A frugal newspaper publisher

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, October 2, 2018

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This Short Rows column is a repeat. It was first published on Feb. 14, 2007

Jesse Scott owned this newspaper for three decades, keeping it afloat through the Great Depression and World War II. To make a living on a tiny weekly paper in a town the size of Smithfield — then fewer than 2,000 people — was, I am confident, a challenge. (Actually, it still is.)

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But Mr. Scott was up to it. He was innovative, at times publishing several small weeklies in outlying communities to try and capture readers and hard-to-find advertising dollars. Like most newspapermen of his day, he also ran a job print shop in conjunction with the paper. He owned the local theatre for a while, and bought some real estate when it became available.

In addition to being an entrepreneur, he was known to be — how shall I say — frugal. That’s the word.

I got to know Mr. Scott during my first years back here in the early 1970’s. He had retired in 1962, selling the paper to Tom and Betty Phillips, but continued to own the newspaper office and a large building that fronted on Main Street where the Summer Concerts are now held.

He remained Tom and Betty’s landlord until the mid 1970’s, when they bought the property, demolished the old house-turned-commercial building in front of the paper and undertook the first remodeling of the building we still occupy.

Mr. Scott’s frugality — as well as his innovativeness — was on exhibit in the old building on the street. It was originally a two-story 19th century dwelling, onto which had been built at least four additions over the years. The building had housed anywhere from two to four businesses at one time, including Carrie’s Diner (later the Twins), a beauty parlor, a cleaner and various and sundry other enterprises.

Tom bought the place after a fire displaced Carrie’s and decided the building wasn’t worth trying to save. Together, we explored the vast attic, where Mr. Scott had stored memories spanning his varied and interesting career.

It was there that we found bundles of Smithfield Times dating back to 1928 — papers which were later microfilmed and are now digitized by the Library of Virginia for posterity.

There too were old movie projectors, movie posters heralding movies great and lowly, postcards of old Smithfield that Mr. Scott had printed as a sideline, business cards advertising the newspaper and countless other bits and pieces of history.

While the treasures were intriguing and much sort after — Tom allowed local collectors to haul out truckloads — I was primarily intrigued by Mr. Scott’s sense of history in saving the newspapers and by the four No. 3 washtubs I found. They were evidence of Jesse Scott, the frugal landlord.

Each of the tubs sat under a roof leak, and Mr. Scott (honest, he told me this) calculated that the leaks, which he had tried unsuccessfully to patch, weren’t all that big and could thus be controlled. They dripped water into the galvanized tubs where they sat until the attic heated up on warm, sunny days. The water would then evaporate at a rate faster than the roof had leaked. Thus, protection downstairs was perpetual.

The tubs actually just reinforced my existing knowledge of Mr. Scott’s innovativeness, because I had already known about Smithfield only indoor gutter. That ran through a back room in the newspaper shop. An old tenant house in Hayden’s Lane sat a few feet from the concrete block building that housed — and houses — the newspaper, and Mr. Scott had built a connecting roof between the two to create more space for printing equipment, storage and even a photo darkroom.

The shed room persistently leaked where it was joined to the old house, and Tom complained repeatedly to Mr. Scott about the leak and the damage it was doing to printing supplies. Mr. Scott’s solution was to run a gutter indoors the length of the shed addition to capture water from the leak. He then cut a hole in one end of the shed, extended the gutter through it and added a downspout. It didn’t fix the leak or the rot it produced, but water never again reached the floor.

When we demolished the old tenant house, the indoor gutter’s usefulness ended. And so did an era.