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Argus-Courier celebrates 160 years of chronicling Petaluma’s history

On Aug. 18, 1855, the first edition of what would later become the Petaluma Argus-Courier hit the streets. The Petaluma Weekly Journal and Sonoma County Advertiser made its debut with an apology from publisher Thomas L. Thompson.

“Our apology for the dearth of general news, etc.,” he wrote “It is for the want of exchange papers to select from. Next week we hope to do better.”

These words from the first copy indicate the challenges facing journalists of the era. There was no telephone or telegraph, no Internet or social media, no radio or television, automobile or airplane. A computer would have been a person who added numbers.

It’s no wonder that the first publisher apologized for the lack of news. That he hoped to do better the following week shows that he had faith in the boats and horse-drawn vehicles which he counted on to bring him information.

First edition

That first edition of the Journal and Advertiser was a far cry from the paper of today. Featured on the front page were two poems, entitled “The Birds of Petaluma” and “The Spinner’s Stint,” a narration by a woman on the ways of her husband and a description of a fresco newly installed in the nation’s capital.

The rest of the paper was taken up by agricultural statistics, state news, vital statistics, editorials, advertisements and a farmer’s page, which included recipes, an article on how to make good cheese and a geology item reprinted from the Scientific American.

Appearing also was a “Prospectus,” which stated, in part, “The Journal will be entirely independent of and unconnected with any of the political parties, but it will exercise the privilege of discussing freely and fearlessly the official acts of public officers, and of scrutinizing such measure of public policy as affect directly the interests of the people. Its columns will also be open to a fair and legitimate discussion of all subjects of a general or local interest connected with political questions of the day.

“Its primary object, however, will be the development of the great Agricultural and Commercial resources of the immediate section of country in which it is located. The valleys of Sonoma, Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Napa, and the regions of Bodega and Russian River, offer inducements to the Agriculturists and Capitalists, unsurpassed by any other portion of California, and we shall endeavor, by a fair presentation of its natural and local advantages, to attract the public attention to this section of the state.”

Petaluma Argus

Despite his enthusiasm for the area, Thompson could not make the paper prosper and on April 26, 1856, sold to Henry L. Weston. Considering the title “too cumbersome,” Weston shortened it to the Sonoma County Journal. He published the paper until August 1860, when he took in I.S. Church as a partner. Church dropped out a year later, and Weston published alone until November 1862, when he acquired another partner, T.W. Abraham. On Feb. 25, 1864, the Journal was merged with the Petaluma Argus, following the sale by Weston and Abraham to Jas. A. McNabb and Samuel Cassiday, owners of the Argus.

The Petaluma Argus had made its appearance in the fall of 1859 under the proprietorship of J.J. Pennypacker, but due to financial difficulties, he was forced to sell the equipment and close the paper the following May. Cassiday bought the equipment and began printing the Petaluma Republican. Six issues appeared before Pennypacker raised enough money to repossess his equipment and the Argus reappeared on Aug. 25, 1860.

In December 1860, Pennypacker sold out to A. Drouillard, who formed a partnership with McNabb. When Drouillard retired, Cassiday became McNabb’s partner. They operated the Argus until 1864, when they merged with the Journal and became the Petaluma Journal and Argus.

Late in June 1866, McNabb dropped out of the partnership and in February of 1869 Cassiday sold to Weston, who had retained a part interest in the paper.

The Journal and Argus

In February, 1870, J.E. Guild bought a part interest and became business manager and the following month, they changed the name to the Journal and Argus, dropping the word Petaluma.

In May of 1871, Guild sold out to McNabb and N.W. Scudder, but shortly after McNabb left, after being appointed deputy collector for the Port of San Francisco.

In 1870 the Petaluma Daily Crescent, the first daily in the county, began, offering Democratic competition to the Republican-leaning Journal and Argus. It lasted until the fall of 1872.

On Feb. 7, 1873, the last remnant of the old Journal disappeared when the paper’s name was changed to the Petaluma Weekly Argus. Starting in the first week of August 1872 and for a year thereafter, the Argus put out a daily in addition to the weekly, but it was not successful.

Weston and Scudder published the paper until April 1879, when Scudder sold his interest to Cassiday. For 20 years Weston and Cassiday were the publishers with McNabb, then, in 1899, Cassiday and McNabb sold their interests to the heirs of the Denman estate, who sold to George W. Heald.

Heald converted the Petaluma Daily Argus into The Morning Argus, first appearing Oct. 3, 1899, but discovered a morning paper was more bother than it was worth, evidently, because a month later, he switched to an evening paper.

Weekly Courier

On Oct. 5, 1876, W.F. Shattuck started the Petaluma Weekly Courier with E.S. Lippitt as editor. A noted lawyer and orator, Lippitt was a former law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes. Shattuck had more success in competing with the Argus than had the Crescent and, aided by Lippitt’s excellent editorials, the paper grew into one of the most reliable journals in the state. Lippitt stepped down as editor, to be replaced by Shattuck, sometime in the 1880s.

In November 1888, Shattuck sold to A.K. Woodbury and his mechanical foreman, D.W. Ravenscroft. The following year, Woodbury disposed of his interest and, after three years of operating the paper, Ravenscroft sold to W.A. Selkirk.

Selkirk started the Daily Courier in addition to the weekly, issuing the first edition Dec. 4, 1891. It was not as great a success as he had anticipated, however, and in February 1893 he sold an interest to John Michaelsen, who operated the paper until November of that year. Michaelsen met with financial difficulties and sold to George H. Crosette and Ravenscroft.

On Dec. 15, 1884, a third paper, and a second local daily in Petaluma, appeared in the form of the Daily Morning Imprint, run by J.W. Hoag, H.B. Hinkle and J.T. Studdert. In the early 1890s, Hoag and Hinkle sold to Jack Wright, who disposed of his holdings shortly thereafter, leaving Studdert the sole proprietor.

In December 1894, Studdert sold both the daily Imprint and the weekly, which had been started on Jan. 1, 1891, to the Petaluma Publishing Company of Ashbury G. Smith, which bought the Courier from Crosette & Co. in October 1894.

The two papers were merged under the name The Daily Courier and Imprint. The weekly Imprint was added to the semi-weekly Courier.

In early April of 1895, Felix G. Head bought out Smith and with his first issue changed the masthead to the Daily Courier. His revitalization attempt failed and the paper was sold two months later, back to Ravenscroft. On July 8, 1895, Ravenscroft added the word “Petaluma” to the masthead and reconverted the semiweekly to a weekly. This time he stayed with the Courier for 12 years, until October 1907, when he sold to Henry E. Pastor, J.C. Arthur and C.C. Honodel. Arthur stayed until January 1912, when he sold to E.A. Avery. Five months later, Ravenscroft again returned to the Courier and took over briefly before selling to Homer W. Wood, who converted the daily from evening to morning with the first issue of March, 1912.

Olmsted dynasty begins

On Jan. 2, 1900, the name Olmsted first appeared on the Argus masthead. Stephen H. and C. Clay Olmsted, brothers who were operating the Marin Journal, took ownership of the paper. Six months later, brother J. Emmett Olmsted, previously city editor of the Santa Rosa Republican, moved to Petaluma to become editor, and in 1903, a fourth brother, John A. Olmsted, fresh from the University of California, came to work at the Argus. Five years later, he bought out Stephen and Clay, who remained with the Marin Journal. John and Emmett continued as partners, John managing and Emmett editing.

Over at the Courier, Homer Wood offered keen competition to the Argus for over 14 years, until he bought the Porterville Evening Recorder and sold the Courier to the Olmsted Co. on Jan 1, 1928. The company published a morning Courier and an evening Argus. In July 1928, the papers were combined, both editions becoming the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

Following Emmett’s death in 1935, John became the sole publisher, continuing both editions, except for a short break during World War II, until May 16, 1953. Then, because of faster delivery service to the rural areas that had been served by the morning edition, it became unnecessary and was discontinued.

In 1948, John turned the paper’s editorship over to his son Duncan, although he retained the title of publisher until his death in October 1953. John’s other two sons joined their brother in the family business, Stephen Clay as production manager and John A. Jr. as advertising manager.

Corporate ownership

The Olmsted dynasty ended in 1965 with the sale of the paper to Scripps League Newspapers.

The paper continued as a daily until May of 1993, when it was redesigned and its frequency changed to twice a week. Three years later, Scripps sold its newspaper holdings to Pulitzer Inc. Pulitzer owned the paper until September 2001, when the Argus-Courier was bought by The New York Times.

In February of 1999, the paper received another transformation, to a weekly tabloid configuration that was delivered by mail. Three years later, the familiar broadsheet format returned, along with weekly morning carrier delivery.

The New York Times owned the Argus-Courier, as well as the Press Democrat and the North Bay Business Journal, until January, 2012, when they sold to Florida-based Halifax Media. Eleven months later, the newspaper group returned to local ownership as a group of Sonoma County investors stepped forward to purchase the papers under a new company called Sonoma Media Investments.

With each change, the Argus-Courier has placed more emphasis on local news. Currently, it features in-depth cover stories on local issues, as well as sections devoted to local news, community, sports, business, education, food and drink and entertainment.

The Argus-Courier’s website is continuously updated throughout the day with the latest breaking news from Petaluma and the region. In addition, reporters are using the latest social media tools, including Facebook and Twitter, to interact with readers.

The Argus-Courier is committed to continuing its rich tradition of community journalism, and has been recognized many times by the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

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