THORNING REVISITED: Many newspapers born and died in north Wellington

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last week I surveyed briefly the beginnings of newspaper publication in Wellington County in the 1840s and 1850s, and the rivalry between the two Guelph dailies that ended with the closure of the Herald in 1924.

This column continues with a look at the weeklies, particularly through their golden age, from about 1870 to 1930.

In 1860, it was easy to read all the papers published in Wellington. There were only five: The British Constitution in Fergus, the Observer in Elora, and the three in Guelph: the Advertiser, the Mercury, and the Herald.  All were weeklies, though the Advertiser had experimented with two and three per week schedules.

As with most things at that time, the north was dependent on the outside for its news, but this did not remain the case for long. Tom Greenham, who was introduced last week as publisher of the British Constitution in Fergus, started his second paper in Mount Forest and named it The Express, probably late in 1860 or early 1861. It appears that no copies have survived. This venture did not last long, undoubtedly a victim of poor advertising revenues.

Its place was soon occupied by the Mount Forest Examiner, which appeared in April 1862. The publisher was Tom Graffe, a one time teacher who had fallen victim to the “grass is greener” syndrome and entered journalism. George Pirie of the Guelph Herald was also a former teacher, and there would be others in the years ahead.

Another paper hit the Mount Forest streets in April 1867. This was The Confederate, published by the father-and-son team of Henry and Harry Stovel. A modest paper (two pages), it at first appeared only biweekly. By the second year, though, the Confederate had established itself as a solid paper, a standard four-page weekly with ample advertising.

In the meantime, Graffe sold the Examiner. New owners carried on through the 1870s, but in 1880 the Stovels bought it out. The Confederate had by this time become the dominant paper in Mount Forest, and indeed in north Wellington.

The Stovels enjoyed a monopoly only briefly. Later in 1880, E.G. Hart started a new paper, the Mount Forest Advocate. Four years later the Stovels sold the Confederate to Henry Benner. Apparently they had some difference with the new owner: within weeks of the sale they started a new paper, the Mount Forest Index. Then, in 1885, Jim Lambert established yet another paper, The Representative.

For the next year Mount Forest enjoyed the luxury of four papers, but there was not enough advertising for any of them to prosper. The Stovels bailed out first, closing down the Index in 1886. They moved to Winnipeg where they established a large commercial printing business.

The Advocate lasted until 1890. Many towns the size of Mount Forest boasted two papers in this era. The Confederate and the Representative co-existed for almost 30 years, until 1918, when rising costs claimed the Representative. It was purchased by A.W. Wright, who had taken over the Confederate in 1902. One of the giants in Wellington’s newspaper history, Wright is best known today for his historical writings, which were published in the 1920s and 1930s.

The history of newspapers elsewhere in the north is more straightforward than that of Mount Forest.

At Arthur the first paper appeared in 1869. This was the first version of the Arthur Enterprise, put out by Sam Luke, who had a reputation as a bit of a boozer. Restive creditors forced a sheriff’s sale in 1874. The Craig brothers, publishers of the Fergus News Record, bought the equipment and moved it to Drayton, where they started the Drayton New Era.

The Arthur Enterprise was soon revived, using equipment from the defunct Elora Standard. In 1895, Arthur businessman David Brocklebank established a rival paper, the Wellington News. Short on both subscribers and advertising, he sold out to the Enterprise. In 1908, Rixton Rafter purchased the amalgamated Enterprise-News.  Rafter, who was blind and a university graduate, quickly established himself as a first rate journalist. He piloted the paper for the next 45 years.

It appears that the Drayton New Era carried on for at about 14 years after the Craigs set it up with the old Arthur Enterprise equipment. For part of that time it was published at Palmerston, and for a time was known as The New Era and Peel and Maryborough Recorder. After its demise, T.C. Dean started the Drayton Times in 1885. It was afterwards run by his wife, and existed until 1902. A.S. Lown, a minister’s son from Elora, started the rival Drayton Vidette, but it closed, after a brief life, in 1887.

Much more successful was the Drayton Advocate, founded in 1885 by Jabez Coram, and later operated by J.B. Garbutt. In its heyday this was one of the finest weeklies in the county, and the back files are a gold mine for historians. Prospering while the local economy of Drayton was strong and independent, it eventually succumbed to the twin pincers of rising costs and declining revenue in 1966.

Following the Mount Forest Express, the second paper in north Wellington appeared in 1864 with Harriston Enterprise on the masthead. No copies seem to have survived, but the paper lasted until 1869. There is a possibility that Sam Luke was connected with it: the Arthur Enterprise appeared shortly after the Harriston Enterprise ceased publication.

In any case, the vacancy in Harriston was quickly filled by John Robertson’s Harriston Tribune. This paper was known for a number of innovations. For example, it was the first weekly in the county to use a steam powered press. Robertson later took in Ed Dewar as a partner.

Dewar left the partnership and went to Arthur for a time, then returned to Harriston to start the Harriston Review in opposition to Robertson. He soon overtook his former rival. The old Tribune ceased publication in 1910, reviving briefly in 1913 before closing permanently.

The other towns in the north have had spotty newspaper histories. There have been a number of attempts to publish a weekly at Clifford. The first seems to have been the Clifford Arrow in the 1880 era. The only one to enjoy long term success was the Clifford Express, which expired in 1932 after a 40-year history.

Palmerston, though much larger than Clifford, also had difficulty sustaining a weekly. Advertising revenue in Palmerston was poor. The town never developed into a market centre for farmers to the same extent as other towns, and the railway workers who dominated the population frequently used their passes to go to Guelph or Stratford to shop.

The Palmerston Telegraph began some time in the 1870s, and persisted into the 1880s. It was followed by the Palmerston Reporter and the Palmerston Spectator. There may have been others, and there were periods when no paper was published in Palmerston. No files of these 19th century papers have survived, to the frustration of those studying the history of this fascinating town.

The Spectator ran into financial difficulties in 1930, and closed down. For a time the town was served with a Palmerston edition of the Clifford Express before that paper failed. In 1933 the Palmerston Observer moved into the old Spectator office, but with new equipment. Art Carr, last of the old-time newspapermen in Wellington, soon took over, and remained at the helm until his retirement in 1977.

The small village of Glen Allan briefly boasted a newspaper, in the days when that hamlet seemed destined for greater things. Peter Moyer ran off the first edition of the Canadian Maple Leaf in November 1866. Discouraged after two years, he moved the paper to Elmira at the end of 1868.

Compared to the north, the eastern part of Wellington has a sparse newspaper history. There does not seem to have been any attempt at publishing in Rockwood in the 19th century. The first paper, and apparently the only one, at Erin was the Erin Advocate, established in 1880. It survived a failure and sheriff’s sale in 1897, and a fire in 1909.

Hillsburgh, surprisingly, has had two papers. The Wasp, about which little is known, was published in the late 1870s. It was followed by the Hillsburgh Beaver, which persisted from 1881 until 1910. Some historical accounts attribute the origin of the Beaver to Dr. George Orton, who allegedly started it as a propaganda vehicle for one of his parliamentary campaigns. Others dispute this assertion.

Nevertheless, it is something of a wonder today to consider that a small centre like Hillsburgh could generate sufficient advertising and subscribers to sustain a weekly paper.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 15, 1999 and later re-printed in the Advertiser on Jan. 6, 2017.

Thorning Revisited