Signal 100 | Thornton Doelle: The Forgotten Star

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Part 6 of 52

By John Boston

Signal Staff Writer

The great and lingering sin of Thornton Doelle is simple. He’s not famous.

Actor. Forest ranger. Lawman. Poet. Romantic. Original carver of countless Santa Clarita mountain trails. Father of local theater. And, most importantly, editor of The Mighty Signal. Doelle started writing for this paper in 1920, wearing a variety of hats: reporter, assistant editor, columnist, and The Signal’s ONLY regular poet. He was the on-again, off-again editor in 1924 and the rascal even started a competing paper, The Saugus Enterprise, that merged with The Signal after just five issues.

Also, for the record, Doelle is the only Signal columnist (along with human trafficker Dwight Jurgens) and editor to serve time in the pokey.

For years, the city of Santa Clarita has bestowed a great honor on the heroes of screen and music. The Walk of Western Stars immortalizes many of our local legends — William S. Hart, father and son Harry Carey Jr. and Sr., Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Tex Williams, Montie Montana, Cliffie Stone, Hoot Gibson and Ben Johnson to name a few. Stars, famous for perhaps forever, honored next to our own. Then there’s the out-of-towners: Gary Cooper, Lee Marvin, Glenn Ford, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Jack Palance, Herb Jeffries, John Ford and Jimmy Stewart, along with others.

And no Thornton Doelle.

DOELLE, THE SCV’s FIRST COWBOY POET

Unlike all the above (except for Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II) Doelle actually shot a bad guy (a bank robber) in the line of duty.

I have to admit. It’s been a burr under my saddle blanket for 20 years. Thornton Doelle was the SCV’s first cowboy poet. He penned haunting prose — not on the deep heart of Texas or lonely Yukon skies, but on the rugged beauty of Soledad Canyon or living alone for months in a log cabin. From his 1923 poem, “The Homesick Ranger.” Thornton longed for his little log cabin in the mountains:

“. . . away from the city’s pretentions and strife, Far from the turmoil, the grief, the unrest And the never-racking clamor and scramble for life.”

His “Memoriam to a Pine Tree” was simple, humble and close to heart-wrenching. It was about how Doelle would sit under the “Monarch of the silent forest,” a great pine towering “A hundred feet and more above the sod, A tree which was, nobody knows how old…” Doelle tromped through an other-worldly “slate-gray path of ruin” to find “Instead a glorious living tree, a mound of sickening ashes.”

He wrote of a shy Newhall girl in a work entitled “Sweetest Girl in Town” and that men dream as women do of home, romance and family in “Yes, Indeed We Do.” My favorite? It has to be “Sing Me a Song:”

“Sing me a song of virgin hills That bask in the summer sun; A song to gladden a weary heart, After the day is done. Sing me a song of a mountain brook, Where rainbow trout run free; Where each shadowed hook is a haven of rest, And each new scene spells mystery.”

Yes. We used to have trout in the local streams.

DOELLE, THE SCV’s FIRST THEATER IMPRESSARIO

For a man who shunned crowds of more than two people, Doelle loved the stage. He wrote The Signal’s first film reviews. More importantly, he founded the Newhall Community Players, the SCV’s first community theater group. That was in April 1923. Doelle’s troupe played at the old Hap-a-Land Hall on Market Street. After expenses of rent, costumes, playbills and expenses, if there were any profits, the actors and crew split them. Besides starting this first troupe, he directed and starred in the first SCV plays, “Clarence” followed by “Trust Your Husband.” Odd. For such a loner, for 20-plus years, he climbed onto various stages and performed. In 1943, Doelle sauntered out of the mountains to once again revive local theater. He was still working for the Forest Service.

Funny thing.

He put on all these local plays and was editor of The Signal. Yet, there isn’t a single photograph or stage bill of the fellow.

DOELLE & HIS CAREER AT THE MIGHTY SIGNAL

So The Signal printed its first issue, Feb. 7, 1919. The Signal’s owner died a year later in 1920 and Doelle showed up as assistant editor. The first time I caught his byline was July 8, 1921. Over his four-year-stint, he authored many columns. That first was called “The Men Who Guard Our Mountains.” Sort of has this John Phillip Sousa martial orchestra sound to it, like you should read it aloud while marching in place. A romantic fellow, he wryly noted he knew a shy hunter who could tell “deer” from “dear” tracks.

Doelle wrote his first editorial Dec. 28, 1923. It was on head hunters. He drew parallels between the “primitive South Sea barbarians” who beheaded their enemies and corporate presidents who took advantage of children under despicable working conditions. Doelle demanded profit sharing and medical benefits for workers.

He wrote sports. On May 21, 1925, our local semi-pro baseball team, the Tigers, lost to the Santa Paulians, 19-14 at their home field. The Signal not only accused SP of stealing bases, but literally, runs off the scoreboard. “The Santa Paula outfit don’t know what good sportsmanship means,” wrote Doelle, who was editor then. “They are as big a bunch of crybabies and rowdies as ever shamed a diamond…”

I’ve always sensed a friction between Doelle and Signal owner, Blanche Brown. She took over this paper when her husband died in 1920. I’m guessing, from her viewpoint, it wasn’t much of a news story. Ed’s passing wasn’t mentioned.

Blanche, the town librarian, had a stifling, Homerically boring style. She’d take nearly the entire front page to run not just the entrants to a ladies’ bake sale, but the recipes to all the cakes. Their names would flip-flop as editor in the publisher’s box. When Doelle reigned, the paper was lively, exciting. It had — what do you call that word? — news.

DOELLE & THE SAUGUS ENTERPRISE

Some of the SCV’s old-timers will recall that The Signal wasn’t always named thus. It used to be “The Newhall Signal.” And, in the masthead, it read: “and Saugus Enterprise.”

Thornton Doelle started that paper.

In the winter of 1923, Doelle published five issues of that paper. He struck some deal with Blanche and the two papers legally merged.

“With volume 7, number one, starts the first issue of this paper bearing the combined names of The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise,” wrote Signal Editor Thornton Doelle in January 1924. Quite the coup. He went on to write: “And while we are about it, let us forever turn our backs on petty jealousy and inter-town envy.”

DOELLE & THE SHOOTING JOURNALIST

Remember that in the 1920s, Newhall-Saugus looked nothing like Valencia. We had a long heritage of being a sleepy community during the day and a rough-and-tumble, barroom brawling Wild West town at night. We had far many more saloons here than churches prior to Prohibition. Constable Jack Pilcher was fresh off of executing Gus LeBrun in 1924 for shooting his partner, Ed Brown (no relation to the editor). Pilcher died in 1925 in a freak shooting accident and Doelle took over as the area’s top lawman.

Doelle had the resume for it.

He is the only known Signal editor to shoot a bank robber.

A bank was robbed in the Antelope Valley and the gang was headed toward the SCV. Lawmen there wired ahead and planned a pincer move to literally cut the gang off at the pass in upper Soledad. A shootout ensued at a ranch where they were hiding. Two were shot dead, another two wounded, one by Doelle.

After dragging the bodies and surviving heist artists back to Newhall, Doelle wrote a front-page story of the day’s events, followed by an editorial on how handguns are too easily obtainable. A week later, the defense attorney is beginning opening remarks when he stops and stares into the jury pool. Thornton’s one of the jurors. The attorney complained to Judge Miller that Doelle SHOT one of his clients. Miller dismissed the objection, noting that Thornton had been at the shootout and there was no one better to ascertain what had transpired. After a most brief deliberation, the local jury found the bank robbers guilty and they were in the state pen within a week of the robbery. Doelle wrote of the trial, along with an editorial about the need for swift justice.

THORNTON DOELLE THE CONVICT

Adding to his impressive resume, the guy served time in the pokey.

Doelle moved out of the SCV and, according to a Nov. 13, 1926, article in The Los Angeles Times, became editor of the Coalinga paper. A few months later, he and five other men were arrested, handcuffed, jailed and charged with defamation of character. Seems Thornton ran a story about how Fresno County Sheriff W.F. Jones was drunk and disorderly at a street fair during Prohibition. One of Doelle’s cellmates was L.D. Davis, the local minister.

THE FORGOTTEN THORNTON DOELLE

Many years ago, a friend asked if I’d dress as Santa and visit his house. He had a little boy and woke him from a deep sleep to witness St. Nick tiptoeing to the Christmas tree. The kid’s 40 now and still discombobulated by that evening.

It’s Christmas Eve. Afterwards, my friend and I went to Tip’s, our local world-famous bar, for a drink. The place was bedlam. We haven’t been served in 20 minutes. I’m still in my Santa suit. I stand and in a robust jolly voice yell: “HEY! WHO THE HECK DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO GET A DRINK AROUND HERE?!?!?!”

Nominations are long past for the upcoming 2019 Walk of Western Stars. Drat if it wouldn’t be fitting, on The Signal’s 100th Anniversary, to have the SCV’s first true cowboy poet, lawman, stage performer, father of local theater, writer and Signal Editor Thornton Doelle enshrined.

We’ve only been asking for 30 years.

Like Santa at Tip’s, the question naturally arises: “Who do you have to be to get a star around here?”

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