Column: A History of The LaFayette Sun

Special Feature by Paul Richardson

August, 2012 was a milestone for the LaFayette Sun. Actually, August of every year is, because that is the anniversary of its beginning. The Lafayette Sun was started  August 3rd, 1881.

The real history of this paper goes back even further. Before 1881, for 40 years had several different names. It started out as the Alabama Standard  in 1841.

But before the history of the LaFayette Sun can be told, it is necessary to discuss the events leading up to its founding.

Let go back to the Revolutionary War period, the 1700’s. As the war loomed on the horizon the citizens basically formed into two major political groups.

One group was called the “Whigs” and the other called themselves “Tories.” These were actually two old time political parties from earlier days in England that carried over to the Colonies. But as war loomed, the Whigs (the Colonists) wanted independence while the Tories (the Loyalist) supported England. That is a rather simple and easy answer to a long and complex question (the difference between the Whigs and Tories) but knowing this will explain later events.

Before the Revolutionary War, no Colonist (English subjects) were allowed to travel outside the boundaries of the original 13 states. Everything to the west was French territory and off limits.

But when the war was won and independence declared, people took off, mostly into Ohio Territory and thru Georgia, into Indian lands.

As new towns developed and prospered, newspapers began to appear. But they we not like today’s papers with a wide range of news and special sections for the masses, most were biased and opinionated political papers which stressed one particular view, either Whig or Tory depending on which party the publisher supported.

And that’s the way the LaFayette Sun began, about 1842 as a Whig political newspaper. The Alabama Standard was founded by a young LaFayette Attorney named George Hooper from South Carolina, and his law partner, Henry L. McGregor. But wait, I am a little ahead of the story here. Let’s back up for a momnet.

Back in South Carolina, the Hooper family was in the newspaper business, but things were not quite as good for the family there. George Hooper came here first, about 1834 to set up a law practice. The next son D.B. followed to also settle in LaFayette, but he was not an attorney. Then daughters, Louisa and Mary Ann.

This left only the youngest son, Johnson, who, according to his mother “had no ambition at all.”

She even wrote to another family member, saying Johnson was her “worst embarrassment, with no prospect of making anything of himself.”

In other words, a mother’s worse disappointment.

So out of desperation, young Johnson (his full name was Johnson Jones Hooper, but he was called Johns by his family) was sent to LaFayette in 1836 to live with his brother, attorney George, in hopes he would study law.

For a short while, it worked. But Johnson had no desire to spend time studying when he could be partying.

He began to hang out at the general store in Dudleyville, where a group always sat around the fire with a whiskey bottle and a good story. After a year or so, Johnson moved to Dadeville where his hangout became the old Dennis Hotel (notorious for its rowdy crowd.) It did have rooms to rent, but the whiskey always flowed freely.

It was here, at the Dennis Hotel, where Johnson Hooper met Byrd Young, and the stories he told were mesmerizing.

While at the Dennis Hotel, Mr. Hooper also met Joe Johnson, and the two eventually left for Texas in 1838, to seek their fortune.

Later, dead broke and no more than a bum, Mr. Hooper returned to LaFayette and his brother George’s law practice. This time the young Mr. Hooper got serious over his law study.

It was during his studies he signed on to help conduct the 1840 Census. Census taking was an experience that would influence the rest his life.

Census takers in 1840 not only counted people, but everything they owned, horses, mules, cows, pigs, goats, even chickens. Thus these official government workers became known as “Chicken Men.” And many local citizens refused to be counted because they feared it was a secret government plot to find out what they owned so they could be taxed.

Often times when a census taker arrived at a farm, there was a knock-down, drag out-fight. Visiting these remote, rural farms, with eccentric, hot tempered owners gave Johnson Hooper an insight into real life in the south.

After the 1840 Census, Mr. Hooper still was not happy with his law studies. So when brother George and his partner Mr. McGregor started the first newspaper, young Johns went to work as editor and type setter. (In the meantime, he did pass the state bar and become a licensed attorney.)

And now that he was a respectable, self supporting attorney as well as a newspaper man, he married LaFayette native Mary Mildred Brantley, daughter of a local Judge (and member of the Whig party.)

Since Mr. Hooper had no political affiliation, his father-in-law quickly made him a Whig.

But as Mr. Hooper and his few supporters soon realized, finding readers for a political paper was a real challenge. Then Mr. Hooper hit upon an idea, one drawn from his Census experience, and that was to write amusing, off-the-wall stores about people and events. And thus in 1844 was born one of the most amazing fictional characters in American Literature, Captain Simon Suggs in a story called Taking the Census.

This first short story was a combination of Hooper’s own census experience mixed with some of the great tales of his old friend Byrd Young.

Almost as soon as the first short story appeared in The East Alabamian, readership soared. People loved Simon Suggs, the low-down, shifty, con man.

As luck would have it, a New York Newspaper reprinted the fictional story and it was such a success there, it made its way to England, where it was even more popular.

Mr. Hooper immediately set about to create more adventures of Capt. Simon Suggs to sell more papers. One hilarious event took place at Peter Dudley’s General Store in Dudleyville during and Indian uprising.

Up until this time, the town of LaFayette pronounced its name the same as the famous General it was named after (and not spelled with a capital “F” in the middle at first.) It was in the story An Autobiography Letter From Captain Suggs that the spelling and pronunciation changed. Suggs was a backwoods, smart mouth know-it- all who could not read or write. He also could not pronounce Lafayette’s name properly, so he called it “La Fait.” And the name stuck, all because of that one short story and that one slur of the name.

So we owe the odd spelling and pronunciation to none other than Johnson Hooper and his pen.

When Mr. Hooper’s old drinking buddy Byrd Young realized the Simon Suggs character was based on his own personal life, he threaten to sue. Friends finally talked him out of the notion by convincing him it was an horror.

(Byrd Young is buried in the Dark-Maxwell-Spivey cemetery west of Alexander City. His tombstone reads Byrd Young, alias Capt. Simon Suggs.)

The short stories made The East Alabamian, the most successful and most read paper in the area. But by 1846, bill collectors were a constant problem for Johnson Hooper, so out of desperation, he moved to the State capitol in Tuscaloosa where he took a job as Legislative Clerk. When the Capitol moved to Montgomery, Mr. Hooper followed.

He published his own paper, The Mail for a while, just to have an outlet for his writing. Eventually, he left the Legislature job and went to work for the Alabama Journal, where he was given a free hand to editorialize as he saw fit. It was at The Journal where he lashed out constantly at the Republican Party and the northern politicians.

Mr. Hooper consistently called for succession from the Union, a fact that did not go un-noticed by local politicians.

The 1856 presidential election saw six nominees on the ballot, one representing all the major parties, plus two independents. This was the first election ever to have a Republican candidate on the ballot, one Mr. William L. Dalton.

The Democrats won with James Buchanan, but the Republicans made a strong showing by claiming to be pro-business.

1860 was different story though. Abraham Lincoln was the Republican Party candidate, while Stephen Douglas represented the Democrats and John Bell and John Breckenridge the Whigs and Tories.

As we all know, much to everyone’s surprise, Lincoln won. He was inaugurated March 4, 1861. Less than a month later, the nation was at war.

All this time, Johnson Hooper and his widely read paper continued to get everyone’s attention, locally, in Montgomery, and in Washington and New York.

When Lincoln was declared the Presidential winner, Mr. Hooper wasted no time in voicing his opinion. By now he was famous and people listened to what he said.

As a result of his blistering editorials against Lincoln and northern political machine, Mr. Hooper received a position in the newly formed government of the Confederacy in May, 1861. He was named personal secretary to Leonard Pope Walker, Secretary of War.

(Note….I found one story which said Mr. Hooper was Sec. of War, but that is not correct. He was secretary to the Secretary.)

This appointment meant leaving Montgomery and relocating to Richmond Virginia. He left his wife and family behind in LaFayette, saying later “they were safer here.”

Johnson Hooper died during the seize of Richmond in April, 1862. He is buried there in the Confederate Cemetery. It is not known if he died of natural causes or as a result of injuries.

After the war, the Whig Party slowly began to disintegrate and was absorbed into the Democratic Party. In another ten years, it was gone completely. (And of course, The Tories became Republicans.)

Eventually, the small weekly LaFayette newspaper where Johnson Hooper began his Journalism career, changed names and owners many times. Here is a detailed timeline of owner and different names.

The very first edition of The Sun rolled off the presses August 3, 1881. But that is not the paper’s actual beginning.

It was first called The Alabama Standard, founded in April, 1841 by two LaFayette attorneys, George Hooper and Henry L. McGregor.

Once the paper was started, George’s younger brother Johnson Jones Hooper became managing editor.

In September, 1842 the paper was purchased by John F. Gilbert, the Whig Party State Legislator, and the name was changed to The East Alabamian. (Johns Hooper was still editor.)

It was during this time (1844) when Mr. Hooper began writing his soon to be famous short stories featuring the notorious fictional character Captain Simon Suggs.

In 1846, Hooper went to Tuscaloosa as a clerk in the Alabama Legislature and the paper was sold to Elias H. Day. But he in turn, sold to P. H. Britton in December of that year, who changed the name to The Chambers Herald.

In February, 1861, it became the Conservative Sentinel owned by J.J. McLemore.

In 1862 it became the Chambers Tribune owned by Mr. McLemore and a partner, Mr. Prather.

In February, 1870, it became the LaFayette Reporter owned by J.M. Richards.

In December 1872, R.J. Yarrington became the owner.

Then in March 1873 the paper changed owners, and names, again. This time it was called The LaFayette Clipper, owned by Mr. Burnett and Mr. Logan.

The name stayed The Clipper until 1881 even though it had many different owners during those eight years, including William Bledsoe, Thomas E. Richards, Andrew Richards, and E. M. Oliver.

In April, 1881, E.M. Oliver took on two partners, previous owners Mr. Burnett and Thomas Richards.

In August,1881 they changed the name to The LaFayette Sun, with the first issue under the new name being published on the first Wednesday of that month, August third. And, although there have been a host of owner/publishers, it has been The Sun for over 130 years.

In 1892, S.M. Richards assumed ownership. The subscription rate was $1.oo per year.

By 1900, the owner/publisher was J.E. Timmons.

In 1904, ownership changed again, this time to A.W. Holstun. He hired as his managing editor, Sam H. Oliver.

In August 1907, Sam Oliver became owner and began a long and distinguished career as publisher and editor. (Old history records also mention that Sam Oliver was a licensed attorney, and later, one of several car dealers in town.)

In 1923, the publisher was Edward Doty.

In 1924, Will O. Walton became publisher.

In 1926, C.L. Walton took over, until late 1939.

In 1939, H.H. Golson purchased the paper. In early 1940, he hired Bonnie D. Hand as managing editor.

In 1944, Bonnie D. Hand became publisher, with his wife Pearl H. Hand listed as Associate Publisher, and it has been owned by the Hand family since (68 years.)

Bonnie Hand died in 1967 and his wife, Miss Pearl (Hughes) assumed publishing duties until her death in 1989. After that, son Mike became publisher.

The LaFayette Sun is one of over 140 weekly papers currently published in the state, and it has always ranked among the best.

In doing research over the years, I have had the opportunity to read many back issues of The Sun. It is truly amazing to see what was considered news 100 years ago, and how it was reported.

And for some excellent personal reading, go to the LaFayette Library and ask for all the Adventures of Simon Suggs. There are 12 short stories, written between 1844 and 1855.

Johnson Hooper’s Journalism career is defined by the time he spent at The Alabama Journal. His literature career is defined by his short stories, the first of which was penned right here in LaFayette simply to sell papers.

No one knew at the time just how powerful a writer Mr. Hooper was.  It is said that he was actually ashamed of the stories and even regretted writing them up till the time of his death. His stories are now considered classics and often compared to works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman.

So from very humble beginnings, we have Johnson Hooper, the man his mother said was “her worse disappointment,” and his brother George, to thank for what we know today as The Lafayette Sun.

And as I said at the start, it has served the public honorably going on 131 years as The Sun, and for some 40 years prior to that under several different names.

And the Hand family, starting with Mr. Bonnie Hand as editor in 1940, publisher in 1944, then Miss Pearl 1967 thru 1989, followed by son Michael, has continued with pride and dignity.

You may e-mail me at zipcode36862@yahoo.com  Some content for this article was taken from The Reason for the Tears by the late Bobby Lindsey and some from my own personal research.

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