STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
Pioneer Editors and Journals
Those were spirited and breezy days in the latter months of the year 1870 when Modesto the melting pot of a trio of old-time settlements was in the making.
The rapidity that marked the growth of Modesto rivaled anything that had occurred in the previous history of the state.
When the good citizens of Paradise either from short-sighted business policy or from pronounced anti-railroad antagonism or from the fact that John Mitchell, the owner of the Paradise townsite, refused to grant to the railroad company the right of way through the town failed to meet the concessions solicited of them by the Contract and Finance Company, they sealed the doom of their own city and of two others inhabited by their neighbors.
It was the desire of the railroad builders the pioneers in the development of the interior valleys to cleave the San Joaquin valley with the steel highway to transport the wealth of grain and cattle from the plains. A crossing over the Tuolumne river was necessary. Because of the narrowness of the stream at this point and because of the charming natural surroundings, Paradise was deemed the ideal spot for the bridge that should span the water course. Negotiations were opened with the citizens of Paradise for a right-of-way and for access to the river. No results having been accomplished, the transportation authorities purchased the section of land upon which Modesto was subsequently located and surveyed the road through this land. Modesto thus came into existence and absorbed the towns of Empire, Paradise and Tuolumne City.
When it became known that the new railroad town was destined to be located upon the present site of Modesto, there followed that picturesque and now historic exodus of people from these three cities to Modesto -
to grow up with the newly created metropolis and to participate in the golden era of prosperity to follow its settlement. Visions of a populous city and of the early attainment of the county seat Modesto the hub of the county not unmingled with prospects of untold wealth to be obtained in trade and traffic flitted across the minds of the moving caravans that sought the new El Dorado.
With the influx of population there came to the town the pioneer newspaper publisher in the person of J. D. Spencer, Modesto's first editor. For in those primitive times the journalist responded to the kaleidoscopic changes in cities and conditions and followed the crowd to the more alluring fields of business activity. At an earlier period and prior to its annexation to this county, Knight's Ferry possessed two periodicals which were published for a short time and which went the way of many another publication in those exhilarating days, ceasing to exist when the population departed for more profitable pastures.
The mining excitement of 1859 developed the Knight's Ferry Bee, practically the first paper in Stanislaus county. Its career extended for a little over a year. Upon its ruins arose the Stanislaus Index, after Knight's Ferry had become an integral part of this county. After the floods of 1861-62, the Index suspended publication. The writer has read copies of these publications. Reflecting the robust spirit of the era in which they were published and visualizing the life of the day, while they contained little news of importance, the few items and scraps of information scattered through their pages, as well as the advertisements, mirrored a birdseye view of the social, political and commercial activity of Knight's Ferry in the period of its prestige.
After the demise of these publications, Stanislaus county was without newspapers until 1868, when the Tuolumne City News made its appearance in Tuolumne City with J. D. Spencer as the editor and publisher. It was vigorously democratic. Issued in the midst of quite a settlement in central Stanislaus and expounding Jeffersonian democracy in a forceful and luminous manner nearly all the early settlers being of that political faith the News enjoyed a large clientele of readers.
While strictly partisan, the Tuolumne News in its attitude on public questions foreshadowed the political regeneration that followed in this state many years later. Wielding a trenchant pen, Mr. Spencer, in his small weekly published on the plains of Central California, away from the beaten lines of travel, and isolated, as it were, from the highways of the state, created such an intense feeling by his exposures that he disrupted the crooked ring that controlled the land office at Stockton. This paper also urged the repeal of the pernicious fence law and by its ability and persistence procured the passage of the trespass law, which secured the settlers from the heavy expense of fencing their lands before the crops could be raised. Closely interwoven in the very warp and woof of the industrial life of the first settlers who inhabited the central portions of the county and who were thus early endeavoring to work out its destiny, these issues, small and petty as they may now seem in retrospect, represented the life blood of the primitive community.
Mr. Spencer, reverenced by the old-timers for his sterling qualities of mind and heart a West Virginian who crossed the plains in 1849 in an ox-drawn wagon and who followed prospecting in the mines after his arrival in California was reared in the rugged school of hard experience. Living the life of the typical '49er in the open, he encountered all the trying vicissitudes of the pioneer. A mere lad when he entered the state, his first impressions of the country and of the society of the Pacific Coast were acquired under the most adverse circumstances. The rough miners among whom he lived, the rude system of law and retaliation which then prevailed, were not conducive to the moral or the mental improvement of the youthful pioneer. The cheerful crack of the revolver and the shrill squeak of the victim were familiar sounds in his ears. Possessing a mind not easily overbalanced and having received a good religious family training, these associations failed to have a deleterious effect upon the character of the future editor and lawmaker. Abandoning mining in 1860, Mr. Spencer became a photographer, in which employment he remained for two years. Finding this occupation unsuitable to his genius, he entered the journalistic field, editing the Woodbridge Messenger in 1865 and the San Andreas Mountain News at a later period.
One of California's early journalists, he was one of the most notable and picturesque personages in the history of the state and of Stanislaus county.
A fluent speaker and a forceful writer, Mr. Spencer became the acknowledged leader of his party in Stanislaus county a position which he held until his death. Of incorruptible integrity and unaffected character, he was honored with election to the assembly from this county in 1879. In 1882 he was returned to the state senate from the district comprising the counties of Mariposa, Merced and Stanislaus, and was re-elected by a larger majority in 1884. As a representative, Mr. Spencer was quiet, dignified and earnest and wielded great influence among his colleagues. In the assembly he was the democratic candidate for speaker and received a handsome minority vote. In the legislature he proved himself to be a hard worker, was always in his seat, and watched every proposition that appeared in the legislative halls. He made but few speeches. When he addressed the assembly or the senate on measures that affected the interests of the people or of his constituents he was given the closest attention and exhibited a command of language and a statesmanlike comprehension of the matter that were only acquired by years of study and reflection. His legislative course was marked by consistency and honesty. In all his political activity, he was a democrat and a partisan of the old school. He was one of the few steadfast anti-railroad representatives who emerged unscathed from the contaminating influence of the corrupt ring that held sway at Sacramento in that period. Unlike many another lawmaker in those days of bribery and corruption, he returned to his constituency at the close of the sessions with honor unstained, with reputation untarnished and with loyalty to his ore-election pledges, at all hazards, unbroken.
Two incidents known to old-timers illustrate Mr. Spencer's political honesty and rectitude. At one of the legislative sessions, a vigorous anti-railroad fight was in progress. Mr. Spencer's little baby was sick unto death in Modesto and subsequently died. The parents were prostrated with grief. The mother was on the verge of a serious nervous breakdown. In this hour of parental anguish, the despicable lobbyists sought to capitalize the affliction by offering Mr. Spencer a large sum of money to attend the infants' funeral, and to remain in Modesto until after the vote on the bill,
which the railroad representatives desired defeated. Mr. Spencer was present at the obsequies, bore the sorrow with Spartan fortitude, and appeared in the legislative chamber to cast his vote for the measure.
During another legislative contest which involved anti-railroad legislation, Mr. Spencer was suddenly taken ill and lingered in a critical condition for several days. The same money consideration was offered to him to transmute his illness into a pretext for his absence from the legislature until the vote had been taken on a certain measure and its defeat assured. At the risk of fatal consequences to himself, he permitted himself to be carried into the senate on a cot. His vote was recorded for the bill.
Mr. Spencer's attitude on another matter illustrated his unwavering fealty to his high political ideals and his devotion to the public weal. In 1875 the county was startled by the details of a political scandal that involved many of Mr. Spencer's personal friends and political allies. It arose in the senatorial contest of that year when R. H. Ward, democrat, was elected to the state senate over J. M. Montgomery, republican, by a majority of fifty-five votes on the face of the returns. In Stanislaus county, Ward seemingly secured a majority of 190 votes, which apparently assured his election. After a prolonged official investigation, Montgomery was awarded the seat in the senate. The evidence disclosed the fact that a prominent local politician, with the connivance of a deputy county clerk, had in the night abstracted from the county clerk's office the ballots of certain precincts. These ballots were removed to the rear room of a saloon on Front street and altered in such a manner as to give Ward the large majority in this county. After having thus been tampered with, the ballots were returned to their place in the county clerk's office.
Breaking with friends of years' standing, oblivious of the effect of the disclosures on the political complexion of the legislature or of the county, and regardless of the consequences to himself, Mr. Spencer's papers vigorously denounced the crime against the integrity of the electoral machinery. The person responsible for the mutilation of the ballots was inducted by the grand jury, and upon trial convicted.
Mr. Spencer, in his paper, not only published all the evidence, but also the eloquent address of the assistant counsel for the prosecution. The deputy county clerk involved disclosed the entire conspiracy to the jury.
A new trial was granted by the supreme court on an error of law, as could be easily accomplished in that era of adhesion to the fetish of legal technicality. On re-trial in the district court, it was discovered that all the evidence, including the mutilated ballots, had conveniently and mysteriously disappeared. This peculiar circumstance not only demonstrated the arts of manipulation as practiced in the early days, but caused the discontinuance of the prosecution. It was indeed a courageous act of the humble country editor in the time of powerful political rings that ramified indefinitely to publicly expose such a crime, particularly when his own party and political associates were to become the beneficiaries in office and patronage of its successful consummation.
When in 1885, J. W. McCarthy, clerk of the supreme court, who had been elected to the position on the state ticket with Governor Stoneman in 1882, absconded to the Hawaiian Islands, leaving the affairs of that office in a chaotic condition, and the supreme court judges refused to recognize the authority of any of the clerk's deputies, Governor Stoneman appointed Mr. Spencer to fill the vacancy thus created. The appointment became effective on January 6, 1886. It was a tribute to Mr. Spencer's honesty. It won unanimous satisfaction from the bench and bar of the state. Mr. Spencer's bondsmen were Hon. A. Hewel, formerly superior judge of this county, and Hon. E. B. Beard. Mr. Spencer was subsequently elected to the office in 1886. J. W. McCarthy, previous to his election as clerk of the supreme court, had been the clerk of Stanislaus county for several terms and possessed the reputation of being one of its political bosses.
When in 1870 Tuolumne City placed itself on wheels and madly entered the picturesque race over the newly-made stubblefields, Mr. Spencer, with is residence and printshop, type and forms, joined the grotesque caravan that moved toward Modesto. Reaching the town late in the fall, he located his home on the corner of I and Eleventh streets, and his print shop on the lot to the south.
For the purpose of establishing a newspaper in Modesto, the property was donated to Mr. Spencer by the Contract and Finance Company.
The Tuolumne City News was transformed into the Stanislaus County News. On December 2, 1879, the latter periodical, the first newspaper published in Modesto, made its appearance. It was a four-page publication, typographically neat in appearance, and well filled with advertising. This initial issue is a curiosity, both as a paper and as a representative piece of pioneer journalism. So far as known there is only one copy extant. As was the custom of the early publishers, the first page was devoted to the usual poem and the assortment of miscellaneous literature descriptions of travels and other choice bits of prose. There were no editorials in this issue, and very little news, but an abundance of state, national and world items.
The first page contained the county official directory and the cards of the professional men. These cards are highly reminiscent as to the personnel. They disclose the fact that the attorneys and the medical practitioners resided at widely separate localities in the county. They also indicate the county's sparse settlement at this period. The advertisements of business men from every hamlet in the county appeared in this issue. Most of these men became a part of the commercial life of Modesto within the following year or two. The Modesto advertisers were quite numerous. The fraternal societies were represented by the Odd Fellows and the Masons. Among the news items was the notice of the then recent death of R. C. Gridley, extensively known for the aid he contributed to the sanitary commission during the Civil War.
The exigencies of the political situation in 1884 were such that the democratic chieftains deemed it expedient to publish a daily paper in Modesto in order to spread the Cleveland propaganda, to infuse enthusiasm into the ranks of the dominant political organization and to combat the growing strength of the opposition. The Weekly News blossomed forth as a daily newspaper. This journalistic venture was made possible by the liberal and substantial donations of money and the tender of advertising contracts by the friends of the pioneer editor and by their continued and consistent patronage.
An early advocates of irrigation, Mr. Spencer rendered valuable service to the movement by assuming a positive position on this subject and by opening the columns of the News to a broad discussion of the topic. He favored the Wright Irrigation Law and was a consistent supporter of the districts after their organization. He was the clerk of the supreme court when that tribunal sustained the constitutionality of the law in a decision that rendered possible subsequent development.
Unawed by power, uninfluenced by ambition, the pioneer editor held the esteem and the leadership of the community he loved so well and threaded the uncertain path of him who essays the character of the journalist in the quiet and sequestered country village. With a gentleness of speech, and an unassuming grace, with beneficence of mind and charity for the frailties of mankind, for twenty-five years he wielded his talents of oratory and authorship for the good in life, and wrote and spoke to the heart and mind of man. After a long life of service in the cause that he deemed just, he passed to the Great Beyond, where the turmoils of party strife and the perplexities of the editor are absent, leaving an indelible impress on the civic and the political institutions of the county.
Of this pioneer editor it may be said, as was penned of the journalist in the days gone by:
To serve thy generations this thy fate;
'Written in water,' swiftly fades thy name;
But he who loves his kind, does first and late,
A work too great for fame.
After the death of Mr. Spencer in 1895, the control of The News was transferred to his widow. For many years thereafter, under various editorships and managements, it advocated the principle of the democratic party and frequently was the only daily published in the city. Under these regimes it was consistently pro-irrigation. During these dark days of irrigation litigation when agriculture lagged and business reached the lowest ebb in Modesto when the anti-irrigationists held the control of the board of directors of the Modesto Irrigation District The News was outspoken in denunciation of those who sought to wreck the newly adopted plan of communal irrigation on the rocks of selfishness and obstruction.
In 1912 The News passed into the control of E. L. Sherman, O. R. and S. T. Morgan. Under the editorial direction of E. L. Sherman, it made great strides as a metropolitan newspaper, keeping pace with the growth of the community and persistently advocating those measures which redounded to the progress and advancement of the entire county. Not only as a newspaper man has Mr. Sherman taken his place in the affairs of the city, but also as an active booster of the town and county. He served as the president of the Modesto Chamber of Commerce for several terms, was chairman of the Liberty Bond committee of the county, which financed the various bond drives during the war, and was also chairman of the committee which created the first county fair in Modesto.
In 1920, the successful celebration of Modesto's fiftieth anniversary of its birth, combined with the commemoration of the signing of the armistice in the world war, and the dedication of Modesto's municipal aviation field, was in the charge of Mr. Sherman as chairman of the general committee having control of the pageant. In March, 1921, the control of The Evening News was secured by Mr. Sherman and his associates, the Morgan brothers giving up their interest in the business.
During the early years of Modesto's infancy, the Stanislaus County Weekly News held the journalistic field unmolested by competition. Several efforts were made to establish an independent and opposition paper. In 1873, the Modesto Mirror, a small four-page weekly, was established by S. Macy. In the following year it was purchased by L. F. Beckwith, previously connected with The News. It was an independent paper with republican proclivities. The Mirror was conducted by Mr. Beckwith until the close of the famous first local option campaign held in this county. The Mirror espoused the cause of local option. The election was held on May 1, 1874, license being victorious by a majority of 65 votes in a total of 691 in Empire precinct, composed of polling places in Modesto, Empire City, Tuolumne City, Turlock, Murphy's (now Salida) and the old-time colony of Westport. Modesto, Turlock and Tuolumne City gave majorities for license. This election was most exciting and spirited. Though the friends of local option worked energetically, they labored unsystematically against an organization composed of the most expert politicians of the county.
This election signalized the first time leadership in electoral matters in the county passed to the ministers of the gospel, aided by the women. The scene around the polling place in Modesto is thus described by Mr. Spencer: The scene presented was certainly novel if not interesting. In the large crowd, packed close together, near the entrance to the stairs leading to the polling place, could be seen negroes, preachers, merchants, gamblers, ladies, all mixed and talking on the one exciting topic. In the hands of the ladies were the legal ballots and bouquets of roses, emblems of everlasting innocence, urging often the rough African to accept them, which was sometimes done through politeness but oftener in a spirit of bitter burlesque. The large floating vote was well handled by the licensed advocates.
This election proved disastrous to Mr. Beckwith and his paper passed out of existence. The material was purchased by H. E. Luther, a pioneer farmer, and on January 28, 1875, the Modesto Herald made its appearance, with Mr. Luther, the first Republican editor in Modesto, in charge of the paper. Closely identified with Mr. Luther was Colonel John R. Kelso, veteran of the Civil War, pioneer school teacher, author and lecturer, who assisted in the editing of the Herald. Colonel Kelso was a forceful, fluent and polished writer. Mr. Luther's health failing, the Herald was sold to Charles Maxwell, who published it for several years, transferring it to Colonel A. E. Wagstaff in 1880. Mr. Wagstaff was a partisan Republican of the old school. He had fought in the Civil War. His military career contained one of those hidden romances born of the conflict on the field of battle, in which he was the victim of the influence and the enmity of the superior officer. Though a clever writer and though participating largely in the affairs of the community, the Herald was far from a successful venture.. In the early '80s it passed into the control of a coterie of Republican politicians with Captain T. W. Droullard, then a dentist in Modesto and later the mayor of Santa Cruz, at the helm.
In 1884 the Herald was secured from this organization by S. L. Hanscom. Mr. Hanscom had previously been a teacher by profession. His experience as a newspaper man was gained on the Modesto News.
Under Hanscom's management and editorship, the Herald threaded a most exciting and spectacular career. The desire of this militant editor was to convert this county into a Republican stronghold. His style of writing was pugnacious, forcible and trenchant. He wielded a pen that figuratively made the journalistic sparks fly. As a consequence he was constantly embroiled in all manner of personal and political fights, and frequently was the defendant in libel suits. On his office desk there was always a loaded revolver, ready for immediate action or defense. In his travels around the town he was frequently accompanied by a bodyguard. On more than one occasion he was made the target for the gunfire of those whom he had assailed in the Herald. These shots always went wide of the mark and Hanscom emerged from these duels unhurt. Under Hanscom's management the Herald was intensely Republican, fiercely anti-Democratic, vigorous and outspoken in the denunciation of local abuses, and thoroughly antagonistic to the city and the county administration. He was persistently anti-saloon. Mr. Hanscom is now a prominent business man of San Francisco.
In 1891 the Herald was acquired by T. C. Hocking, a Grass Valley newspaper man who had been lured to Modesto by the prospects of irrigation. From that date the Herald became a force in the community that made for progress. Under Mr. Hocking's management the Herald, while thoroughly partisan as a Republican periodical, fought the battle of the pro-irrigationist and became the advocate of civic progress. As the President of the old Stanislaus County Board of Trade, Mr. Hocking personally led the contest against the anti-irrigation organizations which resulted in the election of a pro-irrigation directorate in the Modesto District and the completion of the irrigation works. On the completion of the irrigation system in 1893, Mr. Hocking was given the honor of presiding over the festivities attending the jubilee which signalized the bringing of water to the arid lands of the Modesto Irrigation District. In 1910 the Herald initiated the campaign for a new charter for Modesto, which resulted in the election of a board of freeholders and the adoption of Modesto's commission government charter under which the city has made such marvelous strides in civic progress.
In 1900 the Herald became a daily and with the growth of the community enlarged its plant commensurate with the advancement of the county. As a writer Mr. Hocking's contributions to his paper were noted for their elegant diction and forcefulness. In 1920, ill health caused Mr. Hocking to retire from the journalistic field and activity. The retirement of this veteran editor, whose voice and pen were given freely to the upbuilding of this irrigated empire in the dark days of the almost hopeless litigation during the era of strife and trouble, was indeed a keen regret to those who had aided in the fight in the years gone by, for indeed in that period of travail, Mr. Hocking's personality and paper were a tower of strength, both personal and moral, to the cause of irrigation. The Herald then passed into the control of a corporation of local business and professional men with Leslie A. Ferris as managing editor. It is Independent Republican in politics.
During the decade from 1880 to 1890 at least four other papers appeared on the journalistic horizon in Modesto and traveled the pace for a few years. The Farmers' Journal was born of the internecine feuds in the Democratic party in 1882. It was a weekly paper and subsequently became a daily. It was edited by W. E. Turner, Esq., one of the most prominent of the legal profession in Modesto's infancy. It became the personal sheet of the Walden and the Harp wing of the county Democracy and of the editor, and voiced a vigorous opposition to those political elements which were led by Sheriff A. S. Fulkerth and Hon. J. D. Spencer. Its editorial utterances were vitriolically personal and vindictive. The Daily Strawbuck, afterwards the Republican, with H. L. Bradford as the editor, made its appearance in 1882. Mr. Bradford had previously been a sign painter in Modesto. His great journalistic feat was the publication of the first extra ever issued in Modesto upon the occasion of the killing of Joe Doane by the Vigilantes in 1884. Mr. Bradford subsequently became a prominent lawyer in San Francisco. The Modesto Sun, a small daily sheet, was published by H. S. Turner in the middle 80's. It was well edited, but failed to survive after a few months of publication. I. S. Loventhan, a Republican politician, published a daily for a few weeks in 1886. It died from lack of patronage.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.