By Jared Olar
“Citizens of Pekin, here your daily is!”
With these words, the Pekin Daily Times made its debut 139 years ago this month. It began as a four-page broadsheet, with five columns to a page, published by Joseph B. Irwin and W. T. Dowdall, and delivered by four newsboys: Ad Merrill, Charley Wagenseller, Benny Irwin, and Johnny Michael. Joseph Irwin and Dowdall had purchased the Pekin Weekly Register in 1873 and rechristened it the Pekin Weekly Times. On Jan. 3, 1881, Irwin and Dowdall made the risky decision of starting a daily edition of their newspaper.
It was only the second time anyone had ever published a daily paper in Pekin (there was an abortive attempt to publish a daily paper in 1876, when William H. Bates put out a daily called The Pekin Daily Bulletin for nine months, from Jan. 3 to Oct. 5, 1876), and even after the Pekin Daily Times was born, for a while Irwin and Dowdall continued to publish a weekly edition alongside the Daily Times. Over the decades the Daily Times continued to thrive in a local market that included several other weeklies, but one by one its rivals shuttered their offices or were purchased by the Pekin Daily Times, until by the mid-20th century the Daily Times was Pekin’s only newspaper.
The Times has changed hands several times since Irwin and Dowdall brought it into being, including an ugly two-year period in the early 1920s when it was owned by three leading members of the Ku Klux Klan. The paper enjoyed its greatest success and prosperity under F. F. McNaughton’s leadership, who came to the Times in 1927 and passed away in 1981, when the McNaughton family sold the paper to Howard Publications of California. In 2000 the newspaper was sold to Liberty Group, which later renamed itself GateHouse Media Inc. In the last months of 2019, Gannett Co., owner of the USA Today, and GateHouse merged, so the Daily Times is now a Gannett paper.
In an editorial column apparently written by Irwin on page 3, the publishers announced the new daily paper and issued what amounts to a mission statement for their journalistic endeavor. Here are excerpts from that column:
“For a long time the citizens of Pekin have wished that they might have a daily paper printed in the place – they have wanted a home daily. This statement will not be disputed any where.
“The issuances of this sheet materializes that well-defined wish into a living reality – a palpable fact. The PEKIN DAILY TIMES is born. How long it will live depends entirely upon the good people of Pekin and Tazewell county. If it lives it will be because the people of Pekin and Tazewell sustain it. If it dies, it will be because they do not sustain it. . . .
“That a good daily paper will be of great value to Pekin, no man in his senses will deny. For years Pekin has been over-shadowed, ridiculed, sneered at and derided by the numerous daily papers of the burg on the river just above us. It has been the butt and laughing-stock, a standing subject for the cheap jibes and jokes of these papers forever. We had to bear it because we had nowhere else to go for our daily news. Pekin should have self-respect enough to change this condition of affairs at the first opportunity. That opportunity now presents itself. . . .
“We have many evidences going to show that Pekin has just entered an era of renewed prosperity. All the signs are most encouraging for our little city. It now only needs a daily to vitalize its yet partly dormant energies, to encourage its embryotic enterprises, and to thoroughly advertise its growing prosperity and its very many splendid advantages.
“The DAILY TIMES itself, from day to day, must tell the story of what it is to be. Would you know what this is, you must read it. This only do we promise: That so long as it lives it shall be in every way a credit to Pekin. Its quality shall be as good as a liberal outlay of money can make it.
“Citizens of Pekin, here your daily is! If you like it and want it to live, patronize it. If you don’t like it and don’t want it to live, don’t patronize it.”
The first edition of the Pekin Daily Times filled its front page with news that had come over the telegraph from Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, Grand Haven, Mich., St. Paul, Minn., and New York City, as well as international news from Paris, France, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. In keeping with the usual practice of 19th century newspapers, two whole columns of the front page were given over to local advertising. An opinion column on page 2 warned of the political and cultural influence of the Mormon religion, and decried the Mormon practice of polygamy (which the Mormons did not formally renounce until 1890).
The last page of the paper was taken up by local news – but not what we today would expect of local news coverage. The local news in the first Pekin Daily Times was a long string of items of a prosaic or even mundane nature, chiefly being announcements of family visits, out-of-town trips of Pekin residents, community events, or how Pekinites had enjoyed their sleighing and bobsledding during the New Year’s holiday. As an example: “Ben Towner, of Teller, Col., is in the city on a visit to old friends. He was the second city marshal of Pekin, after it became a city, and is well known by all the old residenters.”
Perhaps the most remarkable local news item in the Daily Times’ first edition was the announcement that Eugene Hyers had been granted a divorce from his wife Anna in Peoria Circuit Court, accompanied by the libelous comment that Mr. Hyers “was drawn into a very unfortunate marriage with a woman who had neither honor or virtue and we congratulate the young man upon his release.”
Definitely not the kind of “news” that would ever make it into print today.
A copy of the first edition of the Pekin Daily Times is on display in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room.