A Catskill Catalog: Nov. 5, 2008

I’ve been spending a little time lately in the 1930s with the Catskill Mountain News. Weekly newspaper issues published between 1902 and 1937 are now posted on-line. A couple of weeks ago, I got to thinking about the market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it. I know a lot of people were thinking about that historical precedent, a couple of weeks ago. So, I visited the Catskills in the ’30s.
The Historical Society of the Town of Middletown coordinated the microfilming and digitalizing of the News’ archive. Go to http://history.catskill.net. You can use the search engine on that page to find newspaper references to a particular topic, word, or phrase: “hardware store” or “John Burroughs.” I like to click to the list of digitalized issues, click on a year, pick an issue close to this year’s calendar date, and read the paper like it was this week’s, front to back.
Interestingly, in 1929, the Catskill Mountain News was a four-page newspaper, eight columns a page. By 1936, the paper ran regularly 12 pages. Part of the change is clearly a new printing press. Sometime in 1935, the News takes on a brighter, cleaner look, with print so crisp you can almost feel the texture of the ink through the computer screen. Five broad columns display a brighter, clearer printing of the news.
In those days, the Catskill Mountain News was housed upstairs over the Galli-Curci Theater. Both were enterprises of Clark Sanford, founder of the paper as we know it today, and grandfather of the present publisher. Clark Sanford grew up on a farm in Dunraven, went off, after high school, to the Normal school in Oneonta, now the State College, and took his first job as a reporter with the Oneonta Star.
In 1904, Clark’s parents informed him of the estate sale of the Catskill Mountain News. They urged him to come home to buy it. I think he bought the paper for very little cash down and a promissory note for not much more. In 1918 he bought the other village weekly, The Utilitarian, founded in 1863, and merged it with the News.
Clark Sanford became a highly successful businessman. Besides the newspaper and the movie theater, he was the local Chevy dealer, the showroom for his cars in the front of his theater, just below his printing press. He was a master of what business schools call today “synergy;” win a new Chevrolet by selling the most subscriptions to the newspaper, which runs the movie schedule on the front page. He became a leader within the Republican Party, a civic leader within the community. He was a principal in the People’s National Bank in Margaretville; his brother, Courtney, was bank president.
And as the Depression-era ’30s marched on, his newspaper seemed to get bigger, busier, with more news and, most importantly, more advertisements. Such a business expansion during historic hard-times seems counter-intuitive. It is not what we expect.
Reading through these depression-era papers, one gets the sense that the local economy was fairly robust, that local trading was brisk in everything from coal to timber to truckloads of cabbage, that Main Street stores provided local consumers nearly all their needs. Perhaps, as the broader national economy offers fewer opportunities for economic activity - investment, sales, and purchases – the local economy picks up the slack. Perhaps, folks stay closer to home during tough economic times and, perhaps, the local economy benefits.
Whatever the explanation, the ’30s newspapers are full of store ads for liver pills and mackinaw coats, canned goods, and new cars, especially new Chevrolets. An Exchange Column allowed readers to offer to buy or sell all sorts of things, kind of a print flea market.
It’s fun to follow the politics of the time as well. Delaware County was solidly Republican, as was the paper, which predicted dire consequences should Roosevelt be re-elected in 1936. The weeks leading up to that election saw meetings and rallies on both sides. The Republican Woman’s Club met in Dugan Hall, now the Granary Building, one week, followed by the Roosevelt Democratic Club the next.
After Roosevelt’s landslide win (he carried Fleischmanns, by the way), the Democrats organized an impromptu Thursday-after-Election-Day parade of about 50 cars down Main Street in Margaretville. They had an old outhouse propped up on a trailer with signs attached to it reading “Republican propaganda” and “Independent Coalition of American Women.” People were peeved! Public apologies had to be made, and neighbors stopped speaking to each other. When I got involved in local politics in 1973, there were still bruised feelings over the incident. That was 37 years later!
Clark Sanford was publisher of the Catskill Mountain News for 60 years, until his death in 1964. Once, near the end of his long life, Mr. Sanford was in the local drug store. The pharmacist, on seeing him, said, “Mr. Sanford, Everett Herrick is looking for you.” Everett Herrick was a prominent local businessman, one of the first to see the economic benefit of developing unimproved land for the second-home market. Mr. Herrick was also the local funeral director.
“Oh, Herrick,” Clark Sanford replied to the druggist. “He’s been looking for me for a long time.”