Weekly Newspapers in Alberta: Writing the First Draft of History by Wayne Arthurson and published by Folklore Press (2012) is a chronicle of the first newspaper publishers in Alberta. It opens with Frank Oliver, and the publication of the Edmonton Bulletin on December 6, 1880 and ends with a chapter on the St Albert Gazette, voted the Best Community Newspaper in Canada in 2012 by the Canadian Community Newspaper Association. The book places community newspapers at the centre of history in the development of cities, towns and communities in Alberta. Through hands on experience while working at the Olds Gazette and the Didsbury Review and through archival research and oral histories with the sons, daughters and friends of newspaper pioneers, Wayne Arthurson weaves an interesting story Alberta’s history from the first newspaper published in Alberta to the newspapers of the present day.
Wayne Arthurson’s introduction to the book likewise makes an interesting story of the technological changes that have more recently impacted the newspaper publishing industry and the personalities that dominate it…
In May 1987, I began my professional writing career. I was hired as the reporter/photographer for the Olds Gazette. The paper was published by Neil Leatherdale, who had been running it since the end of world war II, taking it over from his father-in-law William Miler. By the time I had arrived , the Gazette had been in operation for 83 years.
At first Leatherdale seemed like a tough old publisher, and in many ways he was. He was a veteran of world war II; I don’t know if he ever saw action in the early part of the war, but I do know that he trained pilots in southern Alberta. Neil was also one of the few members of the Liberal Party in a Conservative town. He was a hard-nosed businessman who ran a tight newspaper and printing business, and he didn’t suffer fools lightly. For the most part, I wasn’t one of those fools. Even from my first day, he pretty much gave me free rein in what I would write about. He would nudge me in certain directions, but by giving me the freedom to discover what was important to the town and its residents, he allowed me to become a member of that community on my own.
The paper itself harkened back to an older time. By the late 1980s, many community newspapers had made the transition to computers and desktop publishing. Most didn’t even print their own papers, relying on centralized shops that contracted out those services. A lot of them were also tabloids, which were cheaper to print and mail out to subscribers.
The Olds Gazette was an old broadsheet, several inches wider than the daily broadsheets in Calgary and Edmonton. It printed the paper in a three-unit web press that usually ran on Mondays and Tuesdays, and sometimes on Fridays if there was a larger issue that week. My desk was less than 10 feet from that noisy machine, and I had to conduct phone interviews and write stories while it ran. Because of that experience, I now have the ability to write anywhere, regardless of noise.
I spent two years at the Olds Gazette, and two more down the street at the Didsbury Review. What I learned about writing, journalism and community in that time has never left me. I discovered that a community newspaper isn’t just a font of information or a chronicle of events such as town council decisions, car accidents or sports results. Unlike the average daily newspaper or other big city media, the local newspaper is an actual member of the community it serves. It not only support the community by being the only supplier of local news, but it can also influence public opinion, galvanize a community about specific issues, and figure in the history of the area be it local or otherwise.
The book shows how weekly newspapers in Alberta responded to major and minor historical events since the first issue of the Edmonton Bulletin was published, even before Alberta became a province. And through their words and actions the papers became part of that history and helped shaped the future of the province.
Here’s an except from the first chapter of the book to give you a flavour of the book’s style and tone…
The Arrival of the Weekly
The Alberta Newspaper Industry was born on December 6, 1880. The Edmonton Bulletin may not have been the first newspaper to appear in Alberta – no doubt many residents had subscriptions for papers from the eastern provinces – but the Bulletin was the first newspaper of any kind to be solely written, edited and printed in the western Canadian territory.
At the time of the paper’s first edition, Alberta was two decades from becoming a province and was still only a part of the larger North-West Territories. Edmonton was just a hamlet of settlements gathered around the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort with a population of approximately 300. All along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, homesteaders farmed strips of land.
The editor of the Edmonton Bulletin was Frank Oliver, a 27-year-old, former apprentice printer, also known as a “printer’s devil,” originally from Peel County, Ontario, he was born Frank Bowsfield in 1853, the son of a farmer, but during his teenaged years, he had a disagreement with his father and by the time he graduated high school, he assumed his mother’s maiden name as his own. After high school, he moved to Toronto to set type for the Toronto Globe. While at the Globe, Oliver read stories about the growth of Western Canada and the potential there for young men with ambition and a strong work ethic.
Enthused with the possibilities, he left the Globe and headed west settling in Winnipeg. After three years of working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Oliver began hearing rumours about the construction of a trans-Canada railway. The rumours, which turned out to be incorrect, stated that the new railway would stop within a few miles of Fort Edmonton.
Young Frank Oliver decided that Edmonton was the place to be. So in 1876, he loaded up a Red River cart with goods, mostly bacon and flour, and joined an ox train whose ultimate destination was a sawmill 80 kilometres upriver of the fort.
At a spot where the University of Alberta now stands, Oliver departed the train, set up his tent and worked on a plan to get his goods across the river where most of the population resided. In a short time, he built a raft and pushed off the south bank of the river, bound for the north. Unfortunately, Oliver’s raft capsized, and he lost much of his cargo. Even so, he managed to survive the crossing and, with the leftovers, set up Oliver Cartage and Dry Goods Shop, the first privately owned retail store in Edmonton outside of the Hudson’s Bay trading post. Over the next few years, Oliver made several trips between Fort Edmonton and Winnipeg, transporting and shipping goods that people needed or had ordered.
One of the ways Oliver attracted people to his store was to post telegraphed news items on the walls. He got the information from Alex Taylor, the local telegraph operator.
Like Oliver, Taylor was a former Ontario native transplanted west. Born in Ottawa in 1854, Taylor was the son of a railway engineer and sometimes accompanied his father on his regular Ottawa to Prescott run. In 1879, at the age of 25, Taylor was hired by a government telegraph contractor to relieve the local operator in Hay River. Not long after he arrived in the town, members of the fledging community of Edmonton lobbied the federal government to relocate the telegraph office to their village. By January 1880, Taylor was a resident of Edmonton, first living in temporary quarters on John Walter’s land on the south side of the river, and then later to a permanent office on the north side of the river.
When Oliver and Taylor realized that many of the residents of the area came into the store just to read the news items posted on the wall, they hatched an idea.
Taylor used his telegraph connections to find a small printing press in Minneapolis or Philadelphia (the exact location is not known) and arranged to have it shipped to Winnipeg. Frank Oliver picked up the printing press during one his trips for goods in late 1880 and brought it to Edmonton. The press weighed 90 kilograms and cost $20.
On December 6, 1880, the first edition of the Edmonton Bulletin was printed and distributed. It was small, five by seven inches, and only four pages. The first and subsequent issues in the paper’s early years featured the same type of telegraphic news that Oliver had pasted on the walls of his store, plus a variety of local announcements and notices that would become a staple of the Alberta weekly for decades.
“The river is still open in places.”
“Capt. Herchmer is expected at Fort Saskatchewan shortly.
“James Yorker of Fort Saskatchewan killed a black bear lately.”
“Mr. Wm Rowland, who was very sick last week, is recovering.”
“Telegraph Line commenced working again on Wed.”
“Mr. J Favel, pilot, Str; Lily, arrived from Victoria Wednesday.”
“The case Annand vs McLeod was adjourned indefinitely on Thursday.”
“H. Allison, of Fort Saskatchewan shot 100 prairie chickens in one day last week.”
“Dr. Verey has bought Ed MacPherson’s claim near Edmonton for one hundred dollars.”
“The Indian Department will ship to Victoria 6000 lbs of beef for the lndians.”
“The police at Fort Saskatchewan complain that they have not been paid for three months.”
-Edmonton Bulletin, December 13, 1880
Less than a year after the first edition, Alex Taylor lost interest in the paper and focused more on his homestead. Still, he played a key role in the continued development of Edmonton.
Taylor not only became one of the most important and knowledgeable farmers in the area, but he also founded the first telephone exchange, the first local Presbyterian Church, the first electric company, and the local Masonic lodge.
As for Frank Oliver, he found his calling in the Bulletin. He saw the paper’s articles and advertising as not only a way to provide information to the community and promote local projects and businesses but also a means to champion Alberta’s second largest municipality.
Partly because of the Bulletin, Frank Oliver became one of the most important and influential citizens in Edmonton and in Alberta. Edmonton had been dealt a tough blow when it was bypassed in favour of Calgary for the first trans-Canada railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway. But Oliver vowed never to let Edmonton be second best again. He was a strong opponent of taxation without representation, and his editorials consistently lashed out at the federal government in Ottawa.
Because of strong feelings about the West and who should represent it, Oliver ran as an independent Liberal in 1896 and was elected to office. He was an MP — the first MP to represent Alberta — until 1921, serving as Minister of Interior and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. When Alberta became a province in 1905, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier’s confidence in Oliver was credited, rightly or wrongly, with Edmonton being chosen as the province’s capital. Edmontonians loved Oliver for it; Calgarians hated him.
The Calgary Herald called the Bulletin, “the meanest paper published by the meanest man in Canada.” Although that reaction was because of Oliver’s role in getting Edmonton named as Alberta’s capital city, some of it was partly true. As the Minister of the Interior, Oliver was responsible for immigration, and he made no bones about what nationality of immigrants he preferred: English or Scottish. Even at a time when public sentiment towards Natives and Eastern European immigrants was quite negative, Oliver’s comments about these groups were considered racist.
While he served in Ottawa, Oliver still kept the Bulletin going. In time, it became a daily, and along with the Edmonton Journal, was one of the two to serve Edmonton in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1951, the Edmonton Bulletin ceased publication.
The Edmonton Journal began publishing in 1903 to counter what was then viewed as the pro-Liberal bias of the Edmonton Bulletin.
There are twenty 22 other chapters on weekly newspapers in Alberta that are just as interesting, if you share my interest in newspaper publishing and media personalities in Alberta.
About Wayne Arthurson
Wayne Arthurson is the son of a French Canadian mother and a Cree father, has been a reporter, editor, communications officer, advertising copywriter, ghostwriter, freelance writer, semi-professional clown, punk rock drummer, reality show participant and novelist. Wayne has written four history books for organizations in Western Canada, including Weekly Newspapers in Alberta, as well as articles for many magazines and newspapers. His second novel, Fall From Grace, was released in April 2011 to wide critical acclaim. In 2012, it won the Reader’s Choice Award sponsored by the Edmonton Public Library and the $10,000 prize that goes along with it. The sequel, A Killing Winter, was published in April 2012. Rumours are that he’s working on another in the series. The books mark the debut of Leo Desroches, the story of a newspaper reporter from the Edmonton Journal who had everything, lost it all, and is trying to get it back.
Watch the interview of Wayne Arthurson for the 2012 Alberta Reader’s Choice Award: