This article is based on the research and recollections of Tom Moore, a former managing editor of the Calgary Albertan whose association with the paper is now in its 50th year, and on the reporting of staff reporter Heather Hill. It was compiled by John Reistrup, editor-in-chief.

By Tom Moore and Heather Hill

A newspaper is the sum of the people who put it out, and the parade of owners and publishers, pressmen and reporters, ad salesmen and editors through the Calgary Albertan over its 78-year history gave the paper its individual, quirky and somehow human character.

From its beginnings, the Albertan was never stuffy. It followed a pattern of innovation, irreverence and sympathy for the underdog that probably started with the weeklies that gave it birth.

One was the Alberta Tribune, founded in 1885 by T.B. Braden, who was rebelling against the Calgary Herald he had helped to start. The other was the Albertan, begun in 1899 by C.B. Halpin, a former North West Mounted Policeman who had been Louis Riel’s jailer at the end of the 1885 rebellion.

Came from Toronto

The combined papers were bought in 1902 by William Davidson, a Toronto newspaperman who came West, and on April 10 of that year he published the first daily under the name of the Calgary Albertan. Davidson, who was to write a book showing sympathy for Louis Riel and who began something of a tradition of Liberal sympathies in the paper’s editorials, nevertheless fit naturally into the unorthodox spirit of pioneer Calgary.

Davidson held the paper for 24 years and turned it into one of the most influential in the West, thanks largely to his provocative editorials. He himself went on to serve on the Calgary School Board, the University of Alberta senate and the legislative assembly.

But he also began the tradition of putting out the newspaper on a shoestring, with antiquated equipment, poor finances, and insufficient staff.

“It had nothing but nerve, which was not backed by experience or very much real wisdom,” Davidson recalled in l 952 on the occasion of the newspaper’s 50th anniversary.

Characteristically, Davidson later gave credit to C.J. Stewart as one of the men responsible for the paper’s success.

A silver dollar

Stewart wasn’t a member of the editorial staff, a printer or even someone who had lent Davidson money. He was the man who bought the first subscription to the fledgling daily, paying an American silver dollar for several month’s issues.

If Davidson was the colorful editor-publisher, his printer, John McCaffary, also brought rough­edged drama to the newspaper.

McCaffary came to Canada as a “Barnardo boy”—a 10-year-old from Glasgow, Scotland, whose stepfather had shut him out or the family. Put in the care of a family in which he was subjected to drunken abuse, he ran away and was taken in by a neighboring farmer. He began newspaper work on the Perth (Ont.) Courier before moving to Calgary, where he worked at the Herald before joining the Albertan.

McCaffary was a political activist who once took pictures of piles of refuse in city streets and threatened to print them in the Albertan, until the city started municipal refuse collection.

McCaffary’s association with the Albertan was brief, however, and his daughters Edweena and Marie still speak darkly of the way in which his shares were sold.

In the Davidson days, the Albertan also had a close association with Bob Edwards, the famous editor of the Calgary Eye Opener.

The Eye Opener was printed on the Albertan’s press and was distributed through this newspaper‘s circulation department. And when Edwards lost a bout with the bottle, it was Albertan printers and newsmen who acted as anonymous pinch-hitters until he recovered.

Composing room foreman Art Halpen (spelled with an “e” and no relation to C.B. Halpin) was the man who nursed Edwards through many editions of the Eye Opener. With a record of more than 5O years’ service with the Albertan before his retirement, Halpen was one of several long-time employees whose loyalty provided a solid foundation for the Albertan and helped get it through tough times.

Printed by Herald

The Albertan began in a loft on 8th Ave. but moved in 1905 into the Allan Block at 9th Ave. and 1st St. S.E., where It enjoyed mild prosperity and—for a time—the benefits of a modern press by standards of the day.

In 1913, however, fire destroyed the Albertan‘s press. The Herald printed its rival paper for a while until Herald publisher J. H. Woods took issue with Davidson on an editorial.

The Albertan nevertheless survived during a period when two other dailies—the News Telegram and the Calgary Canadian—went under.

In homes next at the Westminster Block (10th Ave. and 1st St. S.E.) and later on 8th Ave., the Albertan provided news of Armistice Day and the Russian revolution, as well as the confinement of Mr. W.C. Howard to his room in Calgary’s Royal Hotel “as a result of the shake-up he received when coming from the east on a C.P.R. train.”

In 1926, Davidson sold the paper to a consortium of businessmen headed by George Bell, an insurance magnate and newspaper publisher from Regina. Three years later, Bell gave the newspaper still another new home, in the building and plant at 9th Ave. and 2nd St. S.W.

Things looked bright at first, but Bell was hard hit by the Depression of the ’30s. By cannibalizing his major holdings he managed to keep the Albertan going, even though he fell heavily into debt. When George Bell died in 1935, eldest son Max inherited little more than the mortgage. Yet he was to use it as the basis for not only a personal fortune put also one of Canada’s largest newspaper chains. He also was to give the Albertan its final home, at 830 10th Ave. S.W.

Chronic money loser

The Albertan, as a privately held company, has never publicized its finances, but the most common assumption is that it has been a chronic money-loser.

Stuart Aitken, whose association with the deeply religious Max Bell began on the board of managers for Grace Presbyterian Church and who joined the Albertan as an accountant, takes the orthodox view—that the paper usually lost money, sometimes broke even, and was subsidized by the telephone book and job printing operation Aitken today manages.

And Jock McCall, a printer at the Albertan since 1952, remembers that Bell would offer to open the company books to the printers’ union to show he couldn‘t afford to provide higher pay.

One of us—Tom Moore—holds a more unorthodox view: That in reality the subsidiary operations always leaned heavily on the newspaper for support by staff whose salaries were charged to the Albertan.

Thus the South Side Shopper—later the South Side Mirror—was started as an integral part of the newsroom and edited at first by newsroom staff. The Albertan‘s job printing department sold the same kind of package to other people.

“At times,” recalls Moore, “l found myself handling the Albertan news desk or writing a daily column and also writing and editing the Alberta Motorist for the Alberta Motor Association and the Western Weekly Supplement for a group of Country weeklies.

“My services went along with other printing jobs, too.”

In any case, Max Bell was viewed as a fair and personally generous employer. He, in turn, viewed the Albertan as home base.

He acquired the Lethbridge Herald and the Edmonton Bulletin and then was forced to close the Bulletin when labor and money problems coincided.

But he built up from the Albertan again by getting a foothold in Victoria, B.C., and combining the production of both the Times and Colonist there.

Max Bell developed associations with other groups to form F.P. Publications Ltd., which at one point was to include the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Montreal Star, the Ottawa Journal, the Winnipeg Free Press, the Lethbridge Herald, the Victoria Times and Colonist, and the Vancouver Sun, as well as the Albertan.

Always head office

Bell also barely missed in a bid to buy the Hudson‘s Bay Company, became a large shareholder in Canadian Pacific Railway, had wide oil interests, operated race tracks in the United States, and built his Alberta racing stables to the point that he was racing thoroughbreds in Canada, the United States, the British Isles and France at the same time.

Always, the Albertan was head office.

Stuart Aitken, who joined the paper in 1959, puts it this way:

“To a large extent, from the time I came, he had withdrawn from any daily contact with the newspaper. He did not manage it directly. He‘d talk to (editorial writer) Peter Hepher, or if he had something he felt strongly about, he’d contact the managing editor or the general manager.

“But he didn’t take an active hand in the paper.

“On a larger scale, he was dedicated to it in that he completed the transaction that produced F.P. Publications. He never lost interest in newspapers; it was a prime interest, but not the field in which he made his money.”

Max Bell often worked far into the night while his staff wondered how he stayed healthy despite all the pressures. Although he worked hard and played hard, he was a non­drinker and a nonsmoker who kept careful watch on his diet.

Then came a brain tumor. When he died in 1972, he left the bulk of his $23 million estate to a charitable foundation. None of his four children went into newspapers.

Meanwhile, of course, the Albertan and its employees were scrimping along and making their unique mark on Calgary.

Paid in Funny Money

In the Depression, the Albertan was the first newspaper to give attention and support to the novel political theories of Social Credit. The staff, in fact, received about half their pay in Social Credit Prosperity Certificates, better known as “Funny Money.”

Each Social Credit dollar had to have a one-cent tax stamp affixed every Wednesday to be valid as cash. Since payday was Tuesday, there was always a scramble to pay bills and otherwise spend the Funny Money before the day was out.

Social Credit made another contribution to the paper when the Social Credit Chronicle merged with the Albertan and four of the Chronicle’s staff came aboard.

One of them was Eva Reid, the Chronicle‘s circulation manager and social columnist. She was to combine the unusual functions of police court reporting and social editor. Later she was to ·work as provincial editor, columnist and church page editor.

But in the early days, she was green.

“There were no journalism courses in those days and if there had been, editors would have laughed them to shame,” Reid recalls. “They preferred to do their own training and it was tough—especially for females.”

Her first big story was literally a turkey.

A southern Alberta housewife, cleaning a t urkey, discovered a gold nugget ln the bird’s crop. For a while it appeared there were riches afoot and this part of the province might have its own Klondike Days—until it was discovered that the nugget had fallen out of a tiepin into the turkey patch and was gobbled up by the tom.

Eva Reid found herself working for hard-boiled newsmen of the old school like Jim McCook and Art Raymond. In those days, she recalls, reporters put in about 13 hours a day—usually seven days a week.

“None of us saw the pressure. We were all in the same boat. When you have something to compare it to, you can see the shortcomings….But that was how we all worked.”

Pioneered women’s rights

The Albertan was always a bit ahead of its time when it came to women’s rights to jobs.

Owner Davidson established the newspaper‘s attitude towards women by holding the controversial belief that females were just as clever as males. As far back as 1905, the paper introduced a special women’s page—unheard of in that era—with Miss Currie Love providing social reports.

Later she was to become the first female professional writer in Calgary to be recognized by the Canadian Women’s Press Club.

Ethel Hayden—who later married her boss, owner Davidson—was the first female general reporter in Canada.

Another early Albertan woman reporter was Harriet Ashbrook, who moved to New York and made a name for herself as a writer of mystery stories.

Eva Reid remembers the women’s editors of her early years grumbling to themselves when the male editors lifted their stories, complete with headlines, for Page One—often leaving them with a last-minute space to fill.

“By the time I got out of the novice class, things were beginning to improve. As provincial editor and the only woman in the newsroom for two years and more, I could honestly say I suffered no discrimination, except salary-wise.”

The Albertan also pioneered radio broadcasting in Calgary. In 1923 it opened a radio broadcasting station on the North Hill with W.W. Grant, pioneer Alberta broadcaster, in charge.

The newspaper invited 1800 people to the Palace Theatre to listen to the inaugural broadcast from a loudspeaker wireless set installed on the stage. The program featured a recording by Harry Lauder. In addition, the Albertan’s sports editor, Harry Scott, scored a country-wide first by announcing sports bulletins and giving his comments.

The Albertan pioneered in the use of the Photo process for setting advertisements, and was one of the first in the country to add color to its pages—usually bright red headlines on Page One.

During the Depression, the Albertan added yet another item to its list of unique distinctions. It became the only paper in the country, possibly the world, to share its newsroom with a bank.

When a downtown branch of the Royal Bank suffered heavily from a fire, temporary premises were needed in a hurry, so it moved into the Albertan. After all, it held a mortgage on the paper.

For a few weeks, tellers worked alongside advertising copywriters and circulation people. And somewhat bemused bank clerks did their arithmetic alongside reporters and editors and wondered how such eccentric types could produce a newspaper out of bedlam.

During World War II, the Albertan was one of the best read Canadian newspapers among servicemen overseas because every week it printed a two-column “Letter from Home” with all the local gossip and sports news. Thousands of Calgarians clipped the columns regularly and enclosed them in their own letters to relatives and friends on the allied fighting fronts.

Press from a junkyard

On one occasion, the Albertan even enjoyed major distribution in Toronto.

A special Grey Cup edition was produced to accompany the Stampeder team on its famous 1948 football invasion of Toronto. Given away on the streets during the parade to Varsity Stadium, it told startled Torontonians all about the city that was behind the hijinks.

Ironically, the interests of the Albertan were to become submerged in the larger organization it spawned. Although recommendations for new equipment—principally an offset press—began to be made in the early 1960s, former F.P. chairman Richard Malone “never believed offset would make it,” Aitken recalls.

“Instead, we got this monster, which came out of the Vancouver Sun. It was surplus.”

Surplus is a kind word for a press that sat in a junkyard for two years.

The Albertan got a boost in circulation and advertising linage under publisher Bruce Rudd, with the switch from broadsheet to tabloid format and from Saturday to Sunday publication of the weekend edition. But the neglected press gave out in 1979, and even though it was nursed back to health, much of the Albertan’s publishing—such as this magazine—had to be farmed out, increasing costs.

In late 1979, F.P. sent in a new team of managers and undertook a study to see whether the potential market would justify the expense of a new press and other equipment. Improved maintenance, on-time disciplines and a redesign brought substantially increased circulation, from a six-day average of some 43,000 in October to more than 50,000 in May.

But by this time, F.P. itself was no more. In the wake of the folding of the Montreal Star, the chain was in trouble and takeover bids began. Heirs and trustees of the founders were ready to listen. Thomson Newspapers Ltd. won the bidding. But although Thomson profitably operates more than a hundred newspapers in Canada and the United States, its success has been in one-newspaper towns. Within months, Thomson had sold the Albertan to the Toronto Sun organization, which in Toronto and Edmonton has a track record of impressive results despite being the underdog in competitive situations.

The scenario seems familiar. And despite the change in names, the saga begun in 1902 is anything but over.

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