Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The True Democrat

St. Francisville’s True Democrat: more than a century covering the news in a historic little Louisiana river town

By Anne Butler

The True DemocratWhen The True Democrat first “unfurled its flag to the journalistic breeze” on February 3, 1892, in St. Francisville, it proclaimed purity as its emblem and truth and honesty as its lofty motto. It promised to labor for the advancement of the people, politically, socially and financially, to promote agricultural diversity, to encourage manufacturing and to liberally support education. But really, this early newspaper was begun to “make war on a great gambling monopoly,” the controversial Louisiana Lottery.

The True Democrat was not the little rivertown’s first paper. As early as 1811 James Bradford, son of a pioneer Kentucky printer and first official territorial printer in New Orleans, had established the Time Piece in St. Francisville, the first newspaper in the Florida Parishes which had only recently joined the territory of Orleans. This was less than two decades after the first newspaper in Louisiana was begun in New Orleans, prior to which news and official proclamations were spread only by the town crier and the posting of handwritten broadsides.

The True Democrat not only outlasted the lottery problem, but continues in publication today. When it published an ambitious 30-page Silver Anniversary Edition upon the occasion of completing its first 25 years in print, a hefty publication that it advised readers would require a whole two cents of postage to mail, the editor reprinted from the first 1892 issue the serious thought given to the publication’s name. Decrying the fact that many newspapers bear misnomers at their head, “Guardians that betray the public trust, Spectators that see nothing, Bees that make trouble instead of honey, Wasps that forget to sting the foe, and Sentinels that fail to see the spy lurking within the camp,” the editors chose a name assuring readers that the paper would adhere to the time-honored principles of true democracy. And they couldn’t help bragging that in those first 25 years, “despite death, quarantine, fire and flood,” The True Democrat never missed an issue.

Its first edition, like all newspapers of the time, was a four-page six-column sheet covered in just three sizes of type, with advertisements limited to a single column and just a few lines; before the mid-1800s, advertising was by broadsides, handbills and posters for the most part. Three lawyers, three doctors and two dentists “had their cards” in that first issue as advertisement, some of whom were still engaged in practice at the time of the Silver Edition, and the “Personal But Polite” alliterative column of juicy tidbits of local gossip began then and is still going strong today, with many of the same family names still present.

True Democrat 1917Interspersed throughout the anniversary edition’s articles were enthusiastic exhortations and encouragements: “Quit existing elsewhere; come to West Feliciana and live!” and “The spirit of progress is abroad in West Feliciana,” and “Once a West Felicianian, always a West Felicianian.” There was even a little piece entitled “A Second Heaven,” in which Saint Peter is showing a newcomer around heaven, with streets of gold, singing birds and beautiful flowers; asked about the disconsolate group of men over in a corner tied together, St. Peter explains that those were West Felicianians, who had to be kept tied up or otherwise they’d go right back home.

The editor of the True Democrat, in her 25th-anniversary look backward, proclaimed that it must have been “the rashness of extreme ignorance concerning the cost, risks and demands of publishing a newspaper” that led her to begin publication with her first husband, W.W. Leake, Jr., using “a three-fourths worn-out Washington hand-press and meagerly equipped print shop” and campaigning against the lottery at a time when most other publications in the state supported it. With little start-up capital, the True Democrat was begun with subscriptions raised from anti-lottery readers, subscriptions which ranged from five to ten dollars, “and a few of those, be it whispered, were never paid.” The editor’s husband Mr. Leake supported the paper for the most part with proceeds from his insurance business; in the first year, there was no net profit at all.

When the Louisiana Lottery was defeated, primarily due to a decision by the US Supreme Court denying it use of the mails, the True Democrat vowed it would “never be at a loss for good causes to foster, new ideals to implant, fresh enterprises to support for the good of the people among whom we live.” And when Mr. Leake died in 1901, his widow struggled to continue alone as a hardworking country editor, often in ill health and “with one baby at the breast, another’s tiny hands on my skirts, a son too young to be of material assistance, and the accumulation of debts incurred in extensive farming operations untimely cut off before possibility of reaching results.” The community reached out to support her, paying bills, renewing subscriptions, paying in advance, providing printing work. And when in 1908 a fire wiped out the little print shop, a new beginning was made yet again.

As the widowed Mrs. Leake began to rebuild her business, a new printer was called for. One she hired turned out to be a disreputable drunk, another so nervous he could not touch the standing type without knocking it over. But in 1906 she made the fortunate acquaintance of one Elrie Robinson, Texan who knew the printing business inside and out. The outcome was happy, not only for the True Democrat but for the widow Leake, soon to become Mrs. Elrie Robinson. The True Democrat flourished, and in 1917 the paper referred to West Feliciana, its 246,400 acres containing lands along the river “richer than the Valley of the Nile,” as “the portion of the State of Louisiana which burst upon the delighted vision of the sick and travel-worn Spaniards after their wanderings through the swamps and wilds of the Mississippi and Red Rivers, which in their joy they called ‘Feliciana.’”

The 1917 Silver Anniversary Edition of the True Democrat burst with pride at the accomplishments of the area, with histories of the West Florida Rebellion, Bayou Sara and St. Francisville, the West Feliciana Railroad, the Bank of Commerce and the Meyer Hotel (clean accommodations for boarders and transients described as “homey without being unduly familiar”), the Odd Fellows Lodge and other club groups, the historic churches (some like Grace Episcopal already nearly a century old) , agricultural and educational advancements, prize flower gardens, notable plantations, and Audubon’s associations with the parish. There were tributes to leading citizens, many of whose names continue in the parish to this day, the Bowmans and Barrows, the Butlers and Daniels, Plettingers and Haddens, Leakes and Lawrasons, Kilbournes and Ards, Rettigs and Nolands, Powells and Percys, Haralsons and Folkeses.

While the bulk of early parish residents claimed Anglo antecedents, of the 1917 population of 13,449 there were interesting injections of other influences…Peter Trocchiano, for example, pictured with swirling Salvador Dali-esque mustache, was described as a live-wire Sicilian married to the convent-educated Miss Salvatora Vinci who had many brothers in St. Francisville, and who began as a fruit peddler before branching out to establish a fine shoe store and manage the movie theater “where some of the most celebrated reels are seen.”

St. Francisville True DemocratThe Jewish community was not neglected, with articles describing the contributions of citizens like Daniel Mann, Max Dampf, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Stern, and Julius Freyhan who funded the fine brick school bearing his name. The Temple Sinai was called one of St. Francisville’s “most attractive places of worship,” completed in 1903 to house a congregation described as “charitable to the needy and kindly towards all without regard to creed.” Nearly a full page was devoted to M&E Wolf, as 1917 marked the golden anniversary of what the paper called “West Feliciana’s greatest enterprise,” beginning as a little country store opened in 1867 by Julius Freyhan in the “dark days of reconstruction,” and growing to become principal source of supply for a dozen Louisiana parishes and Mississippi counties, selling up to a million dollars’ worth of goods and handling up to 14,000 bales of cotton in a year. As Freyhan’s business prospered, the newspaper said he played no unimportant part in the rehabilitation of the parish as it recovered from “the ravages of war,” and as Freyhan retired to New Orleans and turned the firm over to his brothers-in-law, Morris and Emanuel Wolf, the firm continued to be “generous in charity,” ever ready to provide financing for individuals and businesses struggling to get back on their feet and contributing generously to civic improvements.

The 1917 edition’s advertisements shed as much light upon the life of the times as do the articles; Chas. Weydert offering a line of hardware and machinery at “live and let-live prices,” Max Dampf General Merchandise with “dry goods, staple and fancy groceries,” J.R. Matthews Real Estate Agency offering good farms and plantations while boasting that “this far south is the only section of the US today where good land can be bought cheap,” Parker Stock Farm described as an old-time cotton plantation now devoted to the livestock industry as breeders of Hereford cattle and Duroc Jersey hogs, the Bank of Commerce which had opened with just 30 depositors and $5,185.06, W.R. Daniel purchaser of sweet and Irish potatoes and all kinds of produce, L&S Stern’s “dry goods, notions and gents’ furnishings,” F.S. Percy of Plettenberg buyers of hogs or sheep or cattle in any quantity, Max Mann advertising wines, liquors and cigars, Abe Stern’s livery with “horses and mules always on hand,” and George Rettig’s “Best Eats.”

Mrs. Mae Leake Robinson’s son James M. would succeed his mother as editor of the newspaper until his death, and as he was also the fire chief, the pages of the paper during his tenure were often filled with hair-raising details of local conflagrations. More than a century after its humble origins, the St. Francisville Democrat is still in publication, still extolling the virtues of the parish and its residents, still being written in the same little structure built right smack in the middle of Johnson Street around 1908 as the first building constructed of brick made by the Bayou Sara Brick Company.

While it is now part of a chain of small-town newspapers and is printed elsewhere utilizing computers, modern printing technology and even color photos and graphics, the paper under the editorship of hard-working Becky Hilliard retains much the same appearance and local appeal so familiar to its loyal readers over the past hundred years. In the face of modern advancements, the editor has managed to keep the hometown feel throughout the pages of The Democrat, with the possible exception of editorials which are mostly generated elsewhere and rarely reflect local interest or sentiment. The Democrat, after all these years, is still being read by members of some of the same families who depended upon the editions of 1892 and 1917 and all the rest, and who still think St. Francisville remains just about the best place there is to live and work and keep up with the news.

Visitors today will find the little brick newspaper office with its collection of antique printing equipment across Royal Street from The Barrow House B&B, and they will also find fascinating little shops and restaurants, many of them located in restored 19th-century structures, throughout downtown St. Francisville, which boasts an extensive Historic District listed on the National Register, and a wonderful assortment of Bed & Breakfasts as well as a modern motel. Six restored historic plantations are open daily for tours—Rosedown Plantation and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Cottage Plantation, Greenwood Plantation and The Myrtles; Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation, and Afton Villa Gardens is open seasonally. The surrounding Tunica Hills region offers a wide array of unsurpassed recreational opportunities, from birding and biking to horseback riding and hiking.
For additional information on the St. Francisville area, telephone 225-635-4224, 225-635-3873 or 225-635-6330; online ,
or .