La Grande Evening Observer
La Grande, Union County, Oregon
Founded in 1861, the city of La Grande is nestled in the fertile Grande Ronde Valley of northeastern Oregon. Although located along the Oregon Trail, La Grande expansion is owed to the arrival of the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company in 1884, which “linked the milling and gold-mining center to distant markets.” The railroad also spurred the development of journalism in the area, and the “newspaper history of La Grande revolves to a considerable extent around the Currey family.”
George Hoskins Currey, a native of Vancouver, Washington, entered the newspaper business in 1896 when he moved the press of the Baker City Blade [LCCN: unknown] to La Grande. That year he launched the Eastern Oregon Observer [LCCN: 2006260032] as a “Populist weekly opposed to the radical tendencies of the People’s Party movement.” Debuting on October 20, 1896, it was the fifth paper in La Grande at the time. However, the Observer, in one form or another, would outlive all of its predecessors.
The year following the paper’s debut, George’s brother, Fred Currey, joined the editorial staff, and the Currey Brothers published the Daily Morning Observer [LCCN: 2006260037] from 1897 to 1898. This led to a “demand for a regular morning daily paper,” and the Curreys launched the La Grande Morning Observer [LCCN: 2006260038] in 1901. Finally, in 1904 the Observer switched to the evening timeslot and La Grande’s Evening Observer [LCCN: 2006260039] was born.
At this point, the Populist Party was no longer a politically relevant platform and the Observer “proclaimed its political independence, but leaned toward progressive Republicanism.” The paper began as a six-page, six-column sheet and was published every evening except Sundays. Advertising dominated nearly every page with a multitude of fonts and images, which might seem unfair considering that a year’s subscription cost readers a whopping $6.50. Content was a hodgepodge of local news items and classifieds, clipped miscellany from other papers, and brief national news articles. Early in the paper’s lifetime, the tone of the Observer was rather moralistic, condemning alcohol and its consumers, for example.
In 1907, Fred Currey sold his interest in the paper to his brother, George, and three years later, in 1910, George sold the Observer to Bruce Dennis. Under Dennis, the papercontinued to grow, and the following year, Dennis purchased the Morning Star [LCCN: 2006260042] and consolidated it with the Observer. However, Dennis would encounter problems, not with subscription rates or expenses, but with the social and moral makeup of the town.
Racial tensions had historically been high in the Grande Ronde Valley, which, ironically, was known as the “Valley of Peace” by indigenous groups. Men were killed during ugly conflicts between white settlers and Native peoples, La Grande’s Chinatown was burned to the ground in 1893, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had a very active membership in the town. George Huntington Currey, the son of George Hoskins Currey, spoke on the Klan’s presence in the area in 1969: "I asked the quickest way to get out of [Baker City]," he said, "and I was told, ‘Just go out in the street, throw up your hat and yell, ‘Down with the Klan,’ and you'll find yourself out of town in a hurry.’”
The earliest iterations of the Evening Observer, under George Hoskins Currey, encouraged the expulsion of Chinese residents. However, under Bruce Dennis’ editorship, the Evening Observer took a very different stance, and Dennis even became known as an adversary of the Klan. In his book, Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, David Horowitz writes, “Republican state senator, Bruce Dennis, the owner, publisher, and editor of the La Grande Evening Observer since 1910, was a frequent Klan target. Although local KKK activities seldom received coverage in the Observer, one of Dennis’s editorials had attacked the influence of ‘secret societies’ in state politics.” Dennis condemned “mob” rule and viewed the Klan and its “members as breeders of trouble.”
The Klan as a major presence, however, was a flash in the pan, and by the time Dennis sold the Observer in 1925, La Grande’s klavern was a husk of its former self, and the paper’s succeeding editors were not troubled by the organization. Frank B. Appleby, a successful publisher from Iowa, and Harve Mathews were editors and owners until June 19, 1930, when they sold the paper to P. R. Finlay. Upon his death, Finlay’s son, Harold, assumed the editorship in 1932. Finlay sold the Observer to Harvey Bowen in 1938.
The Observer continued to be a popular daily newspaper and was “one of the largest and most successful in Oregon outside of Portland.” The 1940s and ‘50s saw the usual changes: bigger and better graphics, space devoted to “TV Listings,” and the addition of a sports page. Riley D. Allen was publisher when, on May 27, 1959, the name was changed to the La Grande Observer [LCCN: 2006260040] since, technically, the Observer was not an evening newspaper; “it [was] an afternoon newspaper.”
Prepared with reference to:
Ayer, N.W., Ed., N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: N. W. Ayer & Son, 1896-1900.
Horowitz, David. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, Illinois: SIU Press, 1999.
O’Hara, Marjorie. “Veteran Newsman Airs Views,” The Oregonian (Portland), February 5, 1969
Rowell, Geo. P. American Newspaper Directory. 16th ed., New York: Geo. P. Rowell and Co, 1897-1900.
Turnbull, George S. History of Oregon Newspapers. Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1939.
United States Census Material, 1880-1940.--Written by Emily Vance