When the News Was New

by Amy Godine | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1996, historian and longtime contributor Amy Godine looked at the earliest Adirondack newspapers and what they said about the culture.

In the movie version
of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine an eccentric scientist in Victorian London builds a sleighlike gizmo in his carriage house that can pitch him into past or future with one tug of the stick shift. Under­stand, the thing itself doesn’t move; it doesn’t have to. What changes is the world around it: Hemlines, buildings, entire civilizations rise and fall with the seeming speed of light while the time machine itself sits there like a bump on a pickle, and the Time Traveler gets to watch war and apocalypse pound his beloved garden into rubble.

Now, I’m not saying reading microfilms of old Adiron­dack small-town newspapers turns me into Rod Taylor on a joyride through history. First, when he made time, he booked. For my part, no matter how cleverly I work the knobs, I can’t do better than reverse, and then only lurch as far back as the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Second, the Time Traveler rode in high style, his cock­pit a cross between a chariot and a lavishly upholstered English club chair. Me, I use a straight-back pull-up chair in the drab cubby of a library, and the only music is a thin fluorescent buzz.

Still, I figure I’m entitled to a pinch of kinship. We’re both trailblazers, a couple of armchair explorers. He finds a lost world and a cute, if addlepated, girl, to boot. My idea of gainful plunder is more modest: a few good head­lines—”Catholic Church Opposes Tango” or “Another Italian Ever-Ready Knife Fight”—and the delicacy of some antique obituary that describes a hapless home handyman as “an upright Christian, a good citizen and an ardent patriot, but with limited information with regard to circular saws.” Even material that falls under the rubric of There’s Nothing New Under the Sun is gold dust of a kind, like the case of teacher harassment circa 1878, in which a schoolmaster, fed up with boys playing catch in class, confiscates his students’ baseballs, includ­ing one that had been pitched into the wood stove and which, on hasty retrieval, turned out to be packed with enough gunpowder to blow the school to smithereens.

But these stray nuggets are just the top layer, the easy stuff. Dig deeper and you strike a richer, more prolific vein: how headlines, all together, tend invariably to mirror a small town’s image, and how that image changes and what those changes mean.

Historian Daniel Boorstin called them “the Upstarts”—the “quick-grown” city of the American frontier, “founded and built by the living generation, .. . over­whelmed by its imaginary present great­ness and its debt to the future.” If War­rensburg was some decades beyond a fron­tier town when the Warrensburgh News began publishing in 1878, growth was still the order of the day. Read the premiere issue’s booster editorial, justifying the need for a newspaper not in terms of any yen for hard news but in answer to those “businessmen and thrifty citizens of this enterprising town,” who, “for a long time … have felt the necessity of a better means of telling the outside world of the healthfulness of the climate, the beauty of its sur­roundings and the geniality of its citizens.” The first job of the small-town paper was to hype and hustle the same community about which it presumed to report.

Conflict of interest? Remember, Adirondack villages today are fully functioning, with fire hydrants working and streetlights in place. In 1878 a town like Warrens­burg was still inventing itself as it went along, one foot in the pioneer present, the other kicking toward the future. For the editor the question was not so much what is going on, as it was: What could be or what should be, and how might this be achieved?

So why was the lead story in the first issue of the War­rensburgh News about, of all people, the Italian patriot Garibaldi, rather than some tannery cutback or river­-drive calamity or sawmill shutdown?

People knew the local news. This was back when homes had porches. Folks came calling. They didn’t channel surf; they talked. And to an insecure provincial readership, a chance to impress some phantom judg­mental outside world with evidence of small-town eru­dition and culture—qualities that presumably reflected the town’s livability—was more enticing than stale gos­sip. How rough-and-tumble could a village be if the cit­izens cared this much about European history, after all? As for the choice of Garibaldi rather than the emperor of China, well, it’s obvious. The romantic saga of Italian national unification inevitably invoked America’s hun­dred-year-old infatuation with its own struggle for inde­pendence, and thus it managed to make the New World look even more venerable and wise than the Old.

From the get-go, news was determinedly promotional. It might advance the editor’s political agenda—North Country newspapers weren’t called the Essex County Republican or the Hamilton County Democrat for noth­ing. Or sell an image of community (public spirited, fam­ily minded, ambitious, law abiding, churchgoing, etc.) before the community itself was there. Pro-temperance stories were fond and frequent. Ditto profiles of the lead­ing capitalist elite, especially when editors could invoke popular theories of Social Darwinism and “the inevitable law of the survival of the fittest” to explain some industrialist’s “indomitable energy and perseverance” and so on. Capitalist paternalism also set a useful precedent for the Big Brother booster press, espe­cially when it came to folks fool enough to sully some settlement’s hard-working, sober image. See how the ever-vigilant Plattsburgh Sentinel reproved the chronically rowdy com­pany town Au Sable Forks in 1873: “People have come to the conclusion that there must be no more rum sold here on Sunday, and they mean business. Some particu­lar parties are being watched.”

If the Adirondack press lionized the independent cap­italist as fittest among entrepreneurs, imagine its adoring spin on America, the fittest of all nations—more liter­ate than Italy, where “fifty percent of the marriages cel­ebrated last year were between people neither of whom could write their names”; more principled than France, where “ninety-five percent of all murders committed are for money”; and more civilized than starving China, “where children daily are sold for food.” Ticking into the telegraph offices in Malone or Plattsburgh, these foreign missives had the mystery and unreality of a message in a bottle, scraps of fairy tales, lacking any context or expla­nation that might force some recognition of their rele­vance to daily Adirondack lives. Shock value aside, their true use was to underscore provincial America’s own sense of prideful difference: these snippets made the Unit­ed States look good.

But that’s the United States in theory. Read the fine print and you rapidly discern that not all states are created equal or even on a par with New York. In a dispatch from Kentucky—sounding as distant as the Fiji Islands—we learn of human clay-eaters. In Kansas, train robberies! In New Jersey, bank fraud! In the Wyoming territory, “another outbreak of Indians, under Chief Moses”! More titillating tales of polygamy from weird, unreal Utah! Five murderers on death row in next-door Vermont! And in the savage deep South, not a single mile of railroad built in all of 1873! If news about Europe made Ameri­ca look good, the news within America made the vil­lages of upstate New York look exceptionally sensible and safe.

A sea change swept the town-bound self-image of the North Country with the cre­ation of the forest preserve and the Adirondack Park. Editors were obliged to think in terms of a legally distinct region, how their communities fig­ured in it and what the settlement stood to gain. For one thing, no longer would the economic fate of any one crossroads hinge wholly on the health and wealth of a single pulp mill or mine. And newspa­pers, no longer obliged to serve the interests of local industrialists, gained some overdue editorial independence. Gone are the front-page romances about the glories of Garibaldi. Lead stories now dealt with the depreda­tions of “rings of timber robbers and speculators”—unnamed, of course, but it’s a start. Local coverage meant more than church suppers and the neigh­borhood temperance group. As early as the first decades of the new century, more stories about the state of the forests, lakes and wildlife appeared, information intended for an audience from away. Economic diversification had arrived in the person of the car tourist, armed to the teeth with special Adirondack road maps and full of fire for a rigorous new sport called auto-camp­ing that would knit once isolated villages into a web of pit stops on the Adirondack Grand Tour.

With the tourists inevitably came more tourist cover­age—social columns, notes on camp and hotel life, mishaps and the like. Perhaps the most intriguing was the report from a 1925 Tupper Lake Herald about a canoe accident in which two Russian guests at Long Lake’s Sag­amore Hotel were drowned. Why intriguing? Isaiah Hoorgin and George Sklansky were big-time players in the Bolshevik government of the new Soviet regime, Red Army war heroes, and—perhaps most significantly­—good pals of Leon Trotsky, who would himself die under misty circumstances in Mexico at the hands of Josef Stal­in’s goons. But you wouldn’t know any of this about them, or why their deaths put Long Lake on the map in Moscow and Berlin, from the brief note in the Herald. They were Russian, they were tourists and they drowned. The rest was for the world out there, and global news in Adiron­dack papers was as stiff and out of place as a girl in kid gloves and a silk gown at a grange-hall dance. Not like real news, not on a par with reports of forest fires across the park or the grand opening of a department store in Lake George.

Which leads us to another repercussion of the tourist trade: Where visitors wandered, business followed, and with it came the opportunity for ads. Auto liveries, camps, cottages and hotels were just some of the tourist-related services whose ads subsidized the growth of local rags. One of these newspapers, the Lake George Mirror (“The Only Summer Resort Paper in the Adirondacks”), catered solely to the tourist trade. In 1891, its first year of publication, the hot topic was the new carpet at Bolton Landing’s Sagamore Hotel—”like stepping on a Verdure-clad mossy bank.” Twenty years later, the scrupulously unoffending Mirror went after the environmental sins of the Ticonderoga paper mills, whose owners “do yet enjoy the use of the lake as a vast mill pond.” By 1922 articles on this or that hotel had given way to four-page Blue Line driving tours. The self-image of the village and the future of the park began to intertwine.

The irony is that for all the impor­tance of the tourist, the Adirondack fear of the stranger—the dread Outsider, the mys­terious interloper—con­tinued to inflame the headlines. From the 1870s to the First World War, Adirondack papers bristled with accounts of immigrant and outsider folly; obsession is the flip side of revulsion, after all. “Armies of tramps” thronged upstate county almshouses. No less worrisome were peddlers who failed to pay local taxes, thus deplet­ing village economies. Local columns were rife with tales of flimflammery and traveling con artists, including “a shark of a fellow” who sold magazine subscriptions in Thurman for a journal no one ever saw.

“Will people ever learn not to trust strangers?” a North Country editor despaired. But strangers made for such lively copy! Who could resist the story of the teenage Lebanese mail-order bride who broke her elderly peddler-husband’s heart when she took off with “two men of her race” and led the cops on a wild-goose chase from Lyon Mountain to Malone to Chateaugay to Montreal? Or the doleful tale of William Sheffer, fish merchant, who woke up from a nightmare in a Chestertown barn, and mistaking his own horse for an assailant, stabbed the critter dead. Particularly giddy are the turn-of-the-century rumored sightings in Saranac Lake or Plattsburgh of famous gangsters from the Lower East Side. Was that really Paul Kelly, leader of the all-powerful mob, the Five Pointers (successors to the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies and the Whyos), who slipped in and out of Saranac Lake to visit his sick wife—and no one recognized him? The disappointment is almost tangible.

More frankly troubled were accounts of illegal Chinese border jumpers, the despised wetbacks of their time. “By the late 1870s,” notes journalist Luc Sante, “it had become routine for cub reporters on
newspapers every­where to turn in their ‘horrors of Chinatown’ piece soon after being hired,” and the Adirondack press was right in step with the general xenophobic trend. Headlines from the first quarter of this century were full of immigration officers intercept­ing runners hauling carloads of “almond-eyed” Chinese in Massena, Malone, Chazy and Port Kent. In Port Henry, proof of these exploits showed up in seven hundred police mug shots from 1905 to 1907 alone, representing just the tip of the iceberg, of course: As the Hamilton County Democrat observed in 1892, “The difficulties of enumer­ating Chinamen are very great, and their evasive pow­ers are far above average.”

A decade later the spotlight swung to the immigrants from eastern and southern Europe who came to Essex County to labor in the mines, and here the keynote isn’t fear and bafflement so much as fatherly exasperation. (Will these people never learn?) From the Ticonderoga Sentinel, “Mineville Foreigners Fined $58 Each for the ‘Sport’ of Killing Songbirds.” Names? Ages? Their defense? You won’t find it here.

Of course, all immigrant groups in the Adirondacks felt the cold slap of anonymity for a decade or two after their arrival. Inevitably things moved faster for you if you spoke English or if your line of work suggested you might have a future as an advertiser, as it plainly did for the entrepreneurial Welsh, Eastern European Jews and Christian Lebanese, many of them ped­dlers turned shopkeepers, whose usefulness to the local press was as plain as the ink that pro­claimed their wares.

Of the scores of Russian, Polish and Italian miners who died in 1914 in the mines, we learn only the barest facts. From the Sentinel: “An Italian miner was killed last Friday in the Bonanza shaft in Mineville … He had been employed in the mine only a few days.” “A Polish miner was instantly killed by an electric shock in Harmony B mine at Mineville.” “A foreign miner employed at Harmony shaft at Mineville was killed last Thursday night.” Foreign from where? No clues here. No burning interest, either. Itinerant, unskilled, unorganized and near-invisible in boardinghouses far from Main Street, the newcomers hadn’t been here long enough to prove their staying power, hadn’t made their mark.

Compare those tales with the coverage of the death that same year of one William Riley, crushed to death by falling ore, “a good citizen and a miner of wide experience and ability,” father of three sons and three daughters, whose death was “deeply regretted in the mining vil­lage.” The Irish immigrants, three gen­erations deep, had evidently done their time.

During the short-lived Essex County mining strikes that occurred around 1913, this indifference to the miners’ lot would show the partisan Adirondack press to particular disadvantage. Blinded by its own pro-business bias and hobbled by inex­perience in the hard job of on-the-scene reporting (as distinct from mongering gossip and compiling obits, jokes, riddles, recipes, county-fair notes, church-service sched­ules, train times, serialized melodramas and dispatches from the wires), Essex County editors were compelled to quote from downstate labor rags to get hometown min­ers’ points of view. Thus, we learn not from the Ti Sen­tinel but from the New York World—as quoted in the Sen­tinel—that the president of the Mineville Miners Union could “produce affidavits that time and again men have been known to go down in the shafts never to reappear. They have been buried in cave-ins, and no-one has ever taken the trouble to dig their bodies out.”

That the newspaper ran these quotes is newsworthy in itself. If routinely mini­mized or consigned to jump columns, the labor viewpoint was nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, and the power of that potential readership could no longer be denied. Immigrants themselves might never read local papers, but
their children would, and what they didn’t find, they’d look for elsewhere. Call small-town upstate editors parochial and elitist, but they weren’t dumb.

Women, too, represented readers ripe for courting. You can see it in the swelling length and sophistication of the fashion page, in gossip (no longer just tidbits from little towns but whole columns from one mill), and in the rise of the serialized romance. As women gained the power to spend and manage household income, women’s ads got bigger, splashier, brasher. Compare the first advertisements in the Warrensburgh News, mostly for the printing services of the paper itself (“wedding invites, town meeting tickets, handbills, circulars, dodgers, snipes” and of course, legal notices, the fees for which kept so many upstart sheets in the black), to turn-of-the-centu­ry come-ons for “the Season’s Prettiest Bathing Cos­tumes,” taffetas and “French Sateens.”

Many of these early ads you can’t tell apart from news copy—same tiny type and column width, same breath­less purplish prose. But you can’t call it misleading, real­ly. In the booster rag, ads brought the news at least as much as factual reporting itself. Advertising showcased hometown spending power and prosperity. In time, ads flagged the economic arrival of hard-hustling, market-­savvy immigrants (“Ginsberg, the giver of honest goods at honest prices!”). Ads bruited the sophistication of Warren, Essex and Franklin counties’ buying gentry. All this was news, good news at that. As ads got more com­petitive and more blunt spoken, terse and hard sell, they ushered in a change in journalistic style. They—along with radio, which communicated through the human voice in all its natural, plain glory—drove the subtlety of the century-old news essay right off the page.

I guess it’s good. News got better as it got blunter, less baroque and lofty, more, well, newsy. Better but not a particle as much fun. What today compares to the marvel of this news bite circa 1892 from the Hamilton County Democrat: “George Huber, the museum man, says that freaks are get­ting more numerous all the time, but that new freaks are scarce. Tattooed freaks are the commonest; armless freaks come next, wild dwarfs are plentiful and good giants scarce.” From Warrensburg we read of a bolt of light­ning that crashes into the dining room of a Reverend Palmer, splits a pie dish and hurls the pie sky-high. Or consider this morsel from a 1911 Ticonderoga Sentinel headlined, “Please Be Good!”: “Sheriff C Knowlton will undoubtedly take it as a special favor if the people of Essex County will be good until such time as the con­gested condition of the jail is relieved. The jail just now is in a crowded condition. There are 36, including a baby, in the jail. … Some are obliged to sleep in cots outside of their cells.”

Read Adirondack newspapers from 1870 to the First World War to be informed, you may find yourself at sea. Read, on the other hand, to be amazed, the stuff won’t let you down:

In 1913 near Plattsburgh, “thousands walked over the ice” just to see a frozen horse, its head craning stiffly from Lake Champlain’s ice.

In 1914 in Schroon Lake, voters nixed the town clerk’s appointment along with the rent bill for the room in which he kept records, so all the documents wound up being dumped in the street. “It has been suggested,” the Warrensburgh News noted silkily, “that some public-spir­ited citizen contribute a pack-basket for the storage of the town records, and that the 69 citizens who voted ‘No’ take turns in guarding and carrying it. There is some objection to this on the grounds that it might make the town an object of ridicule, and possibly, in time, it might come to be known as ‘Pack-Basket Schroon.”‘

In 1913 in Lake Placid, “a number of respectable cit­izens,” fed up with a local fellow in the habit of “getting drunk on every possible occasion,” tied him with a rope, dragged him through the streets and “administered a horse whip good and hard,” along with a firm warning that “unless there was immediate reformation in his char­acter, he would get another dose of the same medicine.” In the Wild West maybe, but frontier vigilantism in ele­gant, alpine Placid? Surely some cautionary note was called for, something to suggest that this was not the Adirondack way. “It is believed,” the article concluded, “that the punish­ment will have a good effect upon Mitchell and it may possibly make a better citizen of him. The entire com­munity in which he lives believed that the punishment he received was well merited, and no effort was made to dis­cover who was connected to the mat­ter [or to] move toward their arrest.”

But the story that more than any other suggests to me the discrete plea­sures of history through headlines is from a 1913 Ticonderoga Sentinel enti­tled, “Schroon Lake Objects to Rumors of Wife Trading and Other Immorali­ties.” That year it seemed the town enjoyed a reputation as “a second China as regards cocaine and opium trafficking” and was reportedly aswarm with “cocaine fiends” and missionaries looking to set it on the straight and narrow. Or so reported one H. L. Thay­er, whose letter ran as the lead. In point of fact, he noted, after living twenty years in Schroon, he knew of but “one confirmed opium eater.” As for the rest of these reports, “We do not exchange wives. We have four churches, three of them open all year. And there is no poker game running in our village or near here.”

Which is more, notes Mr. Thayer, than what might be said for any “four blocks [he] could mention in the city of Albany,” from whose nasty-minded and impious presses these rumors ap­parently derived. As for missionaries, while Adirondackers had long sup­ported the mission cause in China, “let it be known,” he promised, that if those same missionaries would set their sights on Albany instead of Shanghai or Peking, “we will triple our contribu­tions in the future.”

Long after there are no more Adi­rondack firsts out there—no more untrod bushwhacks, unnamed flowers, unsung views—uncharted and aban­doned acres of small-town newsprint will remain to be explored and cele­brated, making social history the last frontier for the armchair pioneer.

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