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home : about us : daily news history
December 14, 2017

A three-generation publishing legacy
Clyde Smith (right), Daily News commercial printing manager, goes over the fine points of a letterpress printing job with Larry Gullett, who still works for the Daily News in the advertising department.
Clyde Smith (right), Daily News commercial printing manager, goes over the fine points of a letterpress printing job with Larry Gullett, who still works for the Daily News in the advertising department.

In 1919, the Daily News hit the streets for the first time as a bold answer to the question, "Can Robinson support a daily newspaper?" Eighty-four years and three generations of Lewises later, the answer is still "yes."

The Daily News was founded by F. Wood Lewis in 1919. At the time, Lewis was editor and publisher of the Robinson Constitution -- a weekly that began publication in 1863, which the 38-year-old former teacher and lawyer bought in 1902.

But could Robinson, a town of 3,300 in a township of 6,000, support a daily paper? Would there even be enough news to fill a paper each day? It didn't take long for these questions to be answered. Under the direction of Lewis and business manager John W. Dyer of Mt. Carmel, the paper flourished. Fewer than two weeks after the first issue on June 16, circulation reached nearly 800. Nine months later, it was 1,200. With city carrier delivery and rural mail delivery, subscription rates the first year were $5 per year in-town and $4 per year out-of-town.

Of course, the look and content of the newspaper was a far cry from the Daily News of today. Besides the regular news of the day, the Daily News occasionally carried romantic adventure serials by well-known novelists, such as Booth Tarkington.

Daily News headlines were different, too, before objectivity was a journalistic watchword. If an old couple got married, the headline usually read, "Old Enough to Know Better." If a 17-year-old and an 18-year old were married, it might read "Children Wed." Divorces were announced by "Two More Couples Split Blanket."

Lewis was indeed a colorful editor, in the style of the time. He and the editor of the Hutsonville Herald had a presumably friendly feud going in the summer of 1919 that started when a Hutsonville editor identified in the Daily News files only as "Anderson," printed the following:

"The swimming season is in full blast and evidence of this fact is noticeable in more ways than one. Almost every day visitors to the beach at this place are seen parading out on the streets clad in scanty and ridiculous bathing suits and numerous complaints are heard from our citizens who have some degree of decency. This practice should be stopped and violators of the following ordinance should take notice and heed before they find themselves brought up before some officer of the law. One or two arrests along this line will put a stop to this practice of indecency...."

To which Lewis replied:

"Evidently Editor Anderson is not of an artistic turn, otherwise he would see nothing but art in the classic display of which we begrudge him. Or perhaps he needs goggles. Speaking thusly, we of course, have in mind the young ladies of Robinson who want to visit the beach - Venus de Milo had nothing on them."

Adding fuel to the fire, Lewis asked the young women of Robinson to read Anderson's attack on scanty swimwear and decide if they wanted to sue for libel. He said the girls could win their case because "any jury in the land would decide for you, providing you wore the suits in court."

Anderson responded: "It is true that the Herald editor needs goggles when some of the Robinson girls appear on the streets here displaying charms that were never intended for exhibition purposes. He also needs blinders, a check-rein, and martingales if he is to continue to walk the straight and narrow path and every other man in this town needs the same thing if he is to visit Main Street on any warm Sunday afternoon."

Fernando Wood Lewis, known as "F.W.," the man who crafted this lively brand of early-century newspapering, was born in 1864 in Lewiston, Ohio. His parents moved to Crawford County near Porterville.

F.W. attended the Porterville School until the family moved to Robinson; his father opened a general store, where Wood worked.

In 1880, F.W. was one of the first students of Robinson Township High School, and was the first and only high-school graduate of his class.

His first job was as a schoolteacher, until he was admitted to the Illnois bar at the age of 24. He spent four years as a lawyer, partnered with P.G. Bradbury, until he was elected Crawford County State's Attorney - described as "no mean job," considering the number of murder trials in the county at the time.

After his term in the courthouse expired, F.W. bought the Robinson Constitution from John S. Abbott. He would remain in the newspaper business for nearly 50 years until his death in 1950.

Not one to shy away from civic involvement, F.W. also served as city clerk, alderman and mayor of Robinson. He was usually on the temperance side of hot elections in which liquor licenses were an issue. He was also instrumental in securing a glass factory, a boiler factory, a cement block factory, and the old Wabash Refinery.

The story of his role in saving the refinery paints Wood Lewis as a "mover and shaker" in the volatile oil-boom years of Crawford County.

The Wabash Refinery was started in 1917 by the "Lowrey interests," mainly F. C. Lowrey, his son, Forest, and W.E. Krohn. But in 1921 business was so bad the plant closed down. About 30 of the 125 employees were laid off, and the rest would be as soon as all of the stocks on hand were used up.

In February of that year, the refinery had its first labor disturbance. Two successive pay cuts would have slashed wages 15 to 20 percent. Many laborers quit, but later about 60 percent returned.

The refinery still had promise, though, and Lewis knew it. He backed oilman Thomas Flynn, who bought the 20 acres and the complete plant, but not its 70 railroad tank cars.

Finally in November 1921 a new operation was organized. Lincoln Oil Co. was capitalized for $1 million, was largely rebuilt, and quickly had a 1,000 barrel per day capacity of crude. In late April 1922, a new cracking plant was built to recover gasoline and other more valuable products. The operating force of 41 men handled nearly twice the amount of crude the original 125 men had handled a few years earlier.

The refinery was sold on June 6, 1924 to the Ohio Oil Co. and the plant was immediately placed at full production. Two years later the plant was enlarged. Of course, the rest is history, with the purchase of the refinery by Marathon, now Marathon Ashland, constant expansion and a workforce of more than 600 employees today.

F.W.'s son, Kent Van Lewis, entered the University of Illinois in 1922 and earned his journalism degree in 1927. He edited the Daily Illini's literary magazine and worked at a suburban Chicago newspaper until returning to his hometown in 1929 to assume the role of editor and publisher of the Daily News. In 1943 he enlisted in the Marine Corps, served in the Pacific and rose to the rank of major. In 1948, following his father's political footsteps, he was elected as a Democratic state senator.

Vernon Heath, a member of another well-known Robinson family (the Heaths of English toffee candy fame), presented Lewis with the Robinson Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Citizen Award in 1965. His presentation highlighted many of Lewis' contributions to the community.

"Through hard work and tireless effort, Kent was largely responsible for the 7-1 favorable vote on the new county hospital in the 1958 referendum," Heath said. "He backed the Washington School and other important school improvements and bond issues...as a member of the steering committee for the proposed junior college district for this area [Lincoln Trail College was established in 1969], Kent has been a key spokesman at many of the public and state meetings...and has testified before the Junior College Board in Chicago and elsewhere in support of this project."

While he continued his father's tradition of community involvement, Kent Lewis also continued his tradition of spirited journalistic give-and-take, with his columns and his "editor's notes" following readers' letters to the editor.

"He is noted for his sharp but fair answers to the `Letters to the Editor' and he enjoys disarming many of his letter-writer critics," Heath said, "as he is quick to challenge statements that he feels do not always state the issues or the facts correctly."

Here's an excerpt from a Lewis "editor's note" circa 1965, responding to a letter complaining about loose dogs:

"While we have every sympathy with persons whose sleep is disturbed, there has to be a compromise between those who want to keep dogs and those who are bothered by them...

"Also, dogs which bark are not at all likely to be barking for food and water. Much more likely they are telling a passing cat what they would do if they had their freedom, objecting to some stranger in the neighborhood or just discussing matters among themselves, as is the nature of dogs.

"Under the circumstances we would advise that the letter writer secure wax ear plugs and use them during sleep."

Lewis also exerted his influence in more serious matters. As a chamber board member, Lewis saw that although some progress had been made in landing new industry, many other opportunities had been missed because volunteer efforts were either too small, too late, or overmatched by other areas' professional organizations.

He and a small group of other chamber members envisioned a county-wide organization, headed by a professional, working for industry in every part of the county. The group sparked the formation of Crawford County Opportunities, Inc., and the county-wide effort continues today as the Crawford County Development Association.

Kent Lewis' legacy of community involvement has carried forward into recent years, when in the 1990s the Daily News played a part in the successful effort to attract a prison to Crawford County, and later in neighboring Lawrence County. In the Lewis tradition, Daily News personnel have a tradition of being active in the community, serving on various boards and committees.

The Lewises expanded their newspaper holdings into Lawrence County in 1967, buying the Lawrenceville Daily Record from the Armstrong family in January 1967, followed by the purchase later that year of the Lawrence County News.

"Kent was not just my mentor, he was my master mentor," long-time Daily News editor and Illinois Press Association Past President Byron Tracy said. "I had lots of mentors (I was a slow learner) but only Kent took a high-school educated kid and taught him to not only write, but later to edit, and more importantly how to put up with people, both good and bad."

"I'll never forget his cigar, his scotch on ice, his dry and sometimes caustic humor," Tracy recalled. "Once, when I asked him what in the world he expected me to put in a suicide story he had assigned this cub reporter, he never missed a beat, "I want to know the last time he slept with his wife ... and how!"

When Tracy "graduated" to reading Lewis' copy he once asked the editor, why, with all his education and experience, he couldn't spell `occurred.'

"`That's why I have you around,'" Lewis said.

"Kent taught me more about understanding people than anyone I've known throughout my many years," Tracy recalled. "Once I caught him putting a quarter under a desk. I asked what he was doing and he said he was testing a new cleaning lady to see if she was doing her job. `Why not a nickel?' I asked, and he said, `She might not pick up a nickel, but she damned will a quarter, no more than I pay her!'"

Kent Lewis died June 22, 1975, leaving the paper to his son, Larry H. Lewis.

Lewis made sure the business continued to prosper, and supported his editors and reporters in freedom of information, open meetings and other news-side issues - and has made sure they have the resources to maintain the newspaper's commitment to comprehensive local news coverage. Despite being one of the smallest daily newspapers in the state, the Daily News has kept on the cutting edge of technology.

Larry Lewis died September 4, 2006, leaving the paper to his wife Kathleen Lewis.

In the beginning, the paper was printed on an old Mehle flatbed press that had to be fed by hand, with the paper then turned over and fed through again.

Today, the newspaper's six-unit offset press can produce 10,000 papers per hour, and editors and reporters work with computerized page layout, digital photography, e-mail and Internet resources. At this writing, the Daily News is expanding its use of process color, updating its pre-press workflow with an imagesetter, and its website, Daily News Online, is being "reborn" with greater functionality and revenue potential.



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