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The early days of a two-paper town
By Tom Peeler |

Not even the oldest old-timer can remember when there wasn’t a News and a Herald. But Dallas was nearly 50 years old before these two survivors settled into a state of nervous coexistence, after trampling everything in sight except each other. To get where they are today took patience, gumption, a pawned gold watch, a few crusades and an occasional dirty trick. This is how The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald came to be.

In 1849, James Wellington (“Week”) Latimer loaded his printing press and type case on an ox cart and moved from Paris, Texas, to Dallas. Latimer had fallen for the hoopla that John Neely Bryan was putting out about Dallas becoming the “head of navigation” on the Trinity River.

Latimer, who had published the Western Star in Paris, came from a fine family (one member had signed the Texas Declaration of Independence). No more than 40 or 50 people lived in town when Latimer arrived, and there were maybe a few hundred more in the “circulation area,” but Latimer had a vision. The paper consisted of a little news that came in the weekly mail and Latimer’s uncompromising espousal of the principles of the Democratic Party.

Latimer took his business seriously and soon decided that the name he had selected for the paper (the Cedar Snag) was too frivolous to support the image he was trying to build. After a few issues, he changed its name to the Dallas Herald.

During the paper’s second year of operation, Latimer launched a particularly scathing attack on a local citizen who had presumed to express an opinion in favor of abolitionism. Although no name was mentioned, the editorial prompted a visit by one William Wallace, who demanded a retraction and an apology. Latimer informed the caller that the Dallas Herald would never retract an editorial opinion, but that he would be glad to oblige if Wallace wished to pursue the traditional manner by which a gentleman obtained satisfaction. The two repaired to the alley behind the office and engaged in a fist fight.

Latimer, magnanimous in victory, wrote an editorial in the next issue praising Wallace as a gentleman and encouraging the community to recognize Wallace’s God-given right to be wrong. A few months later, Wallace joined Latimer at the paper as a partner.

Wallace soon drifted elsewhere and was replaced as a partner in the paper by John W. Swindells, a printer from New York. In the spring of 1859, Latimer fell while carting an armful of firewood and fractured his skull. He died the next day.

The paper that Swindells inherited was full of promise for the future but was so beset with roadblocks on the path to success that it appeared that the future would have to get along without the Herald the best it could. A little more than a year after Latimer’s death, the town suffered the greatest disaster in its history. A fire, suspected to have been started intentionally by slaves, burned down nearly all of Dallas, including the Herald office. Within a few months, Swindells had bought new equipment and was back in business. But on April 12, 1861, Southern artillery shelled Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and in a matter of weeks, Swindells was surrounded by an army of financial woes. With supply lines to the North cut off and lines in the South needed to serve the Confederate Army, Swindells couldn’t get supplies. When the printing paper ran out, Swindells continued publication on wallpaper, and later on brown butcher’s paper. The ink was diluted to make it last longer, and the print became almost illegible. The Herald editor published a plea for the loan of a pair of scissors. A statement was published in the paper advising readers that butter and eggs would be accepted as payment for subscriptions in lieu of cash. Finally, Swindells announced that he and the entire Herald staff were leaving the city to join the Confederate Army.

After the war, Swindells and the Herald were back in business once again. When the railroad came to town in 1872, Dallas began to spread out in all directions, and the newspapers flew off the presses. In 1874, the Herald was converted from a weekly to a daily publication. In 1877, Swindells sold the paper and moved to Austin, where he became private secretary to Gov. Richard Hubbard.

Until the 1870s, the Herald had no noticeable competition; life itself was challenging enough. But with the railroad came more publishers hellbent on either making a fortune or saving the world. There were two morning papers: the Morning Call, which was soon consumed by the competition; and the Intelligencer, which never had a chance to begin with since it was published by Judge A.B. Norton, a self-confessed Republican. (Norton had once made a vow to let his hair and beard grow until Henry Clay became president.)

In the afternoon, in addition to the Herald there was the daily Commercial, which was making a commando raid on the Herald’s circulation. The Herald had changed hands several times since Swindells had left town, and its new owner, Paris S. Pfouts, was worried.

So was the Herald staff. A lively battle had developed between the Herald and the Commercial over what little news there was to report, and the editor of the Herald-sensing that his future was at stake-decided to get nasty. On a particularly dull evening in April 1879, the editor of the Herald sent E.G. Myers, the “printer’s devil,” down to Nussbaumer’s slaughterhouse for a bucket of beefs blood. The blood was then liberally splashed on and about the Commerce Street Bridge over the Trinity River. A creative Herald reporter fashioned a mournful suicide note that was left on the bridge, declaring that its author, a jilted suitor, could endure the situation no longer and had decided to end his wretched existence by slashing his wrists and then jumping into the Trinity. To add color, a photograph of the cruel woman was left with the note.

The Herald reporter prepared a long and grisly account of the whole sordid affair, and the newspaper hawkers had a field day on the street corners. The city reporter at the Commercial was fired for missing the story.

The reporter who had been canned by the Commercial had little else to do but hang around the local saloon, which was unfortunate for the Herald. Unable to restrain their enthusiasm after quaffing a few brews, the staff of the Herald recounted the story of their conquest for the benefit of the saloon patrons, not knowing that a spy was lurking in the dark recesses of the tavern. The ex-reporter immediately took the story to W.L. Hall, publisher of the Commercial.

Hall went to work on an expos坢 that would “wholly ventilate the dastardly canard.” Paris Pfouts, the Herald publisher, arranged for an eleventh-hour meeting with Hall, the result of which was a merger of the two afternoon dailies, the survivor known first as the Herald and Commercial and then simply as the Herald. The odd man out in the merger was James Alonzo Adams, who had been editor of the Commercial. Adams was offered the position of Austin correspondent, but he turned it down. On June 23, 1879, he started his own paper: the Dallas Daily Times. The Times was an afternoon paper, so the Herald was right back where it started.

Like Judge A.B. Norton of the Intelligencer, Adams was a Republican, and he immediately set about attacking the Democratic power structure in the city. Before the year was over, he was gone. His successor at the Times was William Greene Sterett, one of the most unique, absorbing characters in the history of the Dallas press.

Sterett knew everything about history and biography and nothing about poetry and philosophy. He had little regard for appearance, and he liked to wear his necktie in his coat pocket. He spoke in the manner of the educationally deprived, but he wrote like an old master. The late Ted Dealey once recalled that Sterett cussed beautifully and was the only man in the world who swore so vigorously, picturesquely and classically that he could fascinate the most devout clergyman without offending him.

Under Sterett’s tutelage, the Times was a lively operation. Any murder anywhere was covered in complete detail, even those involving prominent families that were played down by the other papers. At one point, the printers at the Times came into Sterett’s office and announced that a strike would be called unless they were given a raise. Sterett rose to his feet and put on his coat. “I’m with you, boys,” he said. “Let’s strike.” He then led the entourage to the saloon next door, where they stayed for two days and then returned to work at their old wages.

ALL OF THIS happened before The Dallas Morning News ever took its first breath. At the onset of the 1880s, Alfred Horatio Belo, president of the Galveston Daily News, decided that the North Texas area was ripe for picking. He dispatched George Bannerman Dealey, an Englishman who had joined the paper as a 15-year-old office boy, to survey the scene. Dealey spent months checking out the area and reported that the most likely spots were Dallas, Fort Worth, Sherman, Waco and Palo Pinto County, which was in the heart of a promising coal mining area. Finally, because of the railroads, Dallas was selected.

It was Belo’s intention to call the new paper the Dallas Daily News after its sister publication in Galveston, but an enterprising printer had locked up that name with a local rag that he intended to publish just long enough to make a killing on the sale of the name. But Belo wasn’t buying, and the Dallas paper was called the Morning News. Belo announced that the two-paper chain would be in a position to cover the whole state.

This galled the San Antonio Express, which attacked the Belo corporation for having “the cheek, the brazen effrontery to announce that the whole state will be covered in two editions. Its supreme arrogance and assumptions have been intolerable and need a rebuke.”

The Dallas Morning News was established in a three-story, red brick building on Commerce Street, between Austin and Lamar. Although Belo and Dealey were confident that the paper would succeed, they were not foolhardy and kept construction costs to a minimum. The pillars were made of concrete and were painted to resemble marble. The only frill was a fireplace for Col. Belo, but the building did boast one daring innovation: electricity. One hundred electric lamps were installed, powered by a 25-horsepower Westinghouse dynamo.

On October 1, 1885, as newsboys gathered around a bonfire in a vacant lot across the street and as night owls congregated around the horse trough in front of the building, the first issue of The Dallas Morning News rolled off the press, where it was grabbed by Pat O’Keefe, a neighboring Irish saloonkeeper. The next day, the Dallas Brewing Company bought free beer for the staff at the bar next door.

The News entered the Dallas newspaper competition with the caution and restraint of the Allied invasion of Normandy. It immediately became the circulation leader with sales of 5,000 copies a day. In two months, its morning competitor, the venerable Herald, threw in the towel, selling out to the News.

Six weeks later, the Dallas Evening Herald published its first edition. Started by a San Antonio investor and staffed largely by ex-employees of the old Herald, the paper was taken over in 1886 by Charles E. Gilbert, a fire-breathing journalist from Abilene. In those days, there was only one thing worse than a Republican in these parts: a prohibitionist. Gilbert was a prohibitionist. The struggling Herald lost its lucrative business from the whiskey and beer advertisers and gained the enmity of most of the local populace. Although it submitted the low bid on the city printing contract, it lost out to the Volksblatt, a German-language semiweekly.

Meanwhile, over at the Times, Bill Sterett was eating all this up. No one in the city was more firmly established as an anti-prohibitionist than Sterett, and the problems of the Herald, the Times’ new afternoon competition, seemed to mount. In December 1886, the Herald published a story about a saloon called Wichita, claiming that the toughs of the city congregated there and swooped down on every tenderfoot that walked through the door. The saloonkeeper sued the Herald for libel, threatening to ruin the paper, until the heat wore off after the “reputation” of the saloon was further damaged by other charges that it was selling liquor on Sunday.

But trying to go it alone against the News was a losing battle for the Daily Times and the Herald. The first issue of the Daily Times-Herald was published on January 2, 1888. Later, the dash was dropped, and still later, the name was changed to the Dallas Times Herald, which can trace its roots to the foundation of the Daily Times by James Alonzo Adams, the odd man out in the bucket of blood incident. The Dallas Morning News, were it so inclined, could assert its lineage back to Weck Latimer’s foundation of the first Herald, which was swallowed by the News, but it prefers to call itself simply “the oldest newspaper in Texas.”

The merger of the Times and the Herald was a source of amusement on the part of fellow newsmen. The Austin Dispatch admitted that “it’s an excellent combination but just how Mr. Gilbert, who is both a Christian gentleman and a prohibitionist, will amalgamate with his wicked partner, Sterett, is something that puzzles the friends of both gentlemen.” Amalgamate they didn’t, and in a few months, Sterett was working for the News, where he became Washington correspondent and confidant and advisor to presidents.

Just when everything was getting started, a thorn appeared in the form of Cecil A. Keating, head of Keating Implement and Machinery Company. An Englishman, Keating always sported a fine cigar and pronounced his first name in the proper manner, as if it were spelled “Sessle.” He was recognized as Dallas’ number one sophisticate and was head of the powerful farm implement lobby. When a squabble ensued in 1886 over where the state fair should be held, Keating attempted to put the pressure on G.B. Dealey, business manager of the News, to intervene on his behalf. When Dealey refused, Keating demanded that the News publish an advertisement whereby Keating would offer his stock in the News for sale to the public at 50 cents on the dollar.

The News obliged and published Keating’s announcement on the front page, along with an announcement of its own:

There is little sentiment about the News, and certainly the News is nobody’s toy. The News is here in a legitimate business capacity and the News is here to stay. This fact the Keating Implement and Machinery Company may rest assured of, the News will be doing business in Dallas long after the Keating Implement and Machinery Company and all connected with it are dead and forgotten.

Without Sterett, the Times-Herald was floundering again. Gilbert continued to have altercations with the local citizenry (including one with Frank Oliver, the mayor of Oak Cliff, whom Gilbert thrashed with a walking stick in a dispute over the governor’s race). The savior of the Times-Herald appeared in the unlikely form of Edwin J. Kiest, a short, stocky, fiery-tempered son of a Methodist preacher. As a 10-year-old, Kiest had sold newspapers on the streets of Chicago.

Kiest took control of the Times-Herald in1896, and although he had to hock his goldwatch a time or two during the lean years, hebuilt the Herald into a solid competitor for theNews. It still is.

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