The Oklahoman's Downtown History
While preparing coverage for this weekend's coverage of The Oklahoman's move to downtown, I delved into the history of the newspaper and sought to resolve, at least for myself, what seemed to be a contradiction in books and stories produced over the years about the paper's early days.
There was no doubt that Rev. Sam Small published the first newspaper under the name "The Daily Oklahoman" on January 14, 1894 (even though Wikipedia claims he started the newspaper in 1889). Small himself is quite the character and really typical of the amazing people who came and went during the days when Oklahoma City was truly a frontier town.
Small was born July 3, 1951, the son of Alexander Small, a newspaper editor and president of an express company. After graduating at Emory & Henry College in 1871, Small started on a two-track career - one as a journalist, the other in politics with an ambition for becoming an attorney. One of his earliest journalistic endeavors was working as a reporter at the U.S. Senate. And with his father's backing, he was named as a secretary to President Andrew Johnson.
Small gained his first big following in 1876 writing columns for the Atlanta Journal Constitution under the pen name of "Uncle Si." The letters, written with the dialect of an elderly black man, took on a national following. Small employed a cast of recurring fictional characters to delve into politics, education, religion, crime, unemployment and money. In October, 1876, Small made his first attempt at starting up a newspaper, The Evening Telegram and Sunday Herald. The newspaper shut down four months later, and Small returned to write the Uncle Si columns.
But Small's career crashed as his life was wrecked by alcoholism. While working as a freelance reporter and covering a tent revival meeting, Small met evangelist Sam Jones. Small quit drinking, became a prohibitionist and became known as "Rev. Sam Small." The Uncle Si column, meanwhile, was picked up by Joel Chandler Harris with a new pen name of "Uncle Remus" - the same "Uncle Remus" featured decades later in the Disney movie "Song of the South."
Small didn't stay out of journalism for long.
In 1894, Small traveled to Oklahoma City, saw the existing newspapers and decided the community could support a newspaper fashioned more like those in bigger, more established cities. Small struck a deal with Frank McMaster, who owned a print shop at 1 N Robinson Avenue, to publish the newspaper.
And this is where the confusion over the start of The Oklahoman starts. McMaster also was the founder of the Evening Gazette, which had started in May, 1889. McMaster turned over the newspaper's operations to partners but continued to own the printing presses, which were described in other publications at the time as "the best in the territory."
Small aspired to making The Daily Oklahoman the official Democratic Party newspaper for Oklahoma City. He introduced Associated Press wire and market reports to the city, as well as territorial weather forecasts from Washington, D.C. All reports were wired in via telegraph. Small opened bureaus in Guthrie, Perry, Norman, Ardmore, Yukon, El Reno and Newkirk. The Daily Oklahoman also was sold at locations in New York City, Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C.
In a town wood frame store fronts still lined unpaved streets as they had five years earlier, The Daily Oklahoman first opened its office in the basement of the newest, biggest, most ornate building of the time - the Masonic Lodge Building, 101 W Main, soon to be better known as the home of Western National Bank.
The Daily Oklahoman was an ambitious effort, but Small didn't have access to unlimited funds. He started up a stock company to fund the operation and by May, Small was out and one of the financial backers, William Whit, took charge.
Small traveled to Norfolk, Virginia and started a new newspaper, the Daily Pilot, which first published on October 6, 1894. He quickly ran afoul of area interests, and when he reported on alleged bribes paid by a book vendor to state school officials and gossip of a Baptist preacher engaged in adultery, Small was hit with two libel suits. The affair was proven to be a hoax, Small printed a retraction, but he lost both suits and was financially ruined. He left Norfolk in August, 1895 and went on to a career of writing syndicated editorials and preaching on the prohibition circuit.
Operations at The Oklahoman continued, largely under control of investors led by First National Bank. They leased the newspaper to Charles Barrett. That didn't last long either.
The stock company then sold the newspaper to R. Q. Blakeney, who previously was a partner with McMaster in operating the Evening Gazette. Blakely turned The Oklahoman into a far more modest small town newspaper operation that featured social notices on the front page. On July 1, 1894, the newspaper combined with The Evening Gazette which the consolidation being printed in the masthead of The Daily Oklahoman throughout the summer of 1894. It is this evidence, in the archives at the Oklahoma Historical Society, that it can be said, conclusively, that The Oklahoman can trace its roots back to 1889.
Blakeney continued publishing The Oklahoman until March 1900, at which time Roy E. Stafford and W.T. Parker bought the operation with Parker as the financial backer.
By 1896, The Oklahoman had its own building, a wood-frame printing shop and newspaper office, at 26 W Main, where it remained for about two years before the block was cleared to make way for the Lee Hotel. Blakeney continued publishing The Oklahoman until March 1900, at which time Roy E. Stafford and W.T. Parker bought the operation with Parker as the financial backer. At about the same time, the newspaper moved to a two-story brick building at 18 S Broadway.
The office was 22 feet wide and 65 feet long. The mechanical plant featured a flat-bed press, two Linotype machines and about a wheel barrow load of type. It was the purchase of the second Linotype machine, sought by Stafford but opposed by Parker, that led to Parker selling his interest to Stafford.
The space was so small that when E.K. Gaylord arrived from St. Louis, bought an interest from the newspaper's owner, Roy Stafford, and became business manager, he had to office in a separate building. The newspaper became profitable under a newly organized Oklahoma Publishing Co. formed by Gaylord and Stafford. The Oklahoman moved to 22 S Robinson Avenue, the corner of California and Robinson Avenues, in October, 1903. The larger building boasted a new $15,000, 16-page, two-color Goss perfecting press, stereotyping equipment and three additional Linotype machines for a total of five linotypes.
The building was gutted by fire on January 29, 1909. E.K. Gaylord wasted no time building a new home for The Oklahoman, hiring the state's most renowned architect Andrew Solomon Layton to oversee designs. And it is this building, at 500 N Broadway, which still bears the name of The Oklahoman, that most people assume was the original home of The Oklahoman - but in fact, was just one of five addresses the newspaper maintained downtown until it made the move to the suburbs, 9000 N Broadway, in 1991.
And now, in 2015, The Oklahoman is back downtown at 100 W Main - just across the street from where Sam Small put out the newspaper way back in 1894. Now how's that for historic coincidence?
– The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma Newspapers
– "Current Literature, a Magazine of Record and Review," Page 708, General Gossip of Authors and Writers, published by Current Literature Publishing, New York City, 1900.
– Oklahoman archives, January 1894-August 1894, Oklahoma History Center.
– "The Origins of Uncle Remus," by Eric L. Montenyohl, Scholar Works, Indiana University.
– Sanborn Fire Maps, Metropolitan Library System.
– “Norfolk, the First Four Centuries,” By Thomas C. Parramore, Peter Stewart and Tommy Bogger, published by University Press of Virginia, 1994.