Hot coffee and a fresh Signal on Feb. 7, 1919

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What a fascinating device, to have a time machine that actually works. I’d order the deluxe kit, one that comes with a universal translator and Shroud of Mental Fog so I could hypnotize the masses. After all. Wouldn’t have to wear a Roman male miniskirt, sans underwear or worse, an itchy grass skirt. Just let me wander in yesteryear in jeans, cowboy boots and comfy sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, no threatening questions asked by the local rubes. I’d visit Jesus and Shakespeare, ask the man, or woman, who planned Stonehenge: “So whatdya got going on here?”

“It’s a bicycle racing track,” says the inventor. “Now, all we have to do is invent the bicycle.”

Eventually, I’d get around to visiting Newhall on Feb. 7, 1919. A century ago, that’s when the very first issue of The Mighty Signal was published. Would that be something? To see the absolute very first page coming off the old-fashioned manual press? They had cars back then. But you know what? The gasoline for them was delivered in 100-gallon oak barrels, sometimes by train, often still aboard a wooden cargo wagon pulled by mules and horses. It wasn’t pumped. It was poured from a ladle into a funnel into your gas tank.

That first issue?

It cost a nickel. Nothing costs a nickel today, not even 5 cents.

World War I vet Edward Brown was the first owner/publisher. I know next to nothing about the man, except he died about a year after starting the paper.

So many questions.

What brought him and his wife to Newhall, a dusty little berg of 500 souls? Was newspapering in his blood? It must have been. Unless you’re William Randolph Hearst or one of the Chandlers of Los Angeles Times fame, you don’t do this to make money. I’d bring others with me to 1919. Signal poohbahs and ordinary grunts, some still with us, some long dead. Randy Wicks, the cartoonist. My pal and current editor (as of press time) Tim Whyte. The Newhalls, Tony and his parents, Ruth and Scott. Rich Varenchik, Mr. Grisly Find Himself, one of the best cops & crimes reporters anywhere in his day. Will Fleet the former publisher. The photographer with that can-do smile, Victor Valencia. After all. Wouldn’t do any good to go back and time and have no one to giggle over details at lunch afterward. (Budman’s paying).

World War I was the 9/11 of its day — and much larger. Ed Brown was the very first editor of The Signal, and he was wounded in this great conflict that ended in 1918, just three months before Brown founded this newspaper. Brown would die a young man, a little more than a year after starting The Signal.

What was the town — like?

I mean, I know most of the tedious generalized facts. Were people quick to show anger and scorn? Intolerance? Instead of Road Rage, did they have Horse & Buggy Rage? We did have our own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, so there’s that. We certainly weren’t so entertainment driven, 24/7 like we are today. Imagine a Santa Clarita Valley where you had to visit a feed store to make a telephone call — and to whom? Hardly anyone had their own phone in the country. There was no TV, no streaming, no computers, no movie theater, although we’d drive or ride a horse down to San Fernando to bring back a few reels of a silent movie to show at the Hap-a-Land Hall, the local dance and party headquarters on Market Street near Main today.

Want to know something weird?

People sang songs in 1919. Out loud.

I was editor of The Signal in 2004 for about 20 minutes. Around then we were named the best community newspaper in America. You know what absolutely fried my hide when I started? We were billed as The Hometown Newspaper. Yet, the copy desk would delight in stuffing local coverage and run a full page on presidential elections — in Albania. A full, fricking, page. I still have a copy of that first Feb. 7, 1919, issue at home. Going over it, I winced. There was a story about rabbits. Not our rabbits. Oregon’s rabbits. From The Signal’s Redundancy Department of Redundancy:

“Klamath County (Ore.) will pay a bounty of 5 cents on jack rabbits killed in Klamath County.”

You’d have to physically separate me from Ed Brown. I’d grab him by the lapels and through gritted teeth ask: “Who — CARES!!!!”

In that first Signal issue, we printed:
• Two Japanese banks were going to open branch offices — in Siberia.
• Dairymen were feeding their cows seaweed — in Sweden.
• South America canceled a machinery order from the U.S.
• Arbuckle was building a new hotel. Arbuckle is in Colusa County in Northern California, smack dab luxuriating in the middle of absolute nowhere both in 1919 and 2019.
• Mrs. Minnie Pimental resigned as postmaster. Of Bridgeport, California.

Stop.
The.
Presses.

Without a time machine, I’d probably blame Ed’s wife, Blanche. She was also the town librarian and from her short stint of about six years with The Signal, she produced prose that was mostly like hearing the Old Testament read in Pig Latin on an old phonograph record at 16 rpm. Major soporific.

World War I had just ended three months earlier in November 1918 and remember Ed Brown was a vet. A relatively young and fatally injured vet on a lingering death bed, probably the victim of mustard gas, according to old-timer Gladys Laney. Much of that first Signal issue was devoted to covering the 9/11 of its day — the first World War. At the time, Brown wrote of the “1,400,000 of our young men, (many of whom) who were killed or died of wounds or illness in this war, we have a great number whose physical ability has been seriously impaired. Add to these the number of our prisoners who came back in such a terrible physical condition as to render them unfit for any sustained effort.”

Dear poor Ed. He was writing his own, early obituary, The Signal’s first. Who knows? This is just worthless speculation. But perhaps Ed’s war experiences were like ours after the Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. Ed Brown wanted to find meaning, closure and, perhaps a healing that would never come.

Notice the poetic and oceanic first sentence of the very first Signal editorial, published Feb. 7, 1919. It is the start of a century-long tradition of official Signal position pieces — sometimes haunting, spot-on, emotional and a mirror to the soul of author and community. Sometimes, they could be mean-spirited, rabble-rousing and of questionable taste and judgment and still — a mirror to the soul of author and community.

Later estimates put World War I as one of the deadliest events in history, with about 37 million civilians and military losing their lives. Of the nearly 5 million Americans who served, about 116,000 died and more died of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 than from combat. That flu bug infected 500 — MILLION — people, about one-third of the world’s population then. We were not immune in Santa Clarita. A little story on the first front page of The Signal noted:

“We understand that there will be services in the Presbyterian church next Sunday, the first time for eight weeks, which was also closed on account of the ‘Flu.’”

Here is some extreme Signal trivia for you.

Dr. George F. Stevenson visited the old wooden Signal offices a week before the first issue came out. Stevenson had just come from the forgotten mining town of Sterling, near Agua Dulce. There, he gave medical inspections to most in the now long-forgotten mining township, including the children who went to elementary school in a community of about 100. He plopped down $2 for the entire year and became the very first paid Signal subscriber. Surely wish I had a framed picture of the good doctor. (A week or so ago, we stopped delivering his subscription due to non-payment.)

There was a huge lead story about the superstar of silent films, the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The most famous man in the world brought in 200 actors and crew to film a movie, turning Downtown Newhall into a festive county fair town, complete with 40 prancing horses. They transformed the sleepy little village and, for a moment preserved forever, we were the happy community of Fairpoint. Later, Ed Brown would note that he wished the film crew could have left all the decorations forever.
Dear me, what a Christmas gift that would be, to walk the pleasant February streets of Newhall in 1919, to take that first fresh copy hot off the presses to the Saugus Café, order coffee and breakfast and read The Signal. All six small tabloid pages. Business would go on as usual and the citizens would have no idea of the wonders, inventions, insanity and bedevilments that would transform a community.

I do know this about Ed and Blanche. They were newcomers to the Santa Clarita. But this little community beseechment appeared on that first front page:

“We are strangers here, and if those knowing of items of interest will kindly bring them to this office, it will greatly assist us in makning (sic) our columns more interesting.”

If not spelt more accurately…

John Boston earned the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award to go along with 118 other major journalism honors. He’s penned tens of thousands of stories, columns, reviews, editorials and features. He is a historian, novelist, author, humorist and, with a career nearing 40 years, the longest-serving and most prolific journalist in Signal history.

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