Signal 100 | Good man, bad editorial writer

I used to wish for two impossibles. First was a time machine. I always wanted to go back in time and see what life was like — be it a visit with Abraham Lincoln or to watch Neanderthals in their daily struggles. My second present? I’d want a variation of the old Colgate toothpaste Invisible Protective Shield. You’d need something to make you completely bulletproof, arrow-proof, sword-proof and idiot-proof from the humans of yesteryear.

Lately, I’ve been having second thoughts. I think I might get grossed out by the reality of yesteryear.

Still. It would be fascinating to sit down with Almon B. Thatcher, editor/publisher of The Signal from 1925 to 1938. All my years of studying the history of the Santa Clarita Valley and The Signal, I still don’t know much about him. When we moved our offices from 6th Street in Newhall to car dealership row on Creekside Road, our circulation manager, Denny Hanson, was in charge of the trek. He reportedly threw out dozens and dozens of bankers’ boxes filled with historical photos. I’m sure, in there, were pictures of A.B. “Dad” Thatcher. To my knowledge, only one survived. Adding insult to injury, that likeness came from a Los Angeles Times cameraman.

A complicated man

And aren’t we all. Dad Thatcher was a tireless cheerleader for this community, from the Roaring ’20s through The Great Depression. He started the decades-long tradition of running personal columns and editorials on the front page of The Mighty Signal. His Jin-Jer-Jar column first appeared June 6, 1923. Later, he offered an apt self-description of his opinions: “It gives me a chance to get rid of some of my meanness without hurting anyone. Much.”

That first piece was pretty much awful. But, Dad did make an interesting point that is still debatable and trenchant today. His words from 96 years ago:

“Wouldn’t it be about the right thing for the charitable Americans to take a lay-off the next time any foreign nation has a great calamity? None of them seem to appreciate the gifts.”

In his 13-year-tenure, Thatcher wrote think pieces that would make a 21st-century man wince. He once opined, in 1938, that the Jews must have done something to egg on the Germans and that they were justified to be beaten and shipped to concentration camps. He wrote front-page black jokes. He hated jazz. He panned “Gone With the Wind.”

Here’s Thatcher’s 1937 literary criticism on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitizer Prize-winning American classic:

“It is very interesting as history, but as rotten as they make them in language. For profanity and obscenity, it certainly takes the cake.” I think Dad probably boosted local book sales with his review.

Courtesy photo
Of all things, the only known photo left of Signal publisher Dad Thatcher was taken in 1947, two years before his death, by a Los Angeles Times photographer.

Thatcher was against Prohibition. He penned fiery editorials, calling the constitutional amendment: “… rotten to the core, unjust and extremely discriminating, a tragic farce and the greatest curse that ever befell this nation.”

That’s one thing with Signal editorials. There’s always a greatest curse to befall somebody at least once a week.

On the plus side, Thatcher pointed out another farce, the lack of a local fire department. Back in the 1920s, town and community fires were handled by the Forestry Department. In Downtown Newhall, we had one (1) fire hose that was useless, completely. When the Swall Hotel and Chaix Building burnt down in 1925, there was nothing to put out the fire except a bucket brigade, manned by William S. Hart himself. Thatcher shamed the community, pointing out that, literally, when they rolled out the canvas hose, moths flew out.

Signal editorials can convince.

Within a few months, we had modern firefighting equipment here to protect our town.

Count your blessings, but …

A defining description about Thatcher? He was a positive force during the Depression, choosing not to dwell on it, but took the approach that we should count our blessings.

In 1932, Thatcher ran an editorial on the front page. It was one of the most effective we’ve ever printed, for my money. The editorial read, in part:

“It is a solemn time. It is a gloomy moment in history. Not for many years, not in a lifetime of most men who read this paper has there been so much grave and deep apprehension. Never has the future seemed so incalculable at this time.”

Thatcher listed all these problems and I’ll condense. He noted that America was in “… universal commercial prostration and panic. Thousands of our poorest fellow citizens are turned out against the approaching winter with employment or prospect of it.”

Thatcher went on to write that we should pray, help one another, keep on keeping on. Then, at the end, Thatcher confesses. He didn’t write a single word of the think piece. He noted that he had copied it word-for-word from an editorial from Harper’s — in 1857.

Things are never as bad as they seem.

Curious Mr. Gink

One thing about that time machine. I’d certainly go back to the 1940s and buy his autobiography. I’ve been searching for years for “Story of a Common Gink.”

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Here’s the logo and start to the April 7, 1932, Jin Jer Jar, the front-page Signal column “Dad” Thatcher ran from 1925 to 1938. Note the fiery words about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, followed with humor about a local pioneer, Charles Kingsbury.

Thatcher was born Aug. 14, 1860, on the banks of the Auglaise River in northwest Ohio. His father left immediately to fight in the Civil War and his mother took care of a large family. His father returned from Appomattox and took the family to eastern Iowa, which was considered “The West” then.

Growing up, he coped with pioneer life, prairie fires, blinding winter blizzards, smallpox, grasshopper swarms and living in a sod house. He remembered, as a 9-year-old boy, seeing the solar eclipse of 1869. He later taught school in Woodbury County and married his lifelong sweetheart, Anna Margaret Abby. They had five children together.

Thatcher opened a store, then a friend convinced him to buy the local newspaper, which came with “… a Washington hand press and a hatful of used type.” He and his family moved around, starting The Star newspaper of Sloan, Nebraska. Then, he moved to Moville, Missouri. That didn’t work out. Floods and fires ruined both town and paper. More towns, more newspapers. He ran papers in Pierson, Iowa, then, Sioux City. “Dad” didn’t care for Sioux City. A budding conservative, he had several run-ins with newspaper unions.

In 1906, Dad founded the Leeds Sun in Missouri, then the Naper Enterprise back in Nebraska. There, he entered politics and was the Republican justice of the peace. Cripes he moved a lot. He acquired the Butte Gazette (still in Nebraska) and won a seat on the state Legislature. He worked closely with Charles Bryan, brother of the infamous orator, politician and lawyer, William Jennings Bryan.

How the heck he got to Newhall in the early 1920s, I couldn’t tell you. But on a visit here, his wife, Alma (like all of us) fell in love with the place. A.B. Thatcher did all sorts of strange things to make ends meet here. He was a time keeper on a state highway construction crew. He bought a chicken ranch in Happy Valley. Then he started a feed store on Spruce Street (Main today) in Downtown Newhall.

Obviously, with ink in his veins, he couldn’t stay away from The Mighty Signal. You will recall, this paper was founded in 1919. Ed Brown was the first owner/editor. He died about a year later and his wife, Blanche, ran the periodical. I sense there was a power struggle amongst Blanche, the swashbuckling forest ranger/editor at times Thornton Doelle and Thatcher. Remember, Thatcher took over as assistant editor in 1923.

I always thought Thatcher OWNED the paper. He may not have. There is the story that Blanche Brown held onto ownership and that SHE sold the paper in 1938 to Fred Trueblood and his brothers. Thatcher was 78 when the paper changed ownership. He went on to keep writing his column (but not on the front page) for another decade. He was the oldest working newspaper columnist west of the Mississippi River.

Fred Trueblood kidded “Dad” in print in 1938, noting how The Signal had just purchased new printing equipment and that Thatcher was having trouble figuring it out. Trueblood, a chronic kidder and practical joker, wrote: “That’s because, Dad, you’re turning the crank on the pencil sharpener.”

But, know this:

From 1925 to 1938, it was Thatcher who was The Voice — good and sometimes horrific — of The Mighty Signal.

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Thatcher continued to write his Jin Jer Jar column up until his stroke in 1946. But, it was moved off the front page and over to page 4. Here, Thatcher writes, in June 1941, about how jerks in government colluded with the Germans.

In his Jin Jer Jar, like many of today’s modern Signal columnists, he reflected on his life and times. He commented on a changing America after the Civil War. He wrote heartfelt pieces on being a boy and swimming in a lazy river near his parents’ farm.

However.

In another early column, June 12, 1924, Thatcher wrote:

“Do you want a truthful slant to what is going to happen to America in the next 50 years? All right, just take a look at the cars that go along the boulevard. Mexicans, Japanese, colored folks and a few white people, drive cheap cars loaded with children. Most American cars contain a man and woman, and the biggest ones generally have a dog. The kiddies are conspicuous by their absence.” It should be pointed out these were certainly different times (we had a Ku Klux Klan presence here in the 1920s) and that Thatcher would run “colored” jokes on the front page of the paper.

I offer this item not with any trace of mirth, but rather as part of the honest public record. Of all the wonderful prose he contributed, he was a man of his days — the 1920s and 1930s. The word, “racism” wasn’t in the public vocabulary. We lived in a segregated society. Plus, we had not experienced the horrors of Germany’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, aka the Nazis.

This Thatcher piece appeared on the front page of The Signal on July 10, 1935:

“Mussolini is preparing to attack the darkeys (sp) of Abyssinia by putting chemicals on the ground that will burn their feet. According to reports of the toughness of American colored folks’ feet, that will not help him much.”

An old-time work ethic

Thatcher’s wife, Anna, died Jan. 27, 1932, in their humble Newhall Avenue home, near the current Presbyterian Church. She was the love of his life. Dad would live another 17 years. He was 78 when the Truebloods took over The Signal in 1938. Not only did he continue reporting and writing his Jin Jer Jar column, but he ran a local notary business, sold insurance and prepared taxes. In his 80s, Dad Thatcher was the valley’s top real estate agent. The labor took a toll on the newspaperman. In 1946, he collapsed and underwent surgery for a heart condition. Thatcher never recovered and was bedridden until his death Feb. 10, 1949. His daughter, Ruth, cared for him for three years at his Newhall Avenue home. When he passed, he was patriarch of a family of 74 members: two boys, three girls, 24 grandkids, 39 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

I came across an arcane bit of Signal trivia as to the reason why Thatcher sold The Signal in 1938 to the Truebloods. I never knew this, but the behind-the-scenes muscle behind The Signal had been a man named Lee Carson, Thatcher’s son-in-law. Carson essentially ran much of this newspaper’s operations and he died in 1938.

Despite his op/ed pieces, Fred Trueblood wrote of Thatcher the day after he died:

“In the 10 years The Towerman knew Dad he never heard him speak ill of a human soul — he never heard a word of complaint or criticism — a word of anger or discouragement (the strongest possible expletive was a somewhat explosive ‘shucks.’). Dad’s soul was essentially a soul of sweetness and good will — how rare, how priceless, only those who have it not can realize.”

I hope we all are remembered for our better qualities, forgiven for our worst.

Almon B. “Dad” Thatcher was a hands-on community leader, a tireless rooter for Santa Clarita. He got out the news, sold ads, set type, wrote of tragedy, heroism, the strange and the mundane. He ran a newspaper in a different culture, a different century, when there were no traffic lights and few paved roads. I recall one story he wrote from May 22, 1935. It made the front page. Things were so quiet, he wrote about how Arnold Neufeld missed an entire week of school.

Arnold had poison oak.

But my favorite, all-time Dad Thatcher portrait that describes him perfectly?

Courtesy photo
The Mighty Signal remembered its editor/publisher in this 1949 front-page obituary and tribute.

Back in the late 1920s, The Signal cost a plug nickel, $2 for a year’s subscription (sometimes taken in trade for fruit, vegetables, eggs or demitasse livestock).

A woman living in the deep boonies of Canyon Country called to complain that her Signal had arrived, but that the entire page 2 was completely blank.

Thatcher turned in his swivel chair and put his feet up on the desk. This was back in the days when phones came in two parts. Cupping the receiver between neck and shoulder, he spoke into the phone and took the next 30 minutes to read the subscriber the entire page two, ads and all.

John Boston is the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 17 on The History of The Mighty Signal.

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