Harold W. Hurst - May 2007
Eastern Shore Newsmen: 1830-1980
Harold W. Hurst
Despite its rural character and isolation from the great Middle Atlantic metropolitan centers, Maryland’s Eastern Shore has been the scene of considerable journalistic activity and the home of a number of first-class county newspapers. Dickson J. Preston’s Newspapers of Maryland’s Eastern Shore (1980) is a superb history of Shore newspaper journalism.
This brief article is an attempt to explore the specific role of newspaper editors and publishers in the region by examining their political activities, socio-economic status, personal interests, and overall impact on community life. Space has limited this analysis to some of the more important newspapermen active in the 150-year period between 1830 and 1980, the heyday of the county weeklies.
Chestertown was an early center of journalistic activities on the Shore. The Appolo or Chestertown Spy was published as early as 1793. Other short-lived newspapers appeared in the following years.
The chief paper in Kent County and Chestertown has been the Kent News (known as the Kent County News since 1946). This organ, established in 1840, was for many decades published and edited by various members of the Usilton family. The Usiltons were old Kent County stock who owned large properties in the area. Joseph Usilton, according to the Federal census of 1860, owned property worth $52,000, making him one of the twenty-two wealthiest men in the county.
In 1852 William Barge Usilton entered the family newspaper business and soon rose to a managerial position. He became the editor in 1861 and, according to one biographical source, was instrumental in making the Kent News “an exponent of Democratic doctrines” as well as a “guide of public opinion in matters pertaining to society, business and the world of finance.”
Although a Southern sympathizer during the Civil War, he opposed secession and, as an editor of the Kent News, was a force for keeping the upper Shore loyal to the Union. As a conservative unionist, however, he opposed the Lincoln administration’s radical war policies and was arrested in 1863 for publishing a letter urging resistance to the Federal abduction of blacks by Union Army recruiters.
William Barge Usilton, Jr., born in 1869, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming editor of the newspaper and a president of the Del-Mar Press Association and the Maryland Press Association. His son, William Barge Usilton, III, after graduating from Washington College in Chestertown, became managing editor of the Kent News in 1936. His journalistic career was interrupted by service in World War II when he received the Bronze Star for duty in the European Theater.
The Usiltons are a classic example of a small town newspaper dynasty that for many decades served the interests of their community as both publishers and editors of an organ that provided local news and advertisements while also actively shaping public opinion, especially on local matters.
One of Queen Anne’s County’s celebrated newspaper editors was Thomas James Keating, the son of an Irish immigrant. A graduate of Princeton College, he was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1851. Although a successful attorney, he soon sought wider fields to exercise his talents by buying a Centreville newspaper that he renamed the Centreville States Rights Advocate. Keating was an ardent defender of states rights and slavery and was one of the few Maryland editors who called on the state to join the Confederacy in 1861.
After the Civil War, Keating, like many other Eastern Shore editors, played an active role in state politics. He held the office of states attorney during much of the 1860s and 1870s. In 1877 he became state comptroller. A conservative Democrat, he remained an ardent defendant of states rights.
Easton, the county seat of Talbot County and the location of the Federal judicial circuit for the Eastern Shore, was the most important town on the Shore for most of the 19th century. It contained the only bank and the leading hotel in the region until at least the 1880s. Easton’s importance was further magnified by its proximity to some of the largest plantations on the Peninsula, owned by such powerful landholding families as the Lloyds, Goldsboroughs and Tilghmans.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the town provided some of the most important newspapers on the Eastern Shore. As early as 1790, James Cowan published the Maryland and Eastern Shore Intelligencer in 1799. The paper was the chief journal on the Shore until 1832, the year of Cowan’s death.
Two great newspapers shaped public opinion in Easton and the surrounding area during the antebellum period and later. Tom Robson edited the Easton Star, a Democratic Party organ with pro-Southern views.
A fire-eating secessionist, Robson was arrested during the Civil War on the direct orders of President Lincoln. He was then sent south, where Confederate troops picked him up and hastily dispatched him to Richmond, where he became a mail clerk until he was conscripted into the Southern Army.
After the Civil War, Robson again took over the Star, which he made a mouthpiece of the Democratic Party, which he openly claimed to be the “white man’s party” while lambasting the Republican Party as “the nigger party.”
A much different type of publication was the Easton Gazette, which was established as early as 1817 and later became a Whig and then a Republican newspaper. During the Civil War the Gazette supported the Union cause, even though many leading citizens of Talbot County favored the Confederacy.
For many years the most illustrious editor of the Gazette was Wilson M. Tylor, who presided over the newspaper between 1885 and 1912. A dignified and learned man, he made his paper into one of the most respectable and influential publications on the Shore.
Tylor, who was Victorian in his manners and scholarly in his interest, was a writer and historian whose fame spread beyond his immediate neighborhood. He also explored new journalistic techniques and was among the first editors to put local news on the front page, which had been originally reserved for literary essays, national political affairs and advertising. In an age when newspapermen tended to be hard-boiled and brassy, Tylor was a genteel intellectual whose interests embraced philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and biology as well as journalism and politics.
Samuel Elliot Shannahan was editor of the Star-Democrat (a descendant of the Star) from 1910 until his death in 1942. He learned his trade, not in a school of journalism, but as an apprentice at the Gazette under the guidance of Wilson Tylor. Interested primarily in local affairs, he gave Easton and Talbot County, according to one local historian, “saturated coverage.” No community event escaped his notice, and his wide acquaintance with local townspeople and their civic and social affairs made him the “eyes and ears” of Talbot County. In 1937 the Star-Democrat was named the best weekly newspaper in the state of Maryland by the Maryland Press Association.
While Shannahan was a “local chauvinist,” Norman Harrington was more of a political activist with some of the attributes of a crusader. He used the Star-Democrat editorial page to counteract local segregationist efforts to block public school integration in the 1950s. His editorials called for calm and reason in the face of turbulence and mob action.
Harrington, like Shannahan, however, was a civic activist involved in such local affairs as the Chesapeake Bay preservation project and the Rotary Club. A veteran of World War II, he received five battle stars for service in the Signal Corps Pictorial Service.
The close connection between journalism and local politics is well demonstrated by the career of Earl W. Orem, who, for many years, was the mayor of Cambridge and the editor of the Democrat and News. Orem became sole editor of this newspaper in 1907 and was elected mayor of Cambridge in 1916, continuing in that office until 1928. A staunch Democrat, he used his paper to advance the cause of the party as well as his own ambitions in the political arena.
Like many other small town newspapermen, he was a “joiner” whose activities included the local board of education, the People’s Bank, the Masons, the Rotary Club, the Episcopal Church and the Maryland Editorial Association.
During the 1890s Crisfield was a rough-and-tumble town noted for its saloons, gambling dens and brothels. Into this unlikely place for a decent newspaper stepped Lorie C. Quinn, who established the Crisfield Times as a Democratic organ in what was then a Republican stronghold.
Quinn, as a fearless editor who often faced danger from the rough fishermen and sailors of the town who sometimes took umbrage at his editorials and reporting of local events. Once he wrote an editorial that angered one local tough who entered his office brandishing a knife. Warned of his coming, Quinn hid a revolver in his desk. Upon flashing his weapon, the would-be assassin fled, never to return.
Quinn was a political and civic activist who served on the local board of commissioners and was the city’s mayor for a period. In 1908 he was elected to the Maryland legislature. It was largely due to his efforts that the first public high school in Crisfield was erected.
In an age when few women were journalists, Quinn’s wife, Kate Melvin Quinn, was heavily involved in editing the Crisfield Times. A woman of considerable talent, she wrote poetry and most of the personal items for the paper. Her journalistic role was enhanced by her social activities in town.
The Quinn residence served as a sort of neighborhood cultural and social center that contained the first bathroom with running water in the town as well as the first telephone. Mrs. Quinn was also a civic activist who was instrumental in establishing the first hospital in Crisfield.
Lorie C. Quinn died on July 15, 1951, just a few days before his 89th birthday. In 1971 the Crisfield Times was sold to a publishing syndicate located in Dover, Delaware. One more local newspaper had fallen by the wayside.
Salisbury, a mere village at the time of the Civil War, enjoyed considerable growth between 1880 and 1910 when, in the latter year, its population reached 6,980, making it the largest town on the Eastern Shore.
Much of the town’s economic progress was generated by the mercantile and industrial activities of the Jackson family, which owned three lumber mills and a shirt factory that employed 300 people. The wealthiest family in the area, they also possessed thousands of acres of timberland in Virginia and North Carolina.
The Jackson dynasty was also heavily involved in politics. Elihu Emory Jackson was governor of Maryland between 1888 and 1892; William P. Jackson was a United States Senator from 1912 to 1914, while William H. Jackson was elected to the United States Congress several times in the early 1900s.
The Jacksons were part owners of several local newspapers during the 1890s and early 1900s that supported their own political campaigns. They were too busy with their own economic and political interests, however, to find time to edit their publications.
The leading newspaper editor in Salisbury between 1886 and 1918 were the Brewingtons, who published the Wicomico News. Marion V. Brewington and his brother, Harry L. Brewington, made this organ the leading publication of this era. For over thirty years the Wicomico News ardently supported the Democratic Party and its candidates for office. On August 1, 1918 the Brewingtons sold the paper to the New Publishing Company, thus terminating three decades of service to Salisbury and the lower Shore.
The first daily newspaper on the Eastern Shore was the Times, which appeared in Salisbury on December 3, 1923. Later purchased by Charles Truitt, the editor, the Times became a leading organ on the Shore, largely because of the distinguished leadership and editorial abilities of Truitt. In 1932 he was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for “meritorious reporting achievement.”
Truitt’s name was also widely known of the Eastern Shore and elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region in the 1920s and 1930s, partly because he was the Shore correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, the New York Times and several other journals. In 1932 he published a history of Salisbury and Dorchester County that found its way into thousands of libraries.
Typical of other civic activists who edited newspapers, Truitt belonged to many organizations, including the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club. After about 1940 he became the general manager of the Peninsula Broadcasting Company and its radio station, WBOC.
Charles Truitt was a celebrated newspaper editor and publisher as well as radio broadcaster who helped put Salisbury on the map and enlarged the horizons of the provincial citizens of the Eastern Shore.
What were the chief characteristics of the more illustrious newspaper publishers and editors who lived and worked on the Eastern Shore in the century and a half between the 1830s and 1980s? First, most of them were home-grown men rooted in their native region, which they served and loved. By and large, their publications reflected the values and mores of their town and the surrounding area. Only after World War II did some of them begin to focus on national issues like civil rights, poverty and the environment.
Second, they were heavily involved in civic activities and agendas for the improvement of their communities. In these ventures they were effective for, unlike big city journalists, they boasted of a wide circle of local friends and knew their locality like the backs of their hands.
Most were better educated than their fellow citizens, but only with the dawn of the twentieth century did a large number of them attend college. Probably a majority came from exceptional families, but only a few were from the top drawer of Eastern Shore society – that is, the planter class.
A common feature of these men was their fervent interest in the history of their local communities. In fact, William Barge Usilton, Charles Truitt and Norman Harrington all published histories of their localities. Harrington’s Easton Album, published in 1980, is a superb account of the town’s past.
Finally, most of these editors were men with keen political instincts. Largely Democrats, they filled their newspapers with political news and were usually instrumental in electing people of their party to local, state and, occasionally, national office. Indeed, some of them used their own papers to gain political office for themselves.
The newspaper scene on the Shore changed radically between World War II and the 1980s. According to Preston’s book, there were still scores of county weeklies in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1984, however, there were only fourteen local newspapers in the area, and only one, the News and Farmer of the town of Preston, was actually owned and edited by a local resident.
The locally owned organ, published, printed and edited by a resident of the town or county, was a thing of the past. Publishing syndicates, owned largely by outsiders, now dominate Shore journalism. Small-town papers in the area still favor local gossip, parochial politics and community events and personalities. But the tone and flavor of these organs increasingly reflect the bland character and homogenized nature of the national contemporary press in America.