Winchester Star 120 Years

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Serving area readers since July 4, 1896

July 4, 2016, special anniversary edition

The Star story Covering parts of three centuries

Editor’s Note: Douglas B. O’Connell, a longtime Star reporter and editor, originally wrote this history of the newspaper for The Star’s 100th anniversary in 1996. Additions and changes have been made to bring The Star’s story up-to-date by Adrian O’Connor, The Star’s editorial editor since 1992; Bobby Ford, a former editor who started in 1993 and is currently responsible for the paper’s digital offerings; and Assistant General Manager Thomas W. Byrd.


orn on the Fourth of July. It was on that date in 1896, 120 years ago, that 23-yearold John I. Sloat started The Star. It was the second daily newspaper he started in his hometown. It’s the one that has lasted — through three name changes and five generations of the Byrd family as publisher/manager. Sloat named his new six-afternoon-a-week daily The Star. It became The Evening Star around 1900, and Winchester Evening Star 14 years later (Dec. 22, 1914). The current name, The Winchester Star, appeared on the masthead for the first time on April 5, 1980. That was also the day the Saturday afternoon edition became a Saturday morning product. Twenty years later, April 3, 2000, the MondayFriday editions became morning editions as well. From type set by hand, a flatbed press, and a circulation of 400 at the end of its first year, the newspaper today is produced on a 64-page offset Goss Urbanite press with color photo capability. Nearly 17,500 people receive the paper each weekday and about 20,000 do every Saturday. Some read it without touching any newsprint, instead seeing it in a digital format on personal computers, tablets and mobile devices. Stories are created in a newsroom filled with computer terminals, not typewriters. Pictures, once drawings, are now digital images instead of photographs developed from film. Today, printed papers are delivered by adults in automobiles before the sun rises. In years gone by, a child’s first job may have been tossing papers from a bicycle in the afternoon. Times change. The Star remains.

John Sloat and the birth of The Star The first edition consisted of four pages and was little larger than a handbill. It cost 1 cent. T wo other newsmen, John Hoover and Vernon B. Gar ton, helped Sloat launch the fledgling paper. The Star’s future was at best uncertain in 1896. Sloat had created his own daily competition 18 months earlier, when he started The Item. Several weekly newspapers also vied for readers in the town of 5,000. Today, 120 years later, The Star has more than 60,000 readers and is the only daily newspaper published in Winchester and the surrounding areas of Frederick and Clarke counties, an area home to more than 120,000 people. Sloat was born in Winchester in 1873. He died in 1949. His obituary in The Star said he attended local schools until he was old enough to learn the printing trade on the Winchester Leader, Howard Gosorn’s

“Ma Winchester” first appeared in the Jan. 1, 1912, issue of The Star. Her image was based on a drawing by Neil Woods. “Ma Winchester” eventually became a fixture at the bottom left of the paper’s front page as a folksy daily feature containing comments on happenings around town. “Ma Winchester” became a casualty of World War II, not appearing afterward.

The first edition of The Winchester Star consisted of four pages and was a little larger than a handbill. It cost 1 cent. weekly Republican publication that operated from 1884 to 1899. Sloat was 21 years old when he decided Winchester was large enough to support a daily newspaper. He issued the first edition of The Item on Jan. 12, 1895. The four-page newspaper was printed on a job press on the second floor of a building at 14 W. Boscawen St. He would launch The Star across the street in the same block 18 months later. But first, Sloat sold the Item to Bernard Wade, editor of the Winchester Weekly News, 15 months after he started it. Sloat and his associates may well have been glancing over their shoulders as they produced that first edition of The Star. News — local news — was breaking all around them. A huge Fourth of July celebration to observe the nation’s 120th birthday was unfolding. Flags and bunting were ever ywhere downtown. Charles Broadway Rouss, one of Winchester’s benefactors — a fire company and the city hall bear his name — was in town for the event, as were crowds of Confederate veterans. A parade wound through downtown ending at Stonewall Cemetery, in part of Mount Hebron Cemetery, where the monument to fallen Louisiana veterans of the Civil War was dedicated. The Winchester Times, where Jennie Rivers Byrd then held the reins, estimated the crowd at 10,000 people, twice the size of Winchester’s population. A number of those in the crowd were brought to town by Baltimore & Ohio and Cumberland Valley Railroad trains. In the same edition of the weekly Times, July 8, 1896, the newspaper welcomed the new daily paper to town: “The Star is the name of another daily paper just started in Winchester, with Mr. John I. Sloat as editor. We have an idea that The Star will have rather an up-hill business at first, but if perseverance counts anything, Mr. Sloat will certainly bring it to the front.”

The Winchester Leader speculated bluntly about the new undertaking: “We learn a new daily newspaper has started in this city — [The Star] — edited by Mr. John Sloat. We wish it success, but we believe this town cannot support but one daily, and, as one fish eats up another, so it may be the survival of the fittest. Will The Evening Star eclipse The Item’s sun?” The answer to the Leader’s question was “yes,” but no one knew it then, especially Sloat. For The Leader had underlined the formidable task facing him. v Those early Stars carried a regular front page item titled “City Brevities.” This column consisted of short paragraphs, often only a sentence or two, about happenings around town. A few of the items: ll “A pedestrian had the misfortune to fall through one of Mr. Thomas Keating’s show windows last night with not much injury to himself but considerable to the window. ll “Her many friends will be pleased to know Miss Etta Kremer continues to improve, and that prospects for her complete recovery are very encouraging. ll “Mr. George Hillyard has cleaned the large dam at his place near this city. A number of fish and turtles were caught. ll “Mr. Letch Boehm is in town.” ll “Whortleberries are on the market.” Whortleberries? Webster’s New World Dictionary defines them as (1) either of two European blueberries ... and (2) any of various American plants, as the huckleberry. The local items from The Star’s first week appear in a Star editorial when it turned 95. That editorial also listed some things that occurred the year the newspaper was founded: Cy Young won 29 games pitching for Cleveland, and, Utah became the 45th state admitted to the union. Additionally, 1896 was the year

William McKinley was elected president. In the autumn, crowds in New York City flocked to moving picture shows, or “flickers,” as they were called. Across the Atlantic, Britain’s Queen Victoria was thinking about her Diamond Jubilee to mark her 60-year reign, which would occur the next year. In the first editions of The Star, Sloat was listed as local editor and business manager. Headlines were small. Ads were few. The pages were only about one-fourth the size of today’s. As Sloat’s tenure with The Item lasted just 15 months, so did his time with The Star. On Oct. 1, 1897, Sloat sold The Star — to a Byrd.

The Byrds swoop into the picture The history of The Star is necessarily intertwined with five Byrds. Richard Evelyn Byrd was the first of five Byrds to own/manage The Star. The strongest weekly in town the day The Star was born was The Winchester Times. Richard Evelyn Byrd was an owner of the Times. He and his law partner, Thomas W. Harrison, had purchased The Times in 1893. Harrison, who later became a judge and a congressman, sold his interest a few years later. Richard and his parents, Jennie Rivers Byrd and Col. William Byrd, shared occupational interests. Jennie was editor and publisher of the Times during the last part of the 19th century. His parents met in Virginia and married in 1859. The newlyweds moved to Texas shortly after that. Col. Byrd, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia Law School, become a newspaper editor, ran for the Texas legislature and was adjuntant general of the Confederate state’s military forces early in the Civil War. Richard was born in Austin, Texas, in 1860.

Col. Byrd returned to Virginia with his family after the war “broken in health and ruined in fortune,” his obituary said. Richard followed his father into print, the law, and politics. Richard was Commonwealth’s Attorney for Frederick County from 1886-1906. He was elected to represent Winchester and Frederick County in the Virginia House of Delegates, serving from 1906-1914. He was elected speaker of the House of Delegates in 1908, after only two years in that body, thus establishing a record that has not been duplicated. In 1912, he was the Virginia campaign manager for Woodrow Wilson, who was elected president of the United States that year. He retired from the legislature to become U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia and later opened a law office in Richmond. Through most of his political and law careers — between 1897 and 1913 — he was editor of The Star. v Richard Byrd purchased The Star at a time when Sloat was falling short on funds. “The expense of getting out a small sheet like The Star was considerable even in those days,” Sloat later said. “I soon found my limited capital evaporating. An installment of $400 was due on the press. I had about half of the necessary amount and was at my wit’s end. “A friend, Michael Lillis, loaned me $50 without security, but I was still short of the required amount. One day, just when things looked blackest, Richard E. Byrd walked into my office and said, ‘Do you need some money?’ To this day that quer y remains one of the brightest memories of my life. He wrote me a check for $200.” That day began the warm personal friendship with the brilliant lawyer that endured as long as he lived. Thus to Mike Lillis and Dick Byrd belong the honors of rescuing The Star from possible oblivion.” Richard E. Byrd’s principal interest in publishing The Star was in editorial writing. “I had been a student of (Charles) Dana, (Horace) Greeley, (Henr y) Watterson and Charles Emory Smith, but Dick Byrd’s articles, always brief and to the point, completely captivated me,” Sloat said. “When he spoke it was with the tongue of a Demosthenes, but when he wrote it was with the style and grace and pungent power of an Addison. He could say more in a few words than any man I knew.” Despite Dick Byrd’s way with words, The Star’s “possible oblivion” in the fall of 1897 was matched and nearly exceeded in the summer of 1903.

The son saves The Star Dick Byrd was regarded as a brilliant lawyer and a writer with power and style — but he was not a businessman. He didn’t like to dun his friends and neighbors for advertising bills. Friends and neighbors are what they were. The city wasn’t large, just more than 5,000 at the turn of the century. Many, especially those like Byrd in a high visibility profession, knew almost everyone else. Walking along Loudoun or Boscawen streets, you didn’t meet too many strangers. The crisis reached its climax when the Antietam Paper Company of Hagerstown, Md., ended The Star’s credit for newsprint, the paper upon which the newspaper is printed. In 1902 Dick’s 15-year-old son, Harry Flood Byrd, persuaded his parents to let him quit high school at the Shenandoah Valley Academy on West Amherst Street to try to salvage the newspaper. The young boy’s first move was to take the Cumberland Valley Railroad train to Hagerstown to meet the executives of the Antietam Paper Company. He said The Star could not pay its newsprint bill and he was not seeking additional credit. He said that if Antietam would send him just enough newsprint each day for that day’s press run he would pay cash, thus not adding to the amount already owed. As The Star progressed he would pay the original debt. Antietam agreed. Young Harry Byrd would meet the Cumberland Valley Railroad train with cash in hand each day

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