The Gazette’s origins: The company buys its new home (1920–1929)

People can still "walk the curve" from the General Electric Co., but the Erie Canal is long gone. So are the people, seen walking toward State Street around the early 1920s. Cap Scrap loves this routine shot from the past ... that can prompt major interest today.
People can still "walk the curve" from the General Electric Co., but the Erie Canal is long gone. So are the people, seen walking toward State Street around the early 1920s. Cap Scrap loves this routine shot from the past ... that can prompt major interest today.

For the Schenectady Gazette, the 1920s contained two major events: its purchase and renovation of the State Street building it had occupied since 1899, and the death of Gerardus Smith.

For the people of the community as a whole, the decade began with something more earthshaking than either of those events: the coming of Prohibition.

The ban on the production, sale and possession of strong liquor was to take effect on Jan. 16, 1920, although earlier steps had already been taken. Dec. 31, 1919 – New Year’s Eve – had been a time of “general dryness,” the Gazette reported, although by no means universal sobriety.

“All shapes and sizes of containers made their appearance at the Mohawk hotel, and following the dinner dancing alternated with many draughts from bottles that made their appearance from under coast and final, as the diners became more daring from ‘right on the table.’ … Many varieties of wet goods were noticed … all the way from real Gordon gin and Canadian Club whiskey to wines … Good brands of whiskey were looked at enviously.”

As that indicates, the Gazette was not wholeheartedly in favor of Prohibition. When the constitutional amendment banning booze was ratified in January 1919, the paper editorialized more on how the constitutionally process had been followed in bringing about the ban.

Next: The Gazette’s origins: Preparing a new generation of leaders (1930-1939)

“Presumably,” it said, “the prohibition amendment is a response to a demand that can well be interpreted as nationwide. Certainly, it has been insistent from certain quarts, and the opponents of the measure have had ample opportunity to wage their fight.

“Whether the effect will be good or bad remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be many who will be dissatisfied. And just as surely there will be others who will be happy, but as to whether prohibition will reduce poverty, crime and disease cannot be determined for some years.” (What was determined, in the coming years, was that Prohibition made for hot copy. Raids on “drinking houses: would be front-page news in the Gazette in the 1920s).

In some respects, the editorial was a prototype for Gazette commentaries to run in the years ahead – less a thundering from the mountain than a reflection on an issue that left the stand taking to others. It was a hint of what would be increasingly evident at the Gazette over the coming decades – avoidance of a potentially controversial position, uneasiness with change, the attitude of an established business rather than an upstart.

For its alliance with growth and progress in the city – and because of its own success – the Gazette would pay a price in caution, care and conservatism. But first it would put on its morning clothes, for in February 1920 Gerardus Smith died.

As has been mentioned already it appears that Smith had not been closely involved with the Gazette for several years before his death. But no one else in the family had stepped into take control, either, at that time.

John Green was 40 and had been at the Gazette more than 15 years at this point. But he was not loved by his in-laws, the Humes; Hume descendants to this day refer to Green as “a meat cutter,” a reference to his early work for Garside and Green, the wholesale meat distributing firm owned by his father and grandfather.

Green’s wife, Eleanor, was Gerardus Smith’s oldest daughter, but this was 1920, when women were still relishing the recently gained right to vote much less moving easily into corporate board rooms.

Anna Hume, Smith’s younger daughter, had two young children to deal with. Her husband, John E.N. Hume Sr., had his own work to do at the General Electric Co. He never became a shareholder in the Gazette, and his son, David Hume, later said he could never imagine his father working at the paper.

Plus when you get down to the practical question of who ran the company, the controlling interest remained with Smith’s widow, Mary, after his death. Her shares over time would go to her daughters and to John Green, but it would be 1936 before the Greens and Anna Hume among them had more shares than the combined forces of Mary Smith and Liecty.

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The continued control of the paper by Liecty, which would not end until 1945, sparked a long period of the Gazette being run by men of elder years.

Liecty would be close to 80 when he stepped aside, and John Green was 66 when he finally took the company’s helm. That, in turn, held back young leadership somewhat.

John Hume Jr. would become editor of the Gazette in his mid-thirties and David would join the company, after World War II service, while still in his late twenties.

The two men would engage in several confrontations with Green, winning some but losing two big ones.

By the time the Hume brothers had practical control of the paper – which David Hume dated from about 1960, some four years before John Green’s death – they were both in their forties, still relatively young but undoubtedly weary from the battles they had already fought.

Two decades later, the newspaper’s staff would speculate about disagreements between the brothers and John E.N. Hume III, John Jr.’s son, speculation that was at times well founded.

To return to the 1920s, the Gazette again underwent changes. Although newspapers around the country had taken a hard lick during World War I, the Gazette had survived. By 1929, it would be boasting a circulation of more than 24,000.

But it was facing new competition. The Feb. 21, 1922, edition noted the arrival of radio station WGY for “The 3,000 or more amateur radio fans in this city.” (The Gazette would offer regular rundowns of radio programs in March and expand those to include local TV in 1948.)

One can flip through the pages of the paper to the mid-1920s for a series of developments that would affect readers.

George A. Lindsay, a veteran editor and reporter who would recall covering stories on horseback, came to the Gazette as its news editor – that is, the copy-editing overseer – in 1925. “The Chief,” a no-nonsense sort, would rule the newsroom with an iron hand and a huge pair of shears, dropping the latter noisily on his desk when he felt the newsroom chatter had become too excessive.

A new feature made its debut in the Gazette on May 20, 1925.

Advertisements proclaimed the arrival of “Percival Prim and His Daily, Humorous Grammar Lessons in Rhyme.” One entry began: To speak correctly I always try. I answer politely: “It is I.”

Next: The Gazette’s origins: Preparing a new generation of leaders (1930-1939)

When mother scolds my brother and me, We answer tighter: “It was not we.”

Whatever the good intentions, the grammar lessons had a short run in the Gazette. But the same day that Percival Prime appeared, another, unheralded feature started an extra-ordinary string of appearances in the Gazette.

This was “The Cheerful bit of versified sentiment. … An old-fashioned sentiment is getting to be hard to come by.”

In May 1924, the Gazette ended a long period as a tenant and finally became a landlord. The company assumed ownership of its State Street building, commenced renovations in May 1925 and, on Jan. 4, 1926, unveiled its new look in a special supplement to the paper.

“State Street’s New Center of Attractiveness,” the main headline declared. “The Gazette Again Demonstrates Its Progressive Policy and Its Faith in Schenectady’s Growth in Expending Large Sums for Reconstruction Work – Has One of the Most Modern and Up-to-Date Newspaper Plants in State – New Typesetting Machines in Composing Room, Newly Equipped Stereotype Room, Another Hoe 48-Page Press Added, New Offices Equipped With All Modern Facilities for Getting Out Schenectady’s Foremost newspaper.”

And that’s still just the headline.

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Although in its own view the Gazette was a showplace, it was still a smaller, more crowded operation than existed when the company finally moved out in 1990.

Part of the State Street facility was given up to a number of other shops, David Hume recalled. An area now used for storage and vending machines held the presses, which in 1960 would be replaced with new presses in a separate building.

Yet the Gazette crowed for page after page, noting its improvements and running features about the various businesses who had provided the floors, the hardware, the filing cabinets and what – not for the renovated building – all wrapped around ads from those same businesses. “When visiting the new Gazette building,” one ad said, “don’t fail to notice the plumping and steam fitting.”

Followers of the stock market had a warning that the crash of Oct. 29, 1929, was coming, although the Gazette was erratic in conveying those warnings.

A terrible dip on Oct. 4 was noted on the front page but played under a report of a prison uprising in Colorado. A week later, the big news was the World Series (“Timely Stick Work by Hornsby and Cuyler Gives Cubs a Victory,” proclaimed the main story on Oct. 12).

But the Gazette, tied as it was to the community’s progress, would not be spared the impact of the crash and the ensuring depression. The paper’s circulation – some 24,000 copies a day in 1929 – would be down to about 20,000 papers in 1932, a 20 percent decline. It would be the late ’30s before the paper would surpass its 1929 levels.

But the Gazette would survive this period of difficulty, and others as well.

David Hume recalled tough times in the 1950s, “the so-called recessions in the economy. We also had some interesting times during the newsprint shortage” of the 1970s.

Next: The Gazette’s origins: Preparing a new generation of leaders (1930-1939)

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