Christmas in early years of Delaware State News

Cover of the 1927 Christmas edition of the Delaware State News.

Dear Santa: If there is one last-minute request this editor could make of you, it would be to help me go back in time and visit with James C. Wickes, perhaps in a Dickens-like way so we can channel his Christmas spirit.

More than a century ago, he was the editor and publisher of this newspaper, back when it was a weekly adorned with Blue Hen and chicks on its flag. The upstate city newspaper editors this time of year would write about his spectacular Christmas editions. They were colorful with beautiful illustrations and stories about people and progress of the era.

Sadly, most of his Christmas editions seem to have been lost to the ages. But, Santa, if you know anyone that has a copy to spare, I’d sure like to see one. What a wonderful delivery that would make!

Sincerely,
Your friend Andy
P.S. – I hope I’m still not on the naughty list.

DOVER – Feeling nostalgic in between headlines and deadlines …

***

A few days ago, this editor got caught up in some Delaware State News history, immersed in the pages of newspapers.com.

It offers an amazing collection of newspaper pages from the past.

Unfortunately, the Delaware State News is not one of the publications featured on the website. However, The Evening Journal and Morning News, published in Wilmington, kept a close eye on Dover news and often praised the work of Col. Wickes.

As early as 1913, the Evening Journal shared its envy of the State News Christmas editions.

“One of the best and most progressive newspapers in Kent County is the Dover State News,” an editorial said in 1913. “Its Christmas edition just has come to our exchange table. In point of colored cover, letter print and editorial and local matter, it cannot fail to be pleasing to the public, while the mass of advertising carried shows that its enterprising publisher already is assured of a merry Christmas.”

Caricature of James Wickes, drawn by Gee Tee Maxwell.

In 1920, the Evening Journal said the Delaware State News Christmas edition included a history of the Rodney family by Judge Henry C. Conrad and a thoughtful commentary on the “Meaning of Christmas” by the Rt. Rev. Philip Cook, bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Delaware.

The Evening Journal later published Cook’s piece, too. Today’s Delaware State News reprints the commentary, and some may find that Bishop Cook’s sentiments still hold true today. Also on the page, we’re sharing an editorial from 1928.

A 1924 editorial in Wilmington described the “lively and entertaining” contributions from several writers and news of progress in the Delaware in the State News Yuletide publication. That year, the main feature was a story, and accompanying map, on the completion of “Coleman du Pont’s road, a gift to the state of Delaware.” Today’s readers know it as the DuPont Highway.

The annual holiday praise went on for years. In 1931, the Evening Journal raved about a special set of pages with illustrations of the whole state. It’s too much to describe here, but the newspaper employed a “rotogravure” technique that involves rolling a cylinder with the images over the paper.

In 1932, the Evening Journal wrote, “The entire edition tends to strengthen the belief that the genial colonel still believes in Santa Claus and clings to the solemn rite of hanging up his stocking on Christmas Eve with a note in which he lists the gifts he would like to have.”

That year, the paper also mentioned a big holiday party Col. Wickes threw for his staff and friends. The Evening Journal called his home the most elaborately decorated in Dover. “The front lawn and the front of the house show over 100 electric bulbs of different colors.”

The upstate newspapers’ envy of the Delaware State News Christmas editions continued into the 1940s. In 1943, the Morning News expressed sympathy to Col. Wickes as he dealt with illness. “Because of illness among the personnel of his staff and his own illness, as well as wartime problems confronting the the publishing field, Col. Wickes, for the first time in 27 years, found it impossible to issue his usual color-paged, extended Christmas edition this year.”

Col. Wickes died less than two years later.

***

From an office on Loockerman Street in Dover, Monroe Ashmore launched the newspaper as a politically independent publication in 1902. The Evening Journal in Wilmington reported at the time that Mr. Ashmore declared in his first editorial that “Dover could stand the publication of a paper every day in the week.”

Mr. Ashmore’s statement came true in 1953 when Jack Smyth came along and made the Delaware State News the first daily in the capital of the First State.
One of Mr. Ashmore’s first hires was Col. Wickes, who already had worked in the print shop of another Dover weekly, “The Delawarean.”

In 1904, Ashmore sold the paper to Arley Magee, an attorney and later judge, and others. In 1915, Col. Wickes bought out Mr. Magee’s shares and eventually took full ownership in 1920 and retained the role of owner and publisher until his death in 1945.

Col. Wickes, who started in the newspaper trade as a printer’s devil at the age of 13, continued in the business for 64 years. His title of colonel was one of esteem, characteristic of the times.

The weekly’s first office on Loockerman Street, up until 1910, then moved to State Street. The building itself is still there, but now is home to a law office.

***

Delaware State News’ then-new office in 1910.

The photo of the State Street office that accompanies this column has been on the wall in the lobby of our office for some time.

We did not know when it was taken, nor have we been able to identify a man posing on the balcony of the adjoining building. The newspaper office was a neighbor to Cook’s restaurant, a popular eatery where governors and politicians were often seen, so there’s a question as to whether that may have been restaurateur William “Cookie” Cook or one of the newspaper executives.
By some luck in the newspapers.com searches, this editor may have stumbled upon the answer.

The Dover carnival of 1910 was a huge weeklong event with parades, horse races, airship demonstrations and shows such as Punch and Judy. The local businesses were challenged to show their patriotism.

A Morning News story said, “The Delaware State News office front is completely covered with canopies and flags, electric lights of various colors being intertwined between stars and stripes.”

The parade, featuring Delaware Gov. Simeon Pennewill on horseback and the Miliitia of Delaware, would have passed by.

***

In the 1940s, the Delaware State News moved to a new office on North Street. Apparently, it was during the time of the move, that the back issues were lost. Harry McSherry, another dean of Delaware journalism, shared that tidbit in a Delaware State News column in the 1950s.

Cover of the 1939 Christmas edition of the Delaware State News

Luckily, not all are lost to the ages.

In somewhat of a Christmas miracle, Randy Goss at the Delaware Public Archives dug up a few boxes of original editions of the Delaware State News on Friday and, lo and behold, there were two of those colorful Christmas editions.

The color, for 1927 and 1939, as seen in the images on today’s pages, was incredible.

Editorial in the Wilmington Morning News in 1927.

Along with those, Mr. Goss showed me some of the other editions that have survived. Some are frailer than others, but the earliest newspaper he had was from 1906.

So, Santa, maybe now you’ll understand my wish and see what Col. Wickes meant not only to the spirit of Christmas, but to the spirit of a community. And, you’ll see that there is a huge hole in Delaware history with those lost issues of the Delaware State News’ first four decades.

“Christmas really doesn’t come to these parts unless it is accompanied with the special Yuletide issue of the Delaware State News,” wrote the Evening Journal on Dec. 28, 1937. “Jim Wickes, head man at this popular Dover newspaper, has spoiled us. We can imagine Christmas, white or rainy, foggy or blizzardly – but not one without the State News Christmas dress.”

James Wickes’ note to readers of the Delaware State News in the 1927 Christmas edition.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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