removal of farm equipment and tools along the road, and removal of cats, dogs, chickens, hogs, and children from the road.
No advertising signs, the Wave instructed, should be erected to offend the visitor' s eye. If one had fruits, vegetables, or other commodities to sell, one should "erect a neat sign to that effect near your gateway."
As for hospitality, a list of do's and don'ts was in order as well: Be courteous in supplying information. Do not overcharge for commodities. "Appear willing to help a traveler broken down on the road." Give water for a hot radiator or thirsty family. "On meeting [another car] give one-half of the road." And finally, "Engage the traveler in conversation and depict to him the beauties and advantages of the Ozarks."
The Wave and its readers had not always been so open and welcome to visitors. The popularity of Shannon County as a hunting and fishing resort for outsiders had earlier raised concerns. "Our people do not take kindly to this annual invasion," snorted the Wave in September of 1884. A sarcastic correspondent referred to the offending outsiders, saying "They did not stay long this year on account of the scarcity of fat hogs in the woods." The allusion to killing fat hogs in the woods while supposedly stalking deer or bear reflects the complexity of a situation where domestic animals mixed together with wild game on the open range.
Perhaps the change in the attitude of the people of Shannon County toward the economic benefits of tourism resulted from the example of Taney County. Visitors had been coming to that White River Valley county for many years, but the confluence of three events--the completion of a railroad to the area, the publication of Harold Bell Wright' s novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, and the impoundment of Lake Taneycomo---dramatically increased the number of tourists. These happenings, all of which occurred within a decade, at once made Branson, Missouri easily accessible to travellers, gave it national publicity, and provided it with a new family vacation attraction.
The White River Leader, published at Branson, was a long time supporter of the advantages of tourism to Branson. Some ten years before the Wave was instructing the citizens of Shannon County on how to behave when visitors came, the Leader was calling for community involvement in implementing creative and sophisticated means to improve Branson's competitive position. "There are many ways in which the name of the town and the lake can be kept in the mind and before the eye of the public but at very little expense to anyone," wrote the editor:
For instance, no letters should be sent out by any individual in Branson that does not bear the name of the town and the lake. No piece of parcel post, express or freight should leave the town without its being tagged in big showy letters Branson and Lake Taneycomo. This can be done by every person in Branson using envelopes printed in this way, let nobody use a plain envelope.
It can readily be seen what a vast amount of good advertising can be done at practically no cost.
In another article in this issue of OzarksWatch, Dale Freeman laments the loss of the personality of modem newspapers, "the peculiar character that distinguishes them from the newspaper published in the next town or county or region or state."
If an early newspaper was successful in setting itself apart from the others, it was because of its editor, whose personality and stamp of individuality would be found in every issue. Through the columns of his paper---cajoling, inspiring, browbeating, shaming, instructing, pleading--the editor sought to bring his readers, and his community, into modem times.
Small town weekly editors took themselves seriously (they believed in the importance of what they did) but seldom somberly (they enjoyed poking fun at themselves). The Commonwealth man wrote a pseudo-pitiful paragraph under the heading, "Such is Life:"
Did you ever stop to think how manifold the worries, how unnecessary the labors, how bitter and wormwoody the cussings, how few the real friends, of the newspaperman ? He is a business pariah, a part of whose trade is to come in contact with all his fellow citizens. It is impossible to please all. Yet all are of the constituency to which he must appeal.
The last word, perhaps, should be left to the Lamar Sentinel:
A Tecumsah, O[klahoma] T[erritory] lady was asked the difference between a man who dyed sheep and an editor. She answered: "One is a lamb-dyer, and the other--is just an editor.
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