A look back at 125 years: A history of Watauga Democrat
by Anna Oakes
Newspapers serve multiple functions in a community, and the documentation of history is among those roles. You won't find a more comprehensive history of Watauga County than in the pages of Watauga Democrat, founded in 1888 and now in its 125th volume.
Watauga's first journalists
Watauga Democrat wasn't the first newspaper in the county. The Watauga Journal published Vol. 1, No. 1 on Nov. 17, 1887, announcing the "birth of Watauga's first newspaper." Owned and edited by E.H. McLaughlin, the newspaper declared itself to be, in politics, "uncompromisingly Republican." McLaughlin later left to become chief of police in Johnson City, Tenn., according to a document written by former Democrat publisher Rachel Rivers-Coffey.
Then came The Watauga Enterprise, which, according to the earliest available copy on microfilm at Appalachian State University's Belk Library, published its 12th issue on April 27, 1888. Thomas Bingham and L.L. Greene were the editors.
The first edition of the Watauga Democrat is said to have been distributed in July 1888 as a publication to see the local Democratic Party through the fall election. Thereafter it folded, but on July 4, 1889, Robert C. "Bob" Rivers and D.B. Dougherty revived the newspapers, serving as publisher and editor, respectively.
"With this issue of the Democrat commences the second year of its existence," stated an editorial in that issue. The editorial noted that J.F. Spainhour, former editor, had resigned to pursue his legal profession and that John S. Williams, former publisher, had left to start a paper in Sparta. It also noted that Rivers was the former publisher of the Enterprise.
"We believe that the people of Watauga and surrounding section will sustain a local newspaper in their midst," the editorial said. "It will be free and independent and will speak out on all public and political questions as seemeth right. It will be the friend of all who will work for the advancement and the upbuilding of our common country."
The subscription rate for the weekly paper was listed as $1 per year.
In the Thursday, Jan. 12, 1899, issue, Rivers announced that he had purchased D.B. Dougherty's interest in the paper, becoming the sole owner and proprietor. Later that year, Dougherty's sons -- B.B. and D.D. Dougherty -- opened Watauga Academy, the predecessor to Appalachian State University.
A laborious process
In 1928, The Charlotte Observer profiled Rivers and his endeavors as a country newspaper publisher. Of the early days, Rivers said, "I was so busy that I had to get up before daylight and work by an old oil lamp -- electricity was unknown in the mountains at that time. I set the lamp up here on the type case, and by that dim light I set my type."
Orders for paper took three days to get to Lenoir and three more days to be hauled to Boone.
"Sometimes, when I saw that the paper was not going to get here in time to print the issue, I got on my horse and rode down the mountain to meet the wagon," Rivers recalled. "I loaded enough paper on the horse to print one issue and got back in time to get it out Thursday as usual. The wagons, hub-deep in mud most of the way, came in two or three days later."
The format of the newspaper was different in those days, with letters to the editor and opinion pieces on the front page, and advertisements scattered throughout news copy. Before real estate became a dominant presence in the local business scene, front-page advertisers included doctors and lawyers.
The "Local News" section was populated with the kind of "news" that rarely makes the headlines these days -- about residents and their out-of-town travels to visit family, children going off to college and even locals' health issues.
"Old friend Parks Watson, of Gap Creek, started last Sunday for New York, where he goes to have an operation performed for fibroid tumor. Mr. Watson is getting much advanced in years, and we fear the result," read one ominous note in 1899.
A changing region
Other events contained in the newspaper's pages marked the growth and development of the region, which transformed from a resort area where the wealthy vacationed to a tourist destination for all.
Long before Moses H. Cone Memorial Park became one of the most popular public recreation destinations in the High Country, Watauga Democrat heralded the news of the textile businessman's expanding country estate.
In January 1899: "Mr. Moses H. Cone, of Baltimore, has purchased the farm owned by Mr. Jefferson Brown, near Blowing Rock, which is quite an addition to his large land estate near that famous resort. Mr. Cone is now preparing to erect a magnificent residence on his estate at a cost of $25,000. It will be on an elevated spot overlooking a lake that will cover 25 acres or more of land."
The July 4, 1957, issue announced the upcoming opening of Tweetsie Railroad, the state's first theme park, and the Nov. 22, 1962, edition detailed the progress of the Blowing Rock Ski Lodge, which brought skiing to the North Carolina High Country.
An enduring family business
In 1933, Rivers handed the reins over to his son, R.C. "Rob" Rivers Jr., who had been helping set type for the Watauga Democrat since age 6. He ran the newspaper until his death in 1975. Under his leadership, the Rivers Printing Company acquired The Blowing Rocket in 1956 and The Avery Journal in 1972.
Rob Rivers' daughter Rachel Rivers-Coffey succeeded him as publisher, and her husband Armfield Coffey eventually became executive editor.
For many years, the newspaper office was located on King Street in downtown Boone, where Murphy's Restaurant and Pub is located today. Rivers Printing Company was the first local business to buy property and build a production plant in the Watauga Industrial Park, moving there in the 1980s.
In 1994, the family sold the newspaper business to Eugene and Anne Worrell, owners of the Bristol Herald-Courier. William S. Cumming III served as the new publisher.
"We will deeply miss our daily associations with our family of coworkers ... but we will be cheering from the sidelines as they move confidently into the challenging future of journalism," Rivers-Coffey said at the time.
Art and Fran Powers purchased the Watauga Newspapers group in 1997, and in 2002, the papers were acquired by Jones Media, a family-owned business headquartered in Greeneville, Tenn. Jones Media had recently acquired The Mountain Times as well.
Archives of the Watauga Democrat can be viewed at the Watauga
County Public Library and ASU's Belk Library Appalachian Collection.