Mightier than the sword: Newspapers in North Grenville

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The rulers of New France had a very strong rule about the society that they wanted to see in Canada. For that reason, they absolutely refused to allow two categories of troublemakers into the colony throughout its history: lawyers and journalists. That all changed with the Conquest: I am sure there were lawyers with Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, ready to sue anyone on behalf of anyone else. And no doubt there were people scribbling notes for the next edition’s front page!

But, in fact, there have not been that many newspapers serving North Grenville since the far off days when the free press arrived in Canada. The railway reached Kemptville in the summer of 1854, and on the very first freight wagon came the first printing press, owned by R. W. Kelly from the Gaspé in Quebec. On January 22, 1855 he published the first issue of the first newspaper in the township. The Kemptville Progressionist was a strongly Conservative publication, determinedly defending the British Constitution and opposing anything that smacked of “Republicanism”. Although no copies of the Progressionist seem to have survived, quotes from it in other papers indicate very clearly that Kelly, or “Prog Kelly”, as he was known, was a colourful individual who was not shy about writing his mind and pulling no punches. A fellow newspaper editor later described the contents of the Progressionist as “spicy editorials, crisp reading matter and a very large advertising patronage”. So successful was he at his profession, in fact, that he was invited by some prominent Tories in Brockville to move to the County Capital and start a new paper there. In 1860, he began to publish The British Central Canadian, which was described as a “red hot Conservative sheet”. Kelly was not finished with Kemptville, however, and became involved in a minor cause celebre in 1861-2. He was arrested and put on trial in Merrickville, charged with breaking into the Kemptville headquarters of a mysterious society called The Canadian Friendly Brothers and Protective Society, and printing their secret minutes and documents. But that is a story for another day…

Kelly’s son had returned to Kemptville by 1862 and began another newspaper, carrying on where his father had left off. Like that first journal, the Kemptville Observer has not survived in archives or collections, and it is unclear how long it lasted. By the late 1860’s, however, North Grenville was once more without a local newspaper.

Then, in 1880, came a brief glimpse of a name that would come to be identified with North Grenville for more than a century: The Advance published its first issue in December of that year. The owner of the new paper was S. E. Walt, who had come to the village from Morrisburg. He was based in the Maley building, which was at the corner of Prescott and Clothier Streets, where Rotary Park is today; but for some reason he ceased publication in 1881 and left the area again. Some sources say he was away for just a few years, but The Weekly Advance only reappeared in 1890, after a gap of some nine years. It was then located in the Leslie Block, which is now the parking lot on Clothier street between two restaurants. Why there was such a long break between volumes 1 and 2 of the Advance is unknown, but once Walt got restarted, he built up his paper to become a major part of the community’s life.

But North Grenville has always been a Tory stronghold, and Walt was a true Liberal. There may have been dissension in the ranks, because two members of the Advance staff left the paper in 1900 and started their own rival publication: The Kemptville Telegram. In their first issue, they nailed their Conservative colours to the mast and openly ridiculed Walt’s claim that the Advance was an “Independent” paper, rather than a Liberal mouthpiece. Within a few months, the Telegram had been taken over by a new company, The Telegram Printing Company, owned and run by leading Tories in Kemptville, including G. Howard Ferguson. Walt sold the Advance to two young members of his staff, and the next ten years saw an on-going rivalry between the two papers, both being run by ex-employees of S. E. Walt of the Advance.

Despite its Liberal leanings, the Advance began to advertise itself as the “successor to the Progressionist”, a claim that would have mortified Prog Kelly, that staunch Tory. This allowed it to claim to have been around since 1855, a rather inaccurate claim to make for a paper essentially established in 1890. For almost a year from early 1910, it actually printed on its front page banner the names of the Progressionist “established 1855″, and the Advance, “established 1880″. The Advance suffered serious losses around 1909 when their offices were damaged by fire. But there seems to have been only enough advertising revenue to carry one paper in North Grenville, and the two newspapers merged finally in 1913. The new newspaper, The Kemptville Advance, operated out of a new, specially constructed building on Prescott Street which had been built in 1910.

The claims to be the successor to Kelly’s first paper resurfaced in 1961. Until the October 5 issue that year, the paper had continued to state “Established in 1880″ on the editorial page. In that issue, however, there appeared on the banner the phrase “Established 1855″. These two claims appeared in every issue until 1964, when the 1880 date was dropped completely. The Advance was bought out by the Runge group, ending the era of the locally owned and operated newspaper in North Grenville, until the first new publication in the area since 1900 arrived in April, 2005. The North Grenville Community Newsletter then became the only locally owned and operated paper in North Grenville, carrying on the tradition of Kelly, Walt, and the rest.

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