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A community mirror: The first 100 years

by Tom Hardin

Over the past 100 years the Southside Sentinel has progressed side by side with the citizens “residing south of the Rappahannock River.”

Although the Sentinel’s format, advertisements and news coverage have changed with the times, one thing has always remained the same—the newspaper’s goal to inform its readers.

The Sentinel has had a major impact on individuals, civic groups, churches, businesses, schools and government agencies as far back as the turn of the century, and as recently as last week’s issue.

Since 1896 the Sentinel has been the source Middlesex County residents and organizations have relied on to “receive” and “get out” the news affecting their community.

The Sentinel has proudly survived two World Wars, The Great Depression, seven different owners and six different office locations with its motto of “Pluck, Perseverance and Progress” still intact.

Following is a brief review of items that have appeared in the newspaper over the past 100 years, and a glimpse into the impact the Sentinel has had on our community.

Current news

In the early years of the Sentinel, national and state news dominated the front page. Much of it was purchased through a national news syndicate. From this news, the editor could print what he thought was of most interest to his readers and simply trash the rest.

Other national, state and local stories of interest were “cribbed” from daily newspapers such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Bal-timore Sun.

Even some fictional pieces of literature found their way to the front page of the Sentinel in those early years.

“Correspondent” reports came from such places as Richmond, West Point and Washington, sometimes published in type so small it took a magnifying glass for many to read.

In the inaugural April 9, 1896, issue of the Mathews-Middlesex Herald, which would later become the Southside Sentinel, the top news story was the wedding of President General Benjamin Harrison. Included were artist’s sketches of the bride and groom.

One story in the original issue was headlined “Dead Presidents” and gave an account of how all the presidents died. Sound morbid? Believe it or not, it was very interesting.

The Herald also included a “Virginia State News” wrap-up of events across Virginia and a “Senate and House Report from Congress.”

In the early years, the news of Middlesex and the surrounding area was a big part of the newspaper—even though it occupied very little of the newspaper’s editorial space. In that first 1896 Herald, the big local story was that the Middlesex Board of Supervisors had allocated $1,489 for construction of a wooden “free” bridge over Urbanna Creek.

A County Directory also was published in the early days, listing holders of government offices in Middlesex County. The county board of supervisors in 1896 included chairman E.T. Purkins of Saluda District, W.H. Lawson of Pinetop District, and W.E. Kain of Jamaica District.

Although the original owner, G.F. Palmer, openly professed to be a Democrat, he vowed to be unbiased in his news reporting. Palmer gave credence to this in the original issue with a report on the Republican County Convention of 1896. R.S. Bristow was chairman of the local Republican Party and James Bayton was secretary. The story listed delegates and described them as “McKinley men.”

The Sentinel was to remain a supporter of the Democratic Party for decades, and “Republican bashing” editorials popped up from time to time.

In the early 1900s, the Sentinel began reporting important local events in more detail. For example, the Nov. 3, 1905, issue gave a lengthy and riveting account of a triple murder-suicide in King and Queen County.

The early editors of the Sentinel also vowed to be a friend of agriculture and the seafood industry—the two economic mainstays of Middlesex County at the turn of the century.

These editors also never forgot their allegiance to the Confederacy. The lead story in the Nov. 3, 1905, issue was on the reenactment of the “Battle of Crater” in Petersburg by the Grand Camp Confederate Veterans of Virginia.

References to The Reconstruction were usually derogatory. And, for decades, the Sentinel always made it a point to precede the name of any African-American with the word “colored” or “Negro.”

Like most newspapers across the country, the Sentinel was enthusiastic about possible U.S. involvement in World War I. The May 18, 1917, issue carried a lengthy “Awake Virginia” statement from Governor Stuart which urged Virginians to be “in a state of readiness.”

The big local news story in the March 7, 1919, issue was the burning of Saluda High School and its planned rebuilding.

The big national news story in that issue was about higher income taxes due March 15 under the new Revenue Law being enforced by the Internal Revenue Service. The tax increase was needed to help pay for World War I. “Women are within the law’s scope,” the article warns. “The laggards and the dodgers will face severe fines and jail sentences.”

In the 1920s, increases in advertising continued to take space from editorial copy. The front page on August 31, 1923, was about 75 percent ads and 25 percent news. A change was needed and it came in the mid-1920s when the Sentinel expanded from four pages to eight pages.

This change marked a new era for the Sentinel. There was now more space for news, especially local news. The front page ads would slowly disappear over the next several years and be replaced by news stories with bolder headlines and photographs.

The lead story in the Jan. 25, 1929, Sentinel reported the hunting death of 13-year-old Sam Franklin Burton of Urbanna who was killed when his gun accidentally discharged while in a duck blind. The remainder of the front page was filled with regional, state and national news items, and two lengthy letters to the editor.

The 1930s witnessed the Sentinel taking a more modern form. Local news stories with bigger headlines dominated the top of the front page. The remainder of the page was filled with short national, state and regional news stories.

Filling eight pages with ads and news was no easy task for the small Sentinel staff of those early years. Plenty of syndicated cartoons, photos and “canned” news articles would continue to be needed for the next several decades.

The 1930s saw a dramatic rise in the news coverage of civic organizations. News of the Middlesex County Woman’s Club, Middlesex Red Cross, Middlesex Ruritans and others frequently found their way to the front page.

The Sentinel of November 24, 1933, had 26 front page stories—six of which dealt with local news. One top story reported the arrest of the “Bootlegger King” of Essex County; another was on the county fair planned at Christchurch by the Future Farmers of Middlesex Club.

It was the time of The Great Depression and one lead story from that issue reported on three local relief organizations planning to help the county’s needy during the upcoming winter.

The rise of Nazism in Germany also was reflected in front page articles of the 30s. One article reported that the American Athletic Union would not participate in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin if Jews were not allowed to participate.

There still was not enough good, hard news to fill up the front page. In the November 24, 1933, issue, it took an editorial cartoon, the “Regent News,” a letter to the editor, and a wedding shower announcement to complete the task.

With the coming of World War II in the early 1940s, the Sentinel and other newspapers around the country suddenly had plenty to write about, and not all of it was good.

One lead story in the January 15, 1942, issue tells of a trial air raid drill in Urbanna. A blackout of the town was set for two hours on the night of January 20. “It is best to be prepared,” said Mayor R.A. Taylor.

The lead “double photo” in that issue was entitled “A Couple of Good Cracks at Herr Hitler” and showed a German truck stuck in the snow on the Eastern Front and the Free French in Mexico clubbing a pinata effigy of Hitler.

In the same issue, Middlesex Ruritan Club president J.M. Derieux called for a Civil Defense meeting at the courthouse in Saluda.

Throughout the Sentinels of that time there were a variety of war news, photos and graphics, all imported from a syndicated news source and all geared to keep the forces at home enthused about the war overseas.

Local residents, businesses and civic organizations were steadily discovering how the Sentinel could help them. By the late 1950s most of the front page included local and area news of all kinds—church, social, sports, civic and current.

In the January 24, 1957, issue, the front page local stories included reports on: the construction of a new bridge over Urbanna Creek; a sledding accident involving two Urbanna youngsters, Rusty Ryland and Bobby Mills; Salk vaccine clinics; the Middlesex March of Dimes fund drive; a Woman’s Club meeting; the Methodists’ mission meeting in Urbanna, a missionary who was to speak at New Hope Methodist Church; the resignation of Syd Thrift as baseball coach at Mount Vernon High School; ABC sales in Urbanna; a meeting of the Book Reviewers; the closing of the Middlesex Jail to female inmates; an English student award to be presented by the King and Queen Woman’s Club; and an upcoming court hearing on a boundary dispute between the Bank of Middlesex and Urbanna Methodist Church.

It was a real potpourri of news.

The Sentinel was still not taking photos of its own but it was publishing photos provided by other sources. It would also reprint stories of local impact from other newspapers, such as the Daily Press and Richmond Times-Dispatch.

A new era in the Sentinel’s history began in the late 1960s when the newspaper expanded beyond eight pages and began taking its own photographs. This expansion allowed for much better news coverage of both Middlesex and King and Queen counties.

The newspaper’s first-hand news coverage would continue to grow in the mid-1970s when the Sentinel hired its first full-time reporter. A second reporter was added in 1982.

Social happenings

In the early years, short social excerpts were a very important part of the Southside Sentinel: who visited whom, where one’s family vacationed, who was sick, who got married, who was celebrating an anniversary, or who was growing what in one’s garden.

There were no telephones in those days and people often didn’t see their neighbors until “market day” or Sunday church. The Sentinel was their line of communication.

The first Sentinel in 1896 devoted a whole column of space to “Local News” shorts. Even if someone took the horse and buggy from Saluda to Urbanna, it was newsworthy back in those days. “Mr. W.W. Woodward, a prominent attorney of Saluda, was in town Tuesday” read one social brief.

The early owners and editors of the Sentinel realized that their readers thirsted for this type of news, and they put out a call to the local citizenry for more. By the 1900s community columns such as “Locust Hill News,” “Saluda News,” “King & Queen News,” “Gloucester News,” “Samos News,” “Mascot News,” and “Deltaville News” began appearing in the Sentinel. They were written primarily by women who gathered the news in their particular neighborhood and compiled it for the Sentinel.

“Fortune favored the good women who displayed so much activity in behalf of the tournament and oyster supper held here on Tuesday for the benefit of the Middlesex Confederate Monument Fund” was the opening sentence in the November 3, 1905, “Saluda News.”

Coverage of King and Queen jumped in the 1920s and the social news from that county included as much as from Middlesex.

The social columns continued to be an important part of the Sentinel until the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their decline was primarily due to the lack of “community writers” who were willing to spend the time collecting the tidbits of information. Another reason was that people no longer wanted to make their private lives “public” in the Sentinel. Lets face it, visiting one’s neighbor or where one takes a vacation is not newsworthy to many anymore.

“Notes from Dragonville,” by Mrs. T.W. Brooks Sr., is the last “old style” community column still published in the Sentinel today.

In her current “Around Deltaville” column, which has run in the Sentinel for about eight years, author Thyra Harris uses an informal style of writing to combine social news, civic news, business news, humor and, every so often, a political comment or two. It continues to be one of the Sentinel’s most popular columns.

In the early years of the Sentinel, social events such as engagements, weddings, anniversaries and family reunions were covered with brief stories. However, beginning in the 1960s, the reporting of these social occasions became much more detailed and often accompanied by a photo.

Today, it is not uncommon to have four pages of the Sentinel devoted solely to social and entertainment news.

Church news

One of the selling points put forth by original Sentinel owner G.F. Palmer was that every issue would include a sermon by Rev. Talmadge.

The only other two church-related news articles in the April 9, 1896, Herald were the newspaper’s first obituary (Mrs. Mary S. Fitzhugh of Gloucester, 75, who died of paralysis), and a report that “only the Baptist church in Urbanna held services last Sunday.”

Churches, however, soon recognized that the Sentinel was an ideal way for them to get the word out about their activities and, hopefully, attract new members. The area’s Baptist and Methodist churches began listing their times and places of services in a weekly Church Directory.

With the Sentinel’s expansion to eight pages in the mid-1920s, more church news was sought from the community. The church news has steadily increased and today normally takes up two pages of the Sentinel. Services for 40 different area churches are listed on a regular basis and numerous separate stories are run on special church events.

Advertising

Advertising not only pays the bills at a newspaper business, it gets important news about businesses and the economy to the public. This was just as true with the Mathews-Middlesex Herald in April of 1896 as it is with the Southside Sentinel today.

In that first edition of the Herald the majority of advertisements were for a variety of medicines, such as balms, lotions, cough syrups, elixirs for nerve problems and blood diseases, tonics, oils, laxatives, and pills for diarrhea, cholera, indigestion, and bladder problems. There was even a special “vegetable compound” for the “coming change” in girls growing into womanhood.

The products were sold in local stores and were part of a syndicated advertising contract with the newspaper.

Drug problems existed even in those days. Two ads guaranteed to cure you of opium, morphine or whiskey addiction.

The local ads in the early years were mainly from Urbanna, such as W. H. Marshall, Blacksmith; John M. George, ship and vessel caulker; A.R. James and Bro., dry goods; J. W. Hurley, seafood; R.S Bristow, general goods; R.A. Davis, clothing, groceries, medicines, tobacco products and more; and F.A. Bristow and Co., hats and shoes.

Advertising space was reserved. In the first issue, B.E. Cornwell & Son simply stated in their two-column by three-inch ad: “This Space Reserved for B.E. Cornwell & Son.”

Cornwell must not have made the deadline but wanted to keep his space. Advertising rates were “reasonable” and Palmer noted that discounts would be given on quarterly, semi-
annually and yearly basis. Payments were to be made in advance.

There were also ads from surrounding communities such as W.Y. Shackelford of Saluda, undertaker and carriage maker, and O’Connor’s Restaurant in West Point.

All the display ads were one or two columns wide. There were also a few classifieds.

In the early 1900s it was like the outside world suddenly discovered the Middlesex area. Ads poured in and comprised about two-thirds of the paper, including one-third of the front page. There were no telephones, TVs or radios and the Sentinel pretty much had a monopoly on getting the business news. 

Railways and steamship companies ran copies of their schedules; businesses in such commercial hubs as Norfolk, Portsmouth, Bal-timore and Richmond reserved space; and more local merchants got on the bandwagon.

The Tidewater Telephone Co. of Gloucester was established in 1918 and businesses were proud to advertise they had a “phone in residence.”

After World War I, automobile ads became more prominent and, consequently, the carriage and blacksmith ads became less prominent. Middlesex Motor Co. of Urbanna offered Fords, Smith Bros. Garage of Urbanna offered Chevrolets, and E. Sidney Muire of Urbanna offered the Emerson “Four.”

There were plenty of lawyers around, and they were not ashamed of advertising. Saluda attorneys W.D. Evans, Jno R. Saunders, Lewis Jones and J.S. Eastman all ran ads on a weekly basis in the Sentinel.

Banks were popping up in every community and they all wanted a piece of the action. In the March 7, 1919, issue, the Bank of West Point, Bank of Middlesex, Bank of Gloucester, and Planters National Bank and First National Bank of Richmond all ran ads.

Undertakers also competed for business. In the same 1919 issue, funeral directors Spencer Taylor of Saluda, C.W. Mercer & Son of Syringa, E.W. Bristow & Sons of Deltaville, J.W. Carlton & Son of Shanghai, C.F. Edwards of Saluda all ran ads.

After World War I, a few real estate pioneers recognized the Middlesex area for its valuable waterfront real estate. As the real estate firm of E.F. Schmidt & Co of Richmond stated in a 1919 ad: “We have buyers for water front properties in Eastern Virginia, especially lower Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay frontages.”

However, it would not be until the 1970s that the real estate boom would hit the Middlesex area.

In the early part of the century oysters were on sale everywhere . . . $1.35 for a gallon of selects at R.A. Davis & Co. of Urbanna.

With each passing year the ads became more creative with eye-catching graphics and leads. Advertisers began to realize the value of going into more detail, such as listing the prices of their goods.

The Roaring 20’s brought larger ads that were easier to read, but gone were the national syndicated ads that had supported the Sentinel through its first two decades. The front page of the August 31, 1923, issue of the Sentinel was loaded with ads, some as large as three columns wide by 12 inches high. Two columns of classifieds also got front page prominence.

In an impressive two column by 12 inch front page ad, P.W. Fells of Urbanna offered a Ford Runabout for $269.

The back page of the August 31, 1923, issue also was chocked full of ads, some with actual photos of businesses and employees.

Buses became a primary means of travel between Middlesex and surrounding cities such as West Point, Richmond and Fredericksburg, and bus schedules ran regularly in the Sentinel.

Advertising had increased to the point the Sentinel needed to increase its number of pages. The purchase of a new press in 1923 allowed the newspaper to expand to eight pages.

The mid-1930s marked the end of heavy advertising from “out-of-town” businesses in cities such as Baltimore, Richmond and Norfolk. The decline of the steamship and rise of the automobile had a lot to do with the change. There also were more local stores where Sentinel readers could shop.

In the 1940s and 1950s, ads continued to get bigger as similar businesses competed for the same customer. Hardware stores, grocery stores, clothing stores, restaurants, fuel suppliers, banks, theaters and car dealerships were among the larger advertisers. The classified section also continued to grow.

In the 1970s, real estate advertising boomed as urbanites discovered the serenity of living in a rural waterfront-rich environment of the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. Today, real estate firms continue to be among the Sentinel’s largest advertisers.

Advertising by grocery stores peaked in the 1980s, a time in which the Sentinel was carrying weekly full-page ads from three and sometimes four different stores.

The grocery stores eventually turned to “insert” advertising in the Sentinel. The full-page ads were no more. In fact, it’s seldom the Sentinel carries a grocery ad of any kind today.

As Middlesex’s economy became more and more service-oriented, the popularity of the business directory soared. Local plumbers, electricians, builders and other “servicemen” used this section as their own little yellow pages. Today, the Sentinel’s business directory takes up almost a page and a half.

The classifieds, which took up only a third of a page in the 1950s, really took off in the 1970s. Today, classified ads occupy up to three pages of the Sentinel.

The Sentinel also is the carrier of Middlesex County and Urbanna legal advertising, an area that has grown considerably during the past two decades.

Other news

The first appearance of a regular sports story came in the 1950s with “Fishing Lines,” by C.W. Taber. Some baseball scores and high school sports also were reported by coaches and students.

In the 1970s, as the size of the Sentinel continued to increase, the newspaper made a commitment to better sports coverage and since that time it has featured two to three pages of sports almost every week. 

Weekly editorials by Sentinel staff members faded from the newspaper in the late 1950s. A staff editorial was carried every now and then, but more emphasis was put on the Sentinel acting as a sounding board through Letters to the Editor and the guest commentaries of citizens.

In the late 1980s, Mary Wakefield Buxton began submitting “One Woman’s Opinion” on a weekly basis and it has been a part of the editorial page ever since.

The coverage of school happenings also expanded significantly in the 1970s and continues to be an important part of the newspaper. In addition to regular school news such as honor rolls, the Sentinel has published “student newspapers,” such as “The Saxon Herald,” “Charger Account” and “Big Blue Review,” since the 1960s.

Today, school news and photos occupy up to two pages of the paper.

More historical information may be viewed by clicking on these links to stories published in 1996 during the Sentinel’s centennial celebration:

posted 07.17.2008