The Mighty Signal and history

Here’s a staggering fact: The Signal is older than the American woman’s right to vote. The Mighty Signal’s first issue came out on Friday, Feb. 7, 1919. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, passed the House in June of that year then was sent on to the states for ratification. Later that year of 1919, the American Legion was founded (in Paris). Oregon becomes the first state to levy a tax on gasoline (1 cent). The Grand Canyon was named a national park. Pancho Villa’s bullets crossed into the United States, causing America to send troops to attack the Mexican bandit/general. Interestingly, San Francisco Chronicle editor Scott Newhall would send a reporter to Mexico in the 1950s to “Bring Back the Head of Pancho Villa.” Seems Pancho’s skull had been liberated from his grave earlier. Newhall? He’d become owner of The Signal in 1963. It was the end of World War I and life, and invention, were erupting with a jubilant fierceness. The first aircraft (a dirigible) crossed the Atlantic in 1919. The Green Bay Packers were founded — a year before the NFL. UCLA was born. World War I ended, just three months before this paper was founded. Race riots and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan engulfed America (we had our own KKK branch here in Newhall; the local constable, Jack Pilcher, was reportedly a dues-paying member). Felix the Cat appeared, the first cartoon character in print. Prohibition is the law of the land and America is at war with socialists and anarchists — two important news themes for the fledgling Newhall Signal. Because we were so isolated, yet so close to downtown Los Angeles, the Santa Clarita Valley was a perfect nesting spot for moonshiners. Dozens and dozens of stories appeared in most of The Signal’s 1919 editions, citing everything from drunk and disorderly conduct capers to full-scale illegal liquor operations, which involved our very own federal agent stationed here. His name was Bond. James Bond. Around the nation, literally tens of thousands of socialists, communists and anarchists were being arrested. Here in Saugus, a trainload carrying several dozen with bombs was stopped and a huge shoot-out erupted. There were too many to store in the tiny Newhall jail and a convoy of lawmen and posse members escorted them to downtown L.A. For some odd reason, it didn’t make The Signal. That odd reason would be Signal owner Ed Brown’s wife, Blanch. Not much, if anything, is known about the first Signal owner, Ed Brown. Ditto with Blanch. He was a recent veteran of World War I, injured in the trenches from poisonous mustard gas. Much of Ed Brown’s prep work a month before publishing was writing about World War I. Sadly, none of his prose came from his experiences, or heart, but rather, they were staid reports from the closing theater of operations. According to former Newhall resident, Gladys Laney (who died in 2004 at the age of 103) Brown was left with a severe and constant cough. He would die in 1924 from a lung-related disease. Those final, awful, painful years, Ed Brown was able to contribute less and less. His wife kicked in more and more. She was a wretched, horrible journalist of Old Testament proportions. Once, a visiting professor lectured on the origins of Earth, noting it was several billion years old. Blanch contradicted him in the news story, noting the correct figure was closer to 7,000 years. A major guns-a-blazing bank robbery (one of the perps was a movie star!) in nearby Piru drew front-page coverage in the downtown L.A. and Ventura County newspapers. In The Signal? Nope. Not interested. Blanch Brown gave it maybe two dozen words, in tiny print, buried on the back page of The Signal. Yet, she’d dedicate nearly the Entire Front Page of this august periodical to printing the recipes to ALL the cakes baked at a women’s club weekend soiree. The entire front page. Cake recipes. From experience, I can attest. Putting out a newspaper is grueling work. Events had to be covered. The telephone had to be answered (there were only 13 in the entire SCV in 1919). Stories were typed on clunky manual typewriters. Then, the stories had to be manually set into trays. This was done LETTER BY LETTER, SPACE BY SPACE. The components were set into a giant tray and fitted into a manual printing press. In those bygone days, The Signal made fewer typographical errors than today with spell check and a trillion reference pages on the Internet. We had 250 Signal subscribers then. Some local wags might point out we’re currently keeping pace nicely. But 250 subscribers is a lofty number, considering there were only about 500 people in the whole valley. Hmmm.
In early February 1919, Signal owner Ed Brown published the very first issue of The Mighty Signal, using a Challenge-Gordon snapper press, which groaned and cranked out one page at a time. The contraption was considered ancient by then-1919 standards. It was called a “snapper press” because it snapped down fiercely with a regular rhythm. Loading paper into it, or, taking a printed page off, if you were late moving your hand, you could literally lose a finger. Hence the affectionate name, “Snapper.” The inventor, George Phineas Gordon, a spiritualist and a father of American printing, claimed that Benjamin Franklin himself appeared to him in a dream, with instructions on how to build the contraption.
One paper for every two people in the valley. 175,000 paid subscribers. There’s a goal at which current management can aim. Not to give any current 2019 subscribers any bright ideas, but, in 1919, not everyone paid the $2-a-year subscription in cash. Some paid in fruits, vegetables and even poultry. One senior citizen, however, offered to pay with his false teeth. Said he wasn’t using them. To our credit and high journalistic standards, we weren’t about to, either. With Ed’s health failing, the Browns took on a silent partner with an unusual background for newspaper publishing. W.T. Stonecypher was the local postman, which certainly solved the problem of a maintaining a circulation department. Also to his credit, as a federal employee, Mr. Stonecypher was one of the few people in the small farming and ranching community who had a steady paycheck. What it must have been like, that month before the first issue. Imagine an SCV with hardly a building and no paved roads. Still. One constant, no how matter small it burns, is Truth, with a capital “T.” That first Friday in 1919, a coughing Ed Brown printed the first motto of The Mighty Signal: “Build Up, Don’t Tear Down.” Journalism and history is circular. A century later, Dec. 27, 2018, Signal owner and publisher, Richard Budman, printed a column, urging readers to find their better, civil side. Wrote Budman: “We are a divided community but we need to rationally talk to each other and discuss the issues we disagree on. We must be able to exchange ideas and viewpoints with one another and to listen to each other, in a civil manner.” A century has passed. I sometimes wonder if anyone is getting The Signal’s civilization-advancing messaging… John Boston has worked for this newspaper off-and-on for nearly 40 years. He has taught the history of the SCV and is the recipient of The Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award, along with 118 other major journalism honors. He writes the Time Ranger/SCV history column in Sunday’s Signal.

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