Eagle’s 76 Years – our history – first installment

by JUDY EDSTROM – Eagle Newsletter editor

What began as an idea to develop a brief history of Eagle Newspapers, Inc., for newsletter readers seemed to be stuck on your editor’s back burner. “Brief” was difficult to be, when you consider the company’s origins go back 76 years.

That’s when Elmo Smith and his wife Dorothy borrowed $25 to establish a mimeographed weekly newspaper in Ontario, and three years later in 1936 founded the Eastern Oregon Observer there. He also served as the city’s mayor.

WWII interrupted Elmo’s newspaper career for a few years, but after serving in the South Pacific, he returned to Ontario,reclaimed his newspaper from a couple he had found to lease it and was elected mayor again. In 1948 he sold the newspaper, and with the proceeds he purchased the Blue Mountain Eagle, moving his family to John Day,where he won election to the Oregon State Senate.

Also in 1948, he and his friend, Bill Robinson, bought the Madras Pioneer, which Bill ran. The family business was incorporated as Blue Mountain Eagle. (BME bought the remaining interest in thePioneer in 1971.)

More than six decades later, Eagle continues to meet the needs of communities in much the same manner as Elmo and his associates did in the 1930s and 1940s. Elmo believed, and often said, “You show me a good newspaper and I’ll show you a good town.” And he was a firm believer in treating employees as partners and colleagues.

He instilled those values in his son while Denny was growing up and learning the business. Those values continue to be guiding factors in the company’s operation today, now that Denny is the owner and CEO of Eagle Newspapers, Inc.

The 1960s – The family business inched its way west of its Eastern Oregon roots when the Hood River News was added in 1961. At this time Elmo was publisher of the Albany Democrat-Herald and he charged his son Denny, fresh out of college, with running the newly-acquired Hood River weekly. But Denny’s tenure was short lived. He was flying the F89 out of Portland with the AirGuard when the threats in Berlin and Cuba were spurring Cold War defense build ups. In the spring of 1962 Denny requested active duty status.

When the Smith family bought the Hood River weekly newspaper, Denny hired Lester Reitan, a high school student at the time, to insert preprints and apprentice as a printer’s devil. Elmo found and hired your newsletter editor to set type. (Lester retired 50 years later after a long career as publisher of theWoodburn Independent and an Eagle board member. I’m still typing.) 

In Denny’s absence, Elmo sent someone to watch over us: the Albany daily’s managing editor, Dick Nafsinger. (Dick retired as publisher 28 years later to devote more time as Eagle’s chief operating officer, a post he held from 1978 to 2001. He remained on the board until he died in 2011.) 

The family business grew again in 1964 with the addition of the Dallas, Ore., weekly newspaper. (The Dallas job openings brought in some other faces still showing up at company meetings—Bill Cassel and Nancy Adams, both currently publishers and board members.)

When his father died in 1968, Denny took the reins of a company that included the weeklies in Madras, Hood River and Dallas. Denny and Dick Nafsinger quickly established a team relationship. Working together, they built the company along with their own stature in the industry, as well as in the realms of community and public service.

During the next 11 years, still operating as Blue Mountain Eagle, there was a steady, prudent investment in new properties and equipment. First came the Central Oregonian in September 1969. That Prineville property lured a young cowboy from Texas—Jim Smith. (Jim remained publisher until leaving that post in 2002 to devote more time as Eagle president and was chief operating officer until he retired in 2007.)

The 1970s – With the 1970s came a new opportunity in the wake of a major disaster.  A gas leak created an explosion that totally destroyed the Dallas building Nov. 11, 1970. Inside was a newspaper office, a News King press and a brand new Goss four-unit press that had run for the first time just the day before . . . and had the first payment due the next day.

Denny saw lemonade in the lemon and his foresight expanded the company’s focus. Rebuilding the newspaper plant and establishing a central printing plant became two separate projects.(The web press project, which began as four press units in 4000 square feet with a trailer for office, grew to today’s 60,000 square feet housing 31 units, quad stack with UV lamps and four folders. Four of the employees at the original central printing plant in the 70s are still with the company: Mike Connor, Sharon Gustafson, Susan Schneider and Paul Wickham.)

A press plant was just the beginning of the 1970 growth pattern that saw the addition of 11 new weekly newspapers to the family business and a crossing of the Columbia into Washington State with the acquisition of the Goldendale Sentinel and the White Salmon Enterprise.

Eventually a young Hood River ad salesman became publisher at Goldendale. (Andy McNab liked it so much he bought it. And owned it until two years ago, but he had come back into the company in 1993 as publisher of the Idaho County Free Press, remains there and sits on the Eagle board.)

Also early in the decade, the Woodburn (Ore.) Independent came into the company and a few months later there was a familiar face in the publisher’s chair: Lester Reitan, that printer’s devil from Hood River.

The acquisition of the Canby Herald followed in 1972, bringing with it a young man named Dave Weston. (During his years with the company, Dave moved into various chairs at the Hood River News, in Goldendale and Dallas and in the Central Office.)

Weeklies in Monmouth and Independence were purchased in the1970s and in 1992 merged into the Dallas operation, the Polk County Itemizer-Observer. Midway through the decade the company acquired the Molalla Pioneer and two other Oregon businesses—North Willamette News and North Willamette Press, both of which were combined with other operations.

The company began 1978 by getting a toe hold in The Dalles,Ore., with acquisition of the Weekly Reminder, which would be folded into The Dalles Daily Chronicle, when it was acquired in1996. The Sheridan (Ore.) Sun also was acquired in 1978. It was sold to the publisher three years later. As the year came to a close, the company expanded nearer metropolitan Portland with acquisition of the suburban Lake Oswego Review and the West Linn Tidings.

Before the decade ended, Eagle acquired the Hermiston (Ore.)Herald. Big changes were ahead…..  To be continued