TOP O THE MORN: Many newspapers have struggled on Whidbey

March 17, 1891, No. 1 Vol. 1 of Whidbey (Whidby) Island’s (almost) first newspaper hit the street. The “Island County Times” was printed in Coupeville and distributed island-wide.

One hundred-nine years of newspapering on North Whidbey is a testimonial to the people who, before the turn of the century, felt the need for communication and community.

A newspaper in the early 1890s evolved from hand-set copy, in a day when advertising was more reticent than it is today. Being the editor of a small town newspaper was more a community service than a profession. And a nickel a copy assured that one didn’t get rich.

Coupeville, which in the 1890s was one of the fastest growing communities in the Northwest, for awhile had two newspapers, the “Sun” and the “Times.” Looking back over the old volumes, one finds that bitter rivalry extended to editorials and news items. In those days one didn’t sue at the drop of a headline, so almost anything could be told.

In San de Fuca, considered a boom town, one newspaper died after its first edition. Had it lived, it could have recorded the proposed canal from Penn’s Cove to West Beach, a railroad, the Normal School that finally established Western Washington University, a potato starch factory and unlimited piers where boats from far away places could tie up. But, the Depression of 1893 and the death of a benefactor did it in.

In Oak Harbor, folks were a little slower about establishing their own newspaper. “The Island County Times,” published in Coupeville, carried Oak Harbor news, and folks were so busy trying to make a living, establishing farms and surviving, that the idea of a newspaper was small potatoes until 1915 when Oak Harbor was incorporated.

When our family, the Burriers, came to town in 1925, the “Farm Bureau News” had been around for about 10 years, and weddings and obituaries were printed on its front page. The real news of the community came from country correspondents who faithfully detailed the goings and comings of small settlements such as San de Fuca, Silver Lake, Cornet Bay, Monkey Hill and Swantown.

Items dealt with such earthshakers as a family going by ferry to Mount Vernon to shop, a new calf born at an area farm, Grandma Jones’s bout with pneumonia, and friends presenting newlyweds with a shivaree.

Our mother wrote a column called “News Among Your Neighbors” for the town of Oak Harbor, and as far as we know she was the only correspondent to get paid ... at the rate of 10 cents per printed inch. If subject had a middle name, it helped fill space to list them.

The country correspondents were rewarded at Christmas time with a box of candy, a real treat in those days. How any newspaper made a living for a family during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s is a mystery. But newspaper people are tough. They have to be.

One memorable event in the life of the “Farm Bureau News” came about when they ran out of newsprint and had to borrow butcher paper from the local meat market to print the paper!

Names of publishers and editors remembered are the Bowmer family, whose son and grandson Angus Bowmer later founded the Shakespearean Theater at Ashland, Ore.; Al and Eleanor Whitney, who purchased the paper from the Bowmers; George Astel, professor of journalism at the University of Washington, who retired to the local newspaper in the thirties; and Phyllis and Glen Smith, who stayed to raise their family and build the “Whidbey News-Times.” Smiths sold to Wallie Funk and John Webber in 1965.

All in all, many years of giving the public the news of the day. A lot of words, a lot of work, and a lot of reading.

“The Island County Times” continued to be printed, with less and less news but with its own editor until it became part of the “Whidbey New-Times.” In 1945, as editor of the “Times,” we became interested in the history of the area, and had the great good luck to get acquainted with such pioneers as Carl Engle, Dick Hastie and others.

Coupeville’s history was much more fascinating than today’s news, and our one-day-a-week in Coupeville was exciting. There was always the school news; the county courthouse and the one-day-a-month commissioners meetings; an occasional wedding; and Front Street. We got acquainted with a lot of wonderful people.

“The Whidbey New-Times” of the 1940s and 1950s found the quiet atmosphere of North Whidbey rapidly changing. Whidbey Naval Air Station was firmly established, and more and more people were making their home here. It was a changing, too, for the newspaper as county and city governments expanded.

More people, more going on, more stores, more advertising, and still the people wanted to read the news of the community. Old-timers weren’t going to change, they had to have the news of their neighbors. Newcomers, most from small towns over the country, found a hometown tie in the local newspaper.

And if their names appeared ... they could excitedly send the clipping home.

Dorothy Neil has been recording local history for more than 50 years.

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