Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
Newspapers have been an important part of American life for many years. Mark Twain once wrote, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Although his comment is an obvious exaggeration, clearly the newspaper has been a primary source of information for many over the years, including Visalians.
Although Visalia cannot lay claim to having the first newspaper in California, it had the first in the southern San Joaquin Valley. On June 25, 1859, the inaugural issue of the Tulare County Record & Fresno Examiner was printed by Isaac W. Carpenter in the basement of the Tulare County Courthouse. The edition was a big deal for the isolated little town of slightly more than 500, and its kickoff even made news statewide. The Sacramento Daily Union, for example, acknowledged it and complimented the Visalia paper for being “well printed and filled with good original … matter.”
In October the same year, the long and cumbersome newspaper name was changed to the Visalia Weekly Delta. Commenting on the name change, the Delta explained in its Oct. 8, 1859, issue: “As to the name, we chose it both for its beauty and the adaptation to the place where the paper is published, this section of the country being precisely similar to (only on a smaller scale) the country watered by the River Nile in Egypt, and to which the word Delta was originally applied.”
In the years that followed, many other newspapers joined Visalia’s journalistic lineup with names like the Visalia Sun, Equal Rights Expositor, Courier, Tulare County News, Visalia Post, Visalia Star, Spread Eagle, Valley Voice and Tulare County Times. Many went out of business, consolidated or changed ownership. So why were there so many papers? Back in the day, it was not uncommon for newspapers to align with a political party or social movement, so competing newspapers were published at the same time — a condition, by the way, that led to some interesting editorial exchanges, some that would occasionally result in violent or even deadly confrontation.
Probably the most famous local newspaper squabble occurred in 1860 when the Union-supporting Visalia Sun engaged in pre-Civil War editorial battles with the South-supporting Visalia Weekly Delta. Harsh words in newsprint escalated to a violent shootout on Visalia streets, and when the affray was over, John Shannon, owner and publisher of the Delta, was dead.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Visalia Delta, under new ownership, became a strong Union-supporting newspaper. To counter the Delta, the Equal Rights Expositor began publishing, and the hostility between these rival papers was regularly on display. In 1863, the owners of the Expositor were arrested on treason-related charges and their newspaper office destroyed.
But probably the longest-running newspaper rivalry was between the Delta and the Times, a publication that began in 1865. Although the two newspapers frequently disagreed, they were usually civil, and both were well-respected. Each had loyal subscribers and was favorably recognized in journalistic circles. In 1889, for example, the San Francisco Examiner commented on both. “The Times,” it said, “has developed into a reliable and enterprising newspaper and enjoys a large circulation.” About the Delta, it complimented George W. Stewart and J.J. McMillan, owners of the Delta, by saying, “Both gentlemen have been connected with the paper for a long time and are popular in their community — their paper attests their ability as journalists.
Both papers published for many years with ownership changes from time to time. The most recognized owner of the Delta was probably Stewart. In 1876, he started working for the paper as associate editor and, a decade later, he became a partner. By the late 1880s, he was the sole owner and, in 1899, he sold it Alonzo Melville Doty.
Probably the most well-known name associated with the Times was Ben Maddox, who became editor in 1890. Eventually, the Georgia native took over the newspaper and ran it until 1910, then turned it over to his son, Morley.
For many years, these two established newspapers reported the news. On Feb. 13, 1928, Charles A. Whitmore, owner of the Delta since 1909, announced that after several months of discussion with Morley M. Maddox, publisher of the Times, an agreement had been reached to combine their papers into one starting on March 1. The new name would be the Visalia Times-Delta. Whitmore assured readers that the new afternoon paper would be “independent and non-partisan in politics.” He further explained that mergers of newspapers had become a common practice, and that consolidation cuts production cost and would help to bring the community together.
In the last issue of the Times published on Feb. 29, Morley Maddox made his parting comments, writing: “The Visalia Daily Times ends its existence today under such name and starting tomorrow will be merged with the Visalia Morning Delta, the newspaper to be called the Visalia Times-Delta.” He assured readers “that they will have a better paper” and that it “will meet with approval of readers and advertisers alike.” Whitmore became president and Maddox vice president and manager. On March 1, 1928, the first Visalia Times-Delta hit the newsstands.
The newspaper obviously caught the eye of Visalians, but it also attracted statewide attention. The Hanford Sentinel headlined its story with “Partisanship passes and ancient enemies wed” and noted “thus two of the oldest newspapers in the valley have pooled their interests, forgotten their differences, and united under a common non-partisan and independent banner.”
The Bakersfield Californian noted, “Last week two of the oldest newspapers of the state, the Visalia Times and the Visalia Delta coalesced on the theory that one good newspaper in that city would suffice for all purposes….”
For the past 91 years, the Visalia Times-Delta has been the major journalistic voice for Visalia. But as might be expected, those years did not pass without other significant changes, including the buyout of the Tulare Advance-Register in 1993. Undoubtedly, in this fast-paced digital age, more newspaper changes are inevitable for the Visalia Times-Delta/Tulare Advance-Register.