After more than 140 years serving Ottawa and Franklin County, The Ottawa Herald prides itself on the newspaper’s local roots.
The Herald’s story mirrors that of the community where it was founded and continues to grow. It was born of humble beginnings, felt the pains of war and natural disasters and faced the challenges of changing technology, social norms and population demographics.
As part of the newspaper’s “Twelve in 12/12” series, The Herald is taking a look back at a few historical images that help to define the newspaper and tell its story.
1. The iconic Herald building — Though the newspaper known today as The Herald originated in 1869, when many readers think of it, they picture a downtown structure built in 1888. Located at 106-108 S. Main St., the newspaper’s early offices featured the Victorian architecture of the day — a brick facade, tall windows and a crown bearing the newspaper’s name.
But the Herald might not have been the building’s only occupant during the newspaper’s heyday on Main Street. Local folklore tells that the structure also was home to a brothel in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A red light (advertising to potential customers of the bordello) could be seen in the second-floor windows by passersby, longtime residents have reported. Some say the street lamp in front of The Herald building also was lit with a red bulb when electricity first came to the city.
2. Ralph Harris — The son of an early Franklin County settler who helped launch an oxen-powered freight company serving Lawrence and Ottawa, Ralph A. Harris began the family ownership of The Herald that eventually evolved into the Harris Enterprises newspaper group.
At 36, Harris, an assistant postmaster, banker and political leader, purchased the newspaper from Henry Allen and James Bristow — two publishers with eyes for politics (both later became U.S. senators) and who were the first to publish The Herald as a daily newspaper. Ralph Harris’ son, Sidney, became publisher of The Herald in 1930 following his father’s death, while son John P. Harris became the driving force behind the development of the Harris media chain — serving as publisher of the Chanute Tribune and Hutchinson News in the process.
The Herald was the first of what eventually became a chain of newspapers, radio stations and other communication-related properties across the Midwest. Today, that family of media holdings includes not only the Herald, but also The Garden City Telegram, The Hays Daily News, The Hutchinson News, The Salina Journal and The Hawkeye in Burlington, Iowa, as well as numerous shopper publications and advertising agencies.
Descendants of Ralph Harris remain majority stockholders in The Herald to this day.
3. The Updated Herald — As modernization trends swept the nation after the turn of the century, The Herald building got a new look. Though the timing of the change is somewhat disputed (it is thought to have occurred in the 1940s), the newspaper’s updated facade eschewed the Victorian stylings of downtown Ottawa. Its new front featured a smooth, concrete exterior. Gone was the iconic Herald “crown” atop the structure (which serves as the modern-day Herald logo); in its place were the words “THE OTTAWA HERALD” emblazoned about the second-floor windows. During the war years, the building also featured a large marquee sign of local names, which served as a tribute to “Men and Women in Service.”
4. The Flood of ’51 — One of the most traumatic and significant moments in Ottawa and Franklin County history came in July 1951. Though the area had been prone to flooding for decades, the community was devastated in 1951 as flood waters from the Marais des Cygnes River reached the unheard-of depth of 42.25 feet, or 18.25 feet above flood stage. The loss was estimated to be $6 million in Ottawa alone, and millions more were lost in crops and on rural farmsteads.
Newspaper headlines perhaps told the story best: “About one-third of Ottawa under raging waters,” “Hospital beds are filled up” and “Martial law is in effect in Ottawa.”
In downtown Ottawa, The Herald was far from immune to the devastation. On the day of the biggest flood, July 11, the newspaper went to press early, and then workers labored to remove the press engine even as water poured into the first floor of the building. Damage to the longtime Herald building was undeniable and it was only a matter of time before the newspaper would relocate.
5. Lamar Phillips — In the wake of the 1951 flood, a Herald reporter, Lamar Phillips, took the lead on advocating for new flood control efforts. Through Phillips’ reporting, as well as the unprecedented damage caused by the flooding, local and state leaders were rallied in a push for change.
In 1953, Phillips and a contingent of Franklin County residents descended on Washington, D.C., and received a swift, positive response from Kansas native and President Dwight D. Eisenhower for flood control projects. By 1955, funds were in place for planning a reservoir northwest of Pomona on 110 Mile Creek. That project became what is now Pomona Lake, west of Ottawa in Osage County.
And in today’s Ottawa, of course, a levee system, as well as flood gates on Main Street, help protect the city from the kind of devastation caused by the 1951 flood. The importance of these safeguards was seen in July 2007 when flood waters again surged across Franklin County. That time, however, residents largely were spectators — not victims — of Mother Nature.
6. Bob Wellington — With the 1955 death of Sidney F. Harris, Herald editor and publisher, the Harris family’s direct involvement with the day-to-day operations of The Herald ended. But the newspaper still needed a strong leader to shepherd The Herald through the post-World War II era. It wasn’t long before Robert B. “Bob” Wellington took the reins, beginning Herald stewardship that crossed four decades.
Wellington and his short, pithy and insightful editorials became staples of both the newspaper and community. He too was a champion of flood-control efforts, as well as city manager and county manager forms of government, according to Herald archives. He also was known for his conservative Republican views, which showed up often on newspaper’s editorial page.
A World War II veteran, the well-liked publisher wasn’t above reporting himself. “[Wellington was] always ready to get the scoop and pound out the story or shoot the photograph. He was said to never back off from a fight, whether it be with the city, county, hospital or some other entity giving any of those entities a raw deal,” a Herald article written after Wellington’s death read.
Wellington died in 2001. His wife, Dottie Wellington, who wrote a popular Herald column, “Let’s Cook!”, still lives in Ottawa.
7. A New Home — As The Herald building passed its 70th birthday at 106-108 S. Main St., the structure’s age and damage from the 1951 flood were taking their toll on the newspaper’s operations. Publisher Bob Wellington was faced with a difficult decision: Move the newspaper or face costly repairs for years to come. Ultimately, Wellington opted for a new home, just a few blocks away at 104 S. Cedar St., where The Herald remains today.
Construction began on the building in June 1963, and by November the newspaper already had moved in. The new facility on Cedar Street featured a spacious pressroom and mailroom, as well as office space for the publisher, newsroom, advertising and production staffs. A larger warehouse addition was added in May 1975.
The former Herald building on Main Street remained vacant from 1964-1966, according to historical documents. It was thought to have been damaged by fire, though the site later was occupied by Sears Roebuck & Co., as well as Positive Impressions Inc., which continues to operate at 106 S. Main St. today.
8. Pressing Ahead — The move to Cedar Street allowed The Herald to convert to “cold” type and offset press technology. The press installed at the new Herald facility was one of the first offset presses in Kansas. Later, The Herald converted to a Harris V-15A 6-unit offset press, which was operated for years by Wayne Snow, longtime Herald production manager (pictured above with Bob Wellington).
The Harris offset press was used by the newspaper until May 2010, when The Herald began printing the newspaper off-site at a facility in a neighboring community. The move to end an era of printing on Cedar Street was not only to save money in a time of worldwide economic hardship, but based on a desire to maintain access to the latest printing technology and quality. Switching to off-site printing provided The Herald with a better-looking print product with more color and higher quality paper than would have been possible with The Herald’s aging equipment and facility.
9. Carrying On — For more than a half-century, “newspaper boys” played a key role in the daily delivery of The Herald. Though longtime readers have said the newspaper was delivered via U.S. Postal Service before and during World War II, The Herald took the more iconic delivery route for much of its history.
Carriers, typically boys in their teens, would arrive outside the mailroom door at The Herald to get the fresh-off-the-presses newspapers. As part of the job, the youths also would roll The Heralds with rubber bands before putting them in bags and hopping on bicycles to make their afternoon deliveries. In more recent years, such carrier jobs often were filled by adults.
The tradition of newspaper carriers in Ottawa, however, came to an end in October 2009 when The Herald moved to same-day delivery through the U.S. Postal Service. At the same time, the newspaper became an official morning publication — arriving with subscribers’ mail — after being an afternoon publication for more than 100 years.
10. New Technology — The world began to change in the 1980s with the advent of computers. The Herald, along with the newspaper industry as a whole, was among those affected. Publisher Bob Wellington embraced the changes, if skeptically, even allowing local youths into The Herald to explore the new technology.
“Times have changed, we have an all-new technology, instant communications. ... But on the local level, our readers still want the same meat and potatoes, the local news of interest and importance to them, that which affects their daily lives,” Wellington said in a 1984 column.
Through the years, the newspaper began to rely more and more on computers, eventually moving away from old-fashioned “paste up” layout process to fully digital pagination. Gone are the days of cutting and pasting together headlines, stories and cartoons with X-Acto knives and rubber cement. Today, newspaper pages are designed and put together entirely on a computer and sent to the printer using the Internet.
Changing technology also has pushed more of the newspaper’s efforts to reporting online. Though the paper launched its website earlier, 2005 marked the first major renovation to The Herald’s online site, making the newspaper’s content free and accessible to anyone with Internet access. The move helped to popularize the newspaper’s online presence and made The Herald the news leader for Ottawa and Franklin County online, as well as in print.
Today, breaking news, photos, videos and pages of local information remain free on The Herald’s website, but the bold choice was made in 2010 to give full access to the news to paid subscribers only. Other newspapers now are following suit with such publications as the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle moving to similar paid models for their websites.
11. Changing Guard — Retiring in 1987, Bob Wellington handed over the newspaper to publisher Jim Hitch. Upon his retirement, Wellington’s newspaper colleagues described him as an optimist who always saw the glass as half full. He was proud of his newspaper and his community, and demonstrated high morals, integrity and honesty when serving both, they said.
The new publisher — known simply as “Hitch” to many in Ottawa and Franklin County — left his mark on the local news scene by consolidating business efforts. Under his leadership, The Herald purchased The Ottawa Times and Ottawa Times Shopper from Ramsey Printing in Ottawa in 1992, giving The Herald more expansive advertising and marketing options for both businesses and readers. The Ottawa Times, a small weekly newspaper, ceased publication in 2000, but The Ottawa Times Shopper continues on today — as The Shopper, a free publication distributed across Franklin County and in neighboring counties.
Hitch (pictured above with Wellington) also spearheaded interior renovation projects in the more than three-decades-old facility before leaving The Herald in 1996, when newspaperman John D. Montgomery stepped into the position. Montgomery was at The Herald until 1999, later becoming editor and publisher of The Hays Daily News and then The Hutchinson News, as well as vice president of The Herald’s parent company, Harris Enterprises.
Jeanny Sharp succeeded Montgomery as Herald editor and publisher in 2000, becoming the driving force behind the publication and technological changes, as well as daily operations, of recent years.
12. Staff at Work — The Herald’s newsroom historically has seen a revolving door of changing faces and bylines, as young reporters and their more seasoned counterparts cover Ottawa and Franklin County and then move on to new reporting adventures. But many Herald employees join The Herald family and spend the bulk of their careers with the newspaper, earning themselves and The Herald accolades and respect along the way.
Greg Mast, Herald sports editor, (pictured in a 1990s newsroom photo above, center-left) and Sheila Holle, creative services coordinator and graphic designer, both made The Herald their home 19 years ago. Others at the newspaper, including Kathy Miller, office manager, and Patty Sheler, systems coordinator, have been at The Herald even longer, marking 28 and 25 years with The Herald respectively.
And Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher, has been with Harris Enterprises, The Herald’s parent company, for 22 years.
To learn more about The Herald’s history, visit the Harris family exhibit at the Old Depot Museum, 135 West Tecumseh St., Ottawa.