If coffee and the morning paper is part of your daily ritual, take a moment to toast history: 150 years ago in San Luis Obispo, an unprecedented birth was celebrated in the rural cow town.
San Luis Obispo County’s first local newspaper, the San Luis Obispo Pioneer published Vol. 1 No. 1 on Jan. 4, 1868, edited by Rome G. Vickers, age 26.
The Pioneer was four pages, printing once a week. On average, about three columns of the available 24 were local news, while the rest was filled with advertising and article reprints clipped from other newspapers.
The editor’s two-year career was a textbook example of how to do everything wrong.
The Pioneer began its first seven months by committing the cardinal sin of publishing — blandness.
Vickers wrote in the opening issue: “Party lines being so closely drawn in our county, (and neither party able, unaided, to give that support to a newspaper requisite to its existence) it would be suicidal in us to drive away, by an imprudent course, the aid and support that we must solicit from the WHOLE PEOPLE.”
The entire county only had about 4,000 residents, (about twice the enrollment total of our larger high schools today).
Newspapers of the era were usually expected to be partisan boosters, so the Pioneer was an anomaly.
Often the Pioneer carried a column of one-line jokes clipped from other newspapers under the heading of “Wit and Humor.”
Example: “How much does a fool weigh generally? A simple ton.”
However, a hint at the politics of the editor can be read between the lines. Vickers included racist material that used the N-word to refer to African-Americans and also targeted the Chinese with oafish punchlines.
Vickers was critical of Mexicans as well, not a good marketing strategy in a town that held larger fiestas for Mexican Independence Day than the American version. California had been under the Mexican flag only 22 years earlier.
A change in strategy
As it turned out, the pressure of the election of 1868 proved too strong for Vickers to stay impartial.
In this post-Civil War era following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Vickers rebelled at the idea that white men would no longer have exclusive power.
Seven months after launching the newspaper, he announced his full endorsement of the Democratic ticket and Horatio Seymour for president.
Vickers’ writing was often reactive, mean, poorly sourced and boastful. He assailed his enemies and sometimes his friends.
Poor news judgment included the Jan. 18, 1868, edition that wasted more than a column reprinting an encyclopedia entry on how to grow olives, and only gave four sentences to “a lively earthquake” severe enough to send residents running into the streets. Local reporting was not a strength of the Pioneer.
Republicans abandoned the Pioneer, pulling advertising and letting subscriptions lapse.
Even after the election when Ulysses S. Grant won both the nationwide and county vote, Vickers refused to mend fences.
Almost a year after the Pioneer abandoned impartial politics, two Republicans, Walter Murray, editor, and H. S. Rembaugh, printer, combined their efforts to launch the Tribune and within four months won the first newspaper war in San Luis Obispo, driving the Pioneer out of business.
The Tribune is now the oldest continuously operating business in the county.
Not a total failure
The Pioneer had faults that proved fatal, but it had some bright moments as well. The newspaper advocated for cleaning the streets of garbage. It published area’s first EXTRA edition when the coastal steamer Sierra Nevada was destroyed on the rocky coast north of Piedras Blancas. News accounts in the Tribune and Pioneer reinforced efforts to build the lighthouse north of San Simeon.
Vickers also had a sentimental streak in his heart for animals that didn’t always extend toward people.
The 4-month-old Pioneer wrote the first obituary in county history on April 11, 1868:
“IN MEMORIAM — On the 6th int., between the San Antonio creek and the Jolon Store, “Old Stagy” gave up the ghost, and went the way of all dogs. “Stagy” will be remembered by all travelers who have been over the road from San Juan to Los Angeles, for the past six or seven years, as an almost indispensable attachment to the stages of this line; often running the entire distance between the two points, keeping up with the stages, and being fed by the station keepers, to all of whom he was well known. ...”
Vickers moves on
The history column of the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram on Dec. 2, 1929, called Vickers: “A fiery young Southerner from New Orleans.”
Vickers was fiery and young, though there is no documentation that he lived in New Orleans.
The following week, the Telegram column quoted the recollection of a San Luis Obispo resident, dancing to Rome Vickers’ banjo music and “fine tenor voice.” Vickers was one of the stars in local minstrel shows where performers covered their faces with burnt cork.
After the Pioneer failed in Dec. 1869, Vickers stayed in town to collect a few debts and play one last show before leaving for printing and reporting jobs in San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Rome G. Vickers died in San Francisco in 1886 at age 44, survived by a wife and two children.
A photograph of Vickers is still undiscovered, but his newspaper is preserved on microfilm at the San Luis Obispo City-County Library.
When he died, there were three newspapers in San Luis Obispo and several others in the county. Since January 1868, there has always been a newspaper in San Luis Obispo, though both Vickers and Stagy have been almost forgotten.