In my hometown of Fairfield, Illinois, we always had the constant presence and importance of two community institutions: the local newspaper and local radio station.
The Wayne County Press is still going strong, and I think it’s well over 150 years old, give or take. It’s been around the area for a long, long time and its archives are rich with local history.
People find this hard to believe, but the actual Press building was a sort of traffic stop, right in the middle of Main Street. Let me explain. Often, the owners of the newspaper would take a big marker and write out a “breaking news” sort of news bulletin on butcher paper and then hang it in the front window of the office.
Folks walking or driving by would stop and read it. When you learned to drive, it was just a given that you had to watch it when you drove through town. At the Main Street location of the Press, one had to be ready to brake for those who had paused a minute to read the Press window bulletin. If the bulletin was especially long and intriguing, folks found a parking space, pulled over and either read from their car or got out and walked over. I kid you not. Just something I grew up with. A fun and quirky common thing in our town I didn’t view as eccentric until I became an adult.
Our area was known for some sensational stories over the years, including gangster activity during the era of the Shelton gang, who lived down the road from my grandparents. Then there was Charlie “Blackie” Harris, also a local gangster, who was once a friend of the Sheltons and later became an arch enemy.
If you want some fascinating reading, do a little research on the Sheltons and Charlie Harris. Right in my own backyard, it was.
Every year, and for many years, the Wayne County Press has a special edition that they call “The Pink Press.” It comes out around February and the front section of this special edition is printed on pink paper. Inside, you find salutes to high school classes celebrating their 50th and 25th reunions. People from those classes send in letters to the Press, updating them on what is going on in their lives. The rest of the special edition is full of letters from “Wayne County Wanderers” from all over the country and world.
When I used to work at the newspaper in high school, Pink Press time was a huge deal. The edition was big, popular and extremely important to the community. My dad kept the Pink Press for a long, long time so that he could catch up on all the news from people who had moved away.
In recent years, however, the amount of people writing in has dwindled. The Pink Press continues to be slimmer and slimmer, and although I know it will most likely go on and on for quite some time, I think it will eventually be a very small “special edition.”
I myself wrote letters to the Pink Press several times, and even I as a huge fan of nostalgia find it hard to sit down and pen a quick letter. As they say, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, I guess.
Our local radio station, WFIW, was started in 1953 and was something that Fairfield and surrounding little towns depended on. You could get local news, weather, sports and music, of course. We also had Ol’ Gil Wallace, a velvety voiced guy who was the early morning commentator. Everyone loved Gil. He read the school menu every morning, talked about topics that were locally interesting, and even hosted a talk show where people could call in and express their opinion. As a teenager, Gil hired me to mow his lawn and I felt like I was working for a celebrity.
Over the years, Gil retired and moved away and the station began to change. Yet, there were still good commentators on the air, giving local folks what they needed and entertaining them, too.
When the family that had owned the station since its inception decided to sell a few years ago, the station was purchased by a company that owned several stations. What followed was a “cleaning house” period in which some longtime employees were fired. The station is now a shadow of what it once was, operating with a skeleton crew and a lot of computer-generated bunk. Pretty sad.
The demise of community institutions: inevitable, I guess.
Mark Tullis is a veteran teacher in the Columbia School District. Originally from Fairfield, he is married with four children and has been involved in various aspects of professional and community theater for many years. He has written a “slice of life” style column for this newspaper since 2007.