Memories of the first newspaperman


"Back in 1893, 25 years ago I started to work in the printing trade in Spokane," said Fred Smith.  Thirty-Five years later in 1928 Smith is the publisher of the Portland Oregonian.

Smith recalled:

"In those days we were known as "tramp printers" that knew how to sling type and rustle cold beers. Most were itinerant printers, never wanting a steady job."  "After a few days at work, their feet were itching for the road."  "They would either climb into a boxcar or hike out of town - seeking greener pastures."   "Most famous was "Wandering Willie" of Walla Walla."   "His chief aim in life was to rustle beers, much like most other printers."  "But he always came back to Walla Walla."  

"It was a time of camaraderie."   "There was an annual Printer's Picnic at Natatorium Park which most men eagerly looked forward to".  "It was more exciting than Christmas."

Panic of 1893

During the spring of 1893, there was a financial panic and numerous labor strikes. 

Many newspaper ventures ended in failure, so printers were always changing jobs.  That year and the three succeeding years were gloomy times and filled with doubts. The printing profession was hardest hit during these four years with nobody spending.

Spokesman Review

Early in February, 1893 the Spokesman merged with the Review.  The Spokesman had been in the Hazel (now the Merton) Block located at Sprague and Howard.  Each paper had 20-30 hand compositors hired.  But as the panic of 1893 hit hard, over half lost their jobs.  What remained by 1995 were ten jobs between them.

Around 1892 the very young 27-year-old Bill Cowles had arrived from Chicago and just bought the Spokesman. 

In 1894 the Spokesman installed four Mergenthaler typesetters. 

They were the first in the northwest to use these machines, with the exception of the Portland Oregonian.  The Oregonian started publishing in 1850 when there was almost nobody there and had bought Mergenthaler in 1892 as the city had grown larger.

Cowles was the new publisher, and he brought the modern new Mergenthaler Typesetter idea from Chicago.  His father was part owner of the Chicago Tribune and the family had long newspaper roots. 

Typesetters though their trade was permanently ruined.


Little did they realize that the linotype would allow the industry to explode with jobs for many more men.  Newspapers now printed many more pages, enjoyed broader circulation, and covered more interesting news.

After the merger the Spokesman was moved down on Trent (Front) Avenue.  Henry Brown and Bill Penrose set most of the type. 

The Morning Times

The Morning Times was printing about 1,000 copies for a few years, but it died. Owner John Wilson mostly used it to advance his political beliefs.


By 1894 the public mood had changed, and the country was now gripped in "populism".

On a warm night it was common to hear orators and spellbinds loudly delivering populist beliefs on any vacant lot fronting trafficked streets. 

They would deliver the most virulent denunciations of both Republicans and Democrats.

Freeman Labor Journal

Bill Walker started up the Freeman Labor Journal during the bad times and over the next few years he built up a decent circulation.  He was paying $15 a month to rent a room in the Marble Bank Building on Wall and Riverside.  He sat behind a massive mahogany desk lounging in a swivel chair, symbols of the upper class. 

Here was the editor of a working man newspaper grinding out vitriolic tirades against the wealthy and pleading the cause of the proletariat.  The contrast was extremely contradictory, but humorous. 

In 1895 the Marble Bank failed, and Walker moved the printing press a block away to Lincoln and Main into the church where "Mother Kennedy" was always conducting Evangelical Services.  She was famous for beating her giant red bass drum. The paper failed later that year.

Spokane Sunday Sun

About that time a new paper sprung up.  The Spokane Sunday Sun was printed on pink paper.  It appeared on the streets Saturday afternoon.   It was a most sensational sheet.  Much of the news dealt with the slums and immoral sporting life in the city's seedy places.  Gamblers, variety shows, and dance hall habitues got most of the publicity.  Chet Edward, owner of this rag sheet, failed.  He left publishing and joined the police force to ferret out crime.  A year later he opened his own successful detective agency.

The Tribune and Times

For a while the Tribune and Times were in the same building.  They were in the old YMCA Building on Sprague, near Washington.  The Tribune was on the second floor, the Times on the third.  The pressroom for both papers was in the basement.  When it came time to publish, the typeset would be secretively lowered down an air shaft rigged to be a dummy elevator. 

Early one morning while the Times was lowering its new type down this makeshift elevator, the platform slipped, crashing everything with a dull, sickening thud.  When it struck the bottom the forms were simply beyond recognition.

Quick action was needed.  

Somehow they got entrance to their competitor's offices - the Tribune.  Type was quickly set. and hurriedly placed on the basement press. 

Next morning the town received the newspaper - a mixed Populist and Republican sheet.  Unnoticed was a partial group of stories mixing the brow of labor, the crown of thorns, and the crucifying of mankind on a cross of gold.  These were opposite messages from Populist and Republican parties - advancing both parties.  Accidentally some earlier type had been left  on the press and the two papers were inadvertantly one happy family for just that day.  The towns people chuckled.


About that time the Northwest Tribune merged into the Evening Tribune.  That Northwest Tribune paper was always in debt and the printers there shared in the profits and losses - mostly the latter. 

But with the poor economy there were way more unemployed printers to replace the last ones.  

On Saturday night it was payday.  The printer usually got $3.15 in cash and a stock certificate for the balance of his weekly wages.  He would usually head to the nearby saloon and trade the bartender his certificate for beers.  In the end the bartender got gypped because the Northwest Tribune became worthless and soon folded.

One day a printer at the Northwest Tribune showed up after a week's absence from "celebrating'.

"You're fired" screamed the foreman.

"Fired be damned" shot back the printer.  "I'm one of the owners of this here institution and you can't fire me."

The foreman slinked back in the room - out of sight.

Paper Needed

There were many days when it was time to print, but there was no paper to print on.  A phone call to the mayor or other elected officials would magically open up their wallets.   The blank printing paper would arrive post haste, along with most of the days' news praising that elected official.  Almost every paragraph stated out with the word "We Demand…"  to advance their populist platform.

"We demand the government ownership of the railroads."

"We demand a currency safe, sound, and stable."

"We demand free and unlimited coinage of silver at the 16 to 1 ratio."


As the years passed, the newspaper profession grew up.  Most of the printers now owned automobiles, had permanent jobs with fixed salaries, and were raising families. 

The days when a creative printer would stand at the bar citing prose and poetry to an amused bartender were gone.  In those days the bartender would draw at frequent intervals large schooners of foamy beer and place them in front of the 'bard' as payment for the entertainment. 

Replacing these drifters were stable effusions of more modern writers.  The bars and saloons of early years were not now home to the earlier crude, unruly newspapermen.






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