The Woodburn Independent celebrates 130-year birthday
Well, it crept up on us. We just passed a major milestone. On Saturday, it was exactly 130 years since the first issue of the Woodburn Independent was published (it also fell on a Saturday). The Independent is not only older than the city itself, which incorporated in 1889, but it's the longest running business in Woodburn.
So, for our editorial opinion this week, we thought we'd walk down memory lane and share some fun tidbits about the history of the paper. Much of the information we've gleaned is from a special publication the Independent printed in 1989 celebrating Woodburn's 100th birthday.
Jesse Settlemier, who has been called the father of Woodburn and would become the town's first mayor, thought Woodburn was growing enough that it could support its own newspaper. He offered financial backing to it and, in 1888, found a young lawyer, Leonard H. McMahan, to run it. The first Independent office was set up on the corner of First and Cleveland streets.
Since rolling out its first issue on Dec. 1, 1888 (which was mistakenly marked as Vol. 1, No. 2 instead of Vol. 1, No. 1), the paper has never missed an issue.
In the salutatory on Page 2 of the first issue, McMahan wrote, "It is not our intention to devote much time or space to politics, but rather to that which will most benefit and interest an agricultural community. ... Standing, as we do, distinctly apart from all political parties, we reserve the right to criticise or condem (sic) the tenets of any or all parties, and will exercise this right without fear or favor."
McMahan would become known as a "fighting editor" with strong political beliefs and a knack for stirring up controversy. Years later, he is thought to have said, "I've been in a fist fight on every street corner in Woodburn and got licked in most of them." According to longtime Independent publisher Gene Stoller in the 1989 publication, it's rumored that McMahan even shot a man following a political argument, though he didn't kill him.
During the depression of 1893, the newspaper owner let people drop off cord wood in his lot in exchange for subscriptions (at that time, subscriptions were only $1.50 for a year!).
A.S. Auterson, who McMahan hired to run the printing side of the business, stayed on when McMahan left after five years. The next editor , a Presbyterian minister named J.E. Day., didn't last long. Herbert Gill took over for Day a year later in 1895.
Gill published papers in Colorado, Canby, Aurora and what is now Lake Oswego. He was resourceful. Stoller told the story that at a previous paper, having run out of metal strips for leading to separate the lines of type, Gill ran to local saloons to convert their wooden cigar boxes into leading.
Even though he retired in 1930, Gill or one of his family members would be involved with the Independent until 1972 (when his granddaughter's husband and Independent publisher, Stoller, sold the paper).
It was under Gill and Auterson's leadership that the Linotype machine was set up, in 1914. When the owners needed money, they mortgaged the Linotype, usually to local businessman Henry Chapelle, who would come up with the necessary cash to keep the newspaper going. The Linotype never moved, it kept doing its work, but just its owner was anybody's guess.
When Gill retired in 1930, Rodney Alden replaced him. Alden had a law degree, had been a high school teacher and had written for the Oregon Statesman.
Perhaps Alden's legacy is from when, in the early 1930s, he discovered that Gov. Julius L. Meier was actually getting paid $7,500, $6,000 more than the state constitution specified. Alden filed an injunction suit to prevent the state from issuing the governor's next paycheck. The governor was still paid, but the furor resulted in statewide publicity for the Independent and its crusading editor, as well as a Supreme Court decision that the legislature had the authority to set salaries for government officials.
The Independent was crusading in the equal rights forum as well: The first female editor was hired on in 1944. Mabel Bitney Grass had attended school in Woodburn and her father, L.M. Bitney, was a local businessman. After graduation, she married and moved to Kansas with her husband, but returned to Oregon as a widow and joined the staff of the Hillsboro Argus. Her return to Woodburn came with her buying a half interest in the Independent. Alden moved on to run the Feather River Bulletin in Quincy, California, but his partner, Wayne Gill, stayed on with Grass.
Unlike the firebrand McMahan, Grass would apparently settle disputes by giggling until the person finally broke down and started laughing too.
"That gal would get out of a mess easier than anyone I've ever seen," Gene Stoller is quoted as saying in the 1989 publication.
Grass, in addition to being a good editor, was knowledgeable about advertising, so she nabbed Ed Coman, a co-worker at the Argus, to come take over editorial roles and she focused on advertising. This leadership saw a surge in both circulation and the size of the editions.
Coman would be editor for 17 years, during which time he served as president of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association for one year.
When Gill retired in 1947, Gene Stoller was brought onboard into the three-member partnership. Stoller had been employed as a Linotype operator.
Stoller was only 12 when he published his first paper in 1927, cutting out the letters himself from an old inner tube. Three years later, he began working for the Polk County Itemizer-Observer. He would go in after school to build the fires to melt down the lead for the slugs of type. When the Depression forced him to be laid off, he moved on to be a projectionist at Woodburn's Bungalow Theater. He soon went back to the press, this time to the Gervais Star, and then the Independent shortly after. Once he learned the Linotype machine, he became indispensable and soon became a managing partner.
Grass McCall (she had remarried since working at the Independent) decided to retire from the business in 1949, so Stoller and Coman partnered together until Coman's retirement in 1965.
The location of the Independent had been on Grant Street for several years. There was once a fire there, though the date is unknown.
Because of the heat required to melt the lead type, it's remarkable that in the newspaper's history, there has only been one small fire in its Grant Street location. Stoller and Coman commissioned architect Boyd Brown to build the newspaper's current building at 650 N. First St., where it has resided since 1957.
According to an interview with Stoller, he actually helped bring Senior Estates (now called Woodburn Estates & Golf) to Woodburn. After land prices in Multnomah County brought him south, banker George Brice approached Stoller with the idea, and he helped Brice find someone to buy the land. The paper had to sit on that news without spilling the beans for quite some time.
Not only did Stoller have a hand in shaping Woodburn history, but also in preserving it. He kept one of the original projectors from the Bungalow Theater, now on display at the Woodburn Historical Museum, along with Stoller's printing press equipment.
In 1972, Stoller sold the Independent to Eagle Newspapers. After his retirement, he still maintained a historical column and contributing stories until his death in 1993.
Les Reitan, would be another long-time publisher, though by the 1970s the publisher and editor positions were held by different people. Reitan retired in 2009. He was followed by Nikki DeBuse, who was in the post until 2016, three years after Pamplin Media Group bought the Independent, when Al Herriges, who also publishes the Newberg Graphic, came on board as publisher.
The Independent has had its share of competition, but it's never lasted long. The list includes the Woodburn World, the Woodburn Tribune, the Woodburn American and the Woodburn Leader. The Tribune, which came out in 1911, was at a disadvantage from the start, coming out on a Friday on the heels of the Independent's Thursday publication date. So it notoriously took a different approach, with flashier headlines, stories seasoned with gossip and an editor who argued with the Independent's more conservative editor. But it lacked the modern equipment of the Independent, whose typesetting machine would do in two hours what would take the Tribune an entire day to create. The Tribune folded after only three years.
The Gervais Star was probably the longest-living competitor, surviving more than 50 years, until an office fire snuffed it out in the 1940s.
An advertiser shopper showed up in the 1960s, prompting the Independent to drop its perfectly good press for one that could print color ads. And, because the Independent published in-house, it beat out the competition once again.
The Independent has a competitor of sorts in the Oregonian and the Statesman Journal, but these larger papers lack the community focus that the Independent has. No one can cover the local area like the local news.
And that's why we're so grateful for your patronage, for your support and for your stories. What makes community journalism so great is that we can share the important news yet share the stories of the people that make this town run.
We've come a long way in 130 years. But we still hope we're as much a part of the community as ever. It's not been easy; we've had leadership changes here and there, but we've tried to maintain the quality product that Woodburn expects and appreciate from its community newspaper.
There's always the scare that newspapers will soon be a thing of the past. Technologies come and go, but the distribution of accurate, credible information will always have staying power. We're a force in this community, and we're not going away — hopefully not for another 130 years.
We appreciate our readers, who invite us into their homes and offices, who smile over our features, ogle at our hard news headlines and battle over the last available issue with the Safeway $10 off coupon. Like you, we are part of the community, we care about the things that happen around us, both the good and the bad, and we're here to deliver that information to you for as long as you're willing to support us.