Carpetbaggers, bank robbers and demon rum: A history of the Gainesville Sun

Listen, there’s been a lot of chatter lately about the future of The Gainesville Sun. Before we get elbow-deep into what’s going to happen to The Sun, I figure it’s worth spending some time reflecting on its past.

The following account is taken from a February, 1996, presentation at the Matheson Museum by Bill Pepper, whose family owned the Sun for many years before it was sold off to the first of a series of corporate owners. You can read Bill’s full presentation here.

Pepper’s account stops short of what became of The Sun’s after the New York Times sold it to Halifax, which sold it to Gatehouse, which morphed into Gannet. Still, it is a worthwhile look at a local newspaper that once was and – who knows? – may one day be again.

IT ALL BEGAN WITH RECONSTRUCTION

The Gainesville Sun first appeared 120 years ago as the Gainesville Times as an answer to a very specific problem: The south had lost the Civil War. Reconstruction under the auspices of the Republican Party was everywhere resented among southern whites.

Many unscrupulous politicians came south as “carpetbaggers,” using recently enfranchised persons with little education as a means of obtaining office or personal fortune. Manipulation was going on in many communities.

In its very first issue, the new voice of the Democratic party, set forth with vigor to fight these abuses. Its first owners and publishers were two young brothers, still in their twenties, W.W. and E.M. Hampton. They came here from Bainbridge, Georgia, where their father had lost his plantation as a result of the war.

On July 6, 1876, the Hamptons printed the Gainesville Times. The paper minced no words in disparaging the Republican power structure and espousing Democratic causes.

Under various names the Sun would remain Democratic for the next seventy-six years, in every election supporting the Democratic candidates, until in 1960 it endorsed Richard M. Nixon for president.

The Hampton ownership lasted less than three years. When E.M. Hampton died an untimely death, his brother, W.W. Hampton sold the paper to W.A. Dickinson. Dickinson in turn sold out to McK. F. McCook.

McCook combined his paper with the Gainesville News, and the new paper became the Gainesville Sun with the first edition of February 19, 1879.

McCook and Charles L. Fildes consolidated the Sun with another paper called The Bee on December 15, 1880, and it appeared for a while as the Gainesville Weekly Sun and Bee.

AND THEN THEY DROPPED THE BEE

The name Bee was dropped from the masthead and the Sun became a daily sometime before August 1, 1891. The exact date was lost when all files of the paper were destroyed in a fire after the turn of the century. This was one of at least three fires that would ravage the paper over its lifetime.

H.H. McCreary, a state senator, bought The Sun about 1882 and he ran it for some thirty-five years, until 1917, when he sold it to my grandfather, W.M. Pepper, Sr. The Pepper Printing Co. was to own and publish the paper for the next forty-five years, until 1962.

My father, William Pepper Jr., led The Sun from 1946 to 1956. Under his auspices, The Sun went to flush left headlines. Previous to that time, all headlines were written in inverted pyramid style and there were caps and lower case.

Dad had a desk man who was having difficulty with all those letter counts, so this fellow one day said, “Why don’t we just write everything flush to the left and let it hang out on the right?” Well, we got national publicity about that in 1933!

Dad was, you might say, the grandfather of Gainesville’s quadrant street system. His editorial campaign led to the establishment of the present street naming system.

Before that, you had to know where Lemon Street, Lime Street, Peach Street, Oak Street, Date Street and so on were.

The quadrant system was one of the best things that ever happened to Gainesville because immediately a newcomer could pretty well tell the location of the street by its direction and number designation.

Dad had a very strong sense of fair play. He thought that news should be treated as news and that opinions should be in the Editorial Page, and that the news story should strive to give an equal amount of space to both sides of the issue.

When Pepper bought it, in 1917, The Sun was housed in the Haymans Building at 109 So. Main Street. The Pepper Printing Co. was in the old Commercial Hotel building on the corner of So. Main and S.W. 1st Ave.

In 1926, Pepper consolidated the two in a new structure designed for that purpose at 101 S.E. 2nd Place, next to the old Post Office (The Hippodrome) at the foot of S.E. 1st Street.

A number of additions were made on the site after World War II. After the acquisition of The Sun by the New York Times, the building was donated to the City of Gainesville for a downtown redevelopment project and has been converted into what is now known as the “Sun Center.”

THE ERA OF CHAIN OWNERSHIP BEGINS

In 1962 Gardiner Cowles, of Cowles Magazines and Broadcasting, of Des Moines, Iowa, bought The Sun for $2 million, a record price at the time. The Gainesville paper was one of a number of family operations which would pass into the hands of chains in the 1960’s.

John Paul Jones, former Dean of the UF School of Journalism, said that as newspaper families aged, more heirs came on the scene, each with less and less share of ownership.

Also, Florida was experiencing an unparalleled population explosion which pressed upon the owners of newspapers the necessity of heavy capital expenditure in building and plant. At the same time, there was a technical revolution in the way newspapers were printed and published, necessitating more costs.

Jones said communities lost something of value when the newspaper passed into a chain instead of local ownership. Instead of the owners being residents and an accessible, integral part of the fabric of the city, the feeling was that the paper’s character was being directed by parties from a distance with an eye for profit only.

The Cowles era of ownership lasted nine years. With superior financial resources, the new owners set out to modernize production.

Some say the news content improved. But there was one thing that I believe was detrimental to the interests of both the community and the paper. In my view, it never should have happened.

The Sun hired an editorial writer who actively opposed every established and vested interest in this town.

BLISTERING SATIRE AND A COUPLE OF PULITIZERS

A UF journalism professor, Buddy Davis, was allowed to write with brilliant but blistering satire – even vitriol – propagating his belief that evil motives tainted almost every leader and institution in the community.

While increasingly unpopular among townspeople because of this caustic satire, The Sun nevertheless won two Pulitzer Prizes: Jack Harrison in 1965 for an editorial campaign for better housing, and Buddy Davis in 1971 for his series of stories on school desegregation and race relations. They are no mean accomplishments.

In 1971, Cowles sold out to the New York Times. The management of the Sun remained much as before the acquisition by the Times.

The surging population of Gainesville and its prominence as a trading center for surrounding counties had propelled dramatic circulation increases. At the time the Peppers sold the Sun, the circulation was about 15,000.

Just fifteen years later, in 1977, the circulation was about 34,000.

Today, in 1996, the circulation is at 57,000 daily and 60,000 Sunday.

Today The Gainesville Sun is one of the largest businesses in the community. It employs 240 besides news carriers.

Revolutionary things have happened. When The Sun was published through the 1920’s, all type was cast in molten lead and set by hand. All of that has become obsolete.

Through different printing processes and owners, The Sun has continued for twelve decades as a faithful chronicler of local events.

BALLOT BOX STUFFING IN ARCHER

In its very first year of publication, The Sun pages were full of stories about the infamous stuffing of the ballot box in Archer.

L.G. “Little Giant” Dennis, a former union officer and a local Republican leader, admitted in a story in the “Sun” on April 14, 1877, that he had perpetrated the fraud in the election of November of 1876.

Thus it was that the outcome of the election of the Governor was changed. Marcellus Stearns, the Republican candidate, had been declared winner after the first count but after the ballot box was uncovered and rectified, George Drew, the Democrat, was declared winner on a recount.

The Weekly Bee, later absorbed into The Sun, ran an advertisement describing itself as Democratic in principle, conservative in tone, sprightly, newsy, ever outspoken and independent. It announced it would continue to “wage war” on Republicans.

A GOOD SPANKING FOR A BOASTING BRAGGART

The Bee drew the ire of its big city neighbor, the Jacksonville Times, and the attack was reprinted by the Bee on June 9, 1882: “The Gainesville Bee is a candidate for a first-class spanking, which will be soundly administered if it is not a little more respectful of its elders.”

The Bee invited its critic to “come on down”, noting that, “Our latchstring hangs on the outside.” It later apologized but only for taking notice of such “boasting braggarts.”

Gainesville had trouble keeping the streets clean. One of the editions of the late 1890’s noted that buzzards often descended on the streets, feasting on garbage.

There were steamboats on Paynes Prairie before it went dry in 1892, and The Sun reported that one of the sidewheelers was stranded and in danger of rotting at the bottom of Bivens Arms.

In 1897, the Sun reported, an electric light plant was built.

On December 18, 1898, The Sun published the very first photograph that ever appeared in the paper.

The Sun reported in December, 1900, that school teachers returned from Christmas vacation to find a great surprise awaiting them. Their students had decorated the rooms for the holidays and each teacher had “been kindly remembered with elegant presents and an abundant supply of fruits, confections, etc.”

GOING ‘DRY’ WAS A TEMPORARY FINANCIAL BOON FOR THE SUN

In an election of June 1903, Gainesville voted “dry.” The saloons were to be shut down by a vote of 195 to 145. The condition would continue until after World War II.

The Sun was an immediate beneficiary. Jacksonville liquor stores became heavy advertisers for a while. Prices ranged from $1.65 a gallon for Copper Distilled Rye Whiskey to $4.00 a gallon for a more preferred pedigreed brand.

After 1917 when the Pepper family acquired The Sun, the paper would no longer accept liquor advertising because of the strong opinions of Mrs. W.M. Pepper, Sr., a president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

In 1905, the Buckman Act consolidated higher education here in Gainesville. A new home was being sought for the fledgling state university to be located in Lake City. Gainesville, under the leadership of Major W.C. Thomas, put up $40,000 in cash, five acres of land, and the offer of free water if the institution relocated here. It did so, and on July 7, 1905, news reached Gainesville that the city had been selected as the new home.

The Sun reported that a noisy, two-day celebration was touched off: “Handsome carriages, bicycles, and vehicles of all kinds were literally covered with orange and black, the university colors. Several hundred people, some in carriages, some on wheels, and others afoot, gave members of the committee returning with the news a rousing reception. The procession marched through the city, there being not less than a half hundred vehicles. Church bells rang and whistles from various mills and factories saluted the procession as it passed.”

In its edition of July 9, 1905, the Sun noted in an editorial that Gainesville had a sacred trust to “always keep itself clean and wholesome, that no local condition ever be tolerated that would bring disgrace upon the institution or put obstacles in the way of its success.”

The population of Gainesville at the time was a mere 4,000.

CAN YOU TAKE A CALL FROM MICANOPY?

The Sun reported extension of telephone service to Micanopy in its edition of January 2, 1907. “Hello Micanopy!” shouted the headline. A representative of The Sun was reported to have talked over the phone and found it satisfactory in every respect.

During the late 1920’s The Sun broadcast major sporting events by shouting from the second floor newsroom to assembled crowds below. A member of The Sun staff, using a megaphone would relay scores and results as they came in over the news wires.

On September 22, 1927, it was reported that a crowd of some 5,000 jammed the streets and the sideyard between The Sun and the Post Office building to get a round-by-round description of the Dempsey-Tunney fight.

Now, I’ve never figured out whether that was a preacher or a politician who estimated that crowd. You might get 2,000 people in that sideyard, but not 5,000!

During World War II, the armed forces and defense industries drained off qualified young men and women, and The Sun was forced to make do with severe manpower shortages.

I remember V-E Day, that is Victory in Europe Day, on June 6, 1944, because as a fifteen-year old I was assisting in the pressroom.

The flatbed Duplex press was operated by a pressman named Cotton. He was not able to maintain proper tension on the paper as it was pulled through and printed.

We had thirty-two web breaks that day.

A web break shreds paper all over the rollers. Picking the press clean by hand was a piece-by-piece job that consumed so much time we were hours beyond deadline getting the paper printed.

THE WORLD’S WORST BANK ROBBERS

There were exciting and fun times in my own career on The Sun. I remember one incident in the 1950s, when I was city editor.

One night, well after midnight, I received a call that burglars had been surprised after entering the High Springs Bank and were holed up inside the building. I called our photographer, Eddie Davis, and the two of us sped to High Springs in the wee hours of the morning.

As we arrived, police were still entering the bank. I went in beside them since nobody was stopping anybody. In a back room, trussed up in chairs, were Paul Mortellaro, a former University of Florida football player, and an ex-con, Julio Meana. I had gone to UF with Mortellaro. We had an awkward exchange!

As I turned to find Eddie Davis to get him to take pictures, Mr. McCall, the president of the bank, indicated that he thought someone was in his office. We all hit the floor.

A High Springs policeman, Mr. Koons, nervously waving his shotgun in one direction and the other, went to the door of the office and demanded that the person inside come out. Out came Mike Romanello, who later proved to be the owner of three Good-Goody Drive-in restaurants in Jacksonville.

I shouted to him from my position prone on the floor, “What are you doing in there?” In heavy Italian accent, he replied, “I tell a story you don’t believe so I don’t tell anyway.”

His story was that he had been picked up in Jacksonville by Mortellaro and Meana, who promised to take him to Gainesville to get dates. They stopped up the street in what he thought was Gainesville, but actually was High Springs. They told him to wait for them while they drove off to get the women.

Soon he saw a commotion down the street at the bank, and he went to see what was going on and went in. Then he saw Mortellaro and Meana trussed up and he knew he was in trouble so he hid in the well of McCall’s desk.

That story fooled no one after the FBI got ahold of his shoes. They were crepe-soled and burned with acetylene droppings from the torch used to cut open the bank safe.

Another memorable event for me was the planning and production of the Centennial Edition of the “Gainesville Sun” on May 2, 1954. This was 196 pages commemorating the 100th birthday of the City of Gainesville. It was a four-month labor of love.

Work on the issue began in January. It was printed in 24-page sections which were stored until the final day and then inserted into the paper. We didn’t have enough press capacity so we’d print twenty-four sections, stack all the papers, the next twenty-four, the next twenty-four, etc. Finally, we assembled them on the day before publication. They were filled with old photographs and stories of early Gainesville and its subsequent history.

NEWS WAS NEWS AND OPINION WAS OPINION

The Peppers always felt they had a trust from the community in running the newspaper. We tried to report both sides of a news story, reserving opinions to the editorial page. We emphasized local news. For the resources we had, we did the very best job we knew how.

Now, economic factors being what they are, the local newspaper is a virtual monopoly. Today’s Gainesville Sun enjoys a circulation more than three times that of 1962.

In my opinion, The Sun has used its resources to do an excellent job despite the unfortunate impression that outside ownership has brought a liberal slant to its view of things local.

I believe The Sun today deserves to be recognized for what it is: one of the best newspapers in the country for its size. We can’t please all of the people all of the time, and the corollary to that is sometimes we offend some of the people some of the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s