Generations of residents of Friday Harbor, the county seat of San Juan County in Northwest Washington, have had vivid memories of Virgil W. Frits, editor and publisher of the Friday Harbor Journal from 1907 to 1958. Frits begin his tenure at the Journal at the age of 24, gathering the news, commenting on the issues of the day and especially the activities of the San Juan Islands, and putting out the newspaper faithfully each week. He also served as town clerk from 1911 to 1957. He married Maude N. Rairdon (1890-1964), a Bellingham schoolteacher, and together they established a home on 2nd Street just a short walk from the Journal office. The office was a gathering place for the community; passersby stopped in to discuss the latest news, to drop off information to be published, or just to socialize. Schoolchildren came to watch the noisy old Cottrell printing press in action and to help fold the papers. The Frits home, similarly, was a favorite destination for family members. Even after his retirement, Virgil maintained a keen interest in the Journal and received one of the first copies printed each week until just before his death in 1971.
A Young Newspaperman
Most current islanders who still remember Virgil Frits can hardly envision him anywhere other than in the Journal office, tilted back against the pillows of his customized chair with his green eyeshade and a cigar, usually cold, clamped between his teeth. His early life, however, was spent far from the Pacific Northwest. He was born in Whiting, Kansas, in 1882, the first of three children of John and Mary Frits. His father was a schoolteacher and farmer, and after 20 years on the prairie, the family moved from Kansas to Arkansas and then to Illinois. When Virgil was 16 his family moved again, to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands located between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island. There they operated the Jimmy Young Ranch at the head of West Sound raising King and Gravenstein apples as well as other produce. Virgil helped out at the farm and attended school in Deer Harbor before continuing his education on the mainland at the Normal School in Bellingham. To help pay his school and living expenses there, he began to work at Bellingham's Morning Reveille newspaper in the pressroom in the mornings and the circulation office in the afternoons. It was his first exposure to the newspaper business, and he took to it with enthusiasm.
After two years of college, Frits dropped out to work full time at the paper, quickly advancing from pressman's assistant to circulation manager. When the Reveille was merged with the local evening paper, Virgil decided to move on and took a position as subscription solicitor for Seattle's Post-Intelligencer. But he soon realized that working for a large city newspaper was not what he wanted to do and so, after only six months on the job, he left to try his hand at a far more challenging endeavor -- responsibility for editing and publishing the fledgling Friday Harbor Journal on San Juan Island.
Competing Newspapers in Friday harbor
Friday Harbor, located on a natural harbor on the east side of San Juan Island, was the largest community in the San Juan Islands and in 1909 would become San Juan County's only incorporated town. It had had a newspaper since 1891 when, in 1906, the inaugural issues of the Friday Harbor Journal were printed. The Islander, as the older paper was then known, had been published by brothers Otis Culver (1862-1941) and Fred Culver (1867-1911) since 1895. The Journal was begun as an opposition political sheet by O. G. Wall (1845-1911) and G. A. Ludwig (1858-1932), formerly of Minneapolis. Frits, at the young age of 24, bought out Wall's interest in the firm in 1907 and continued in partnership with Ludwig until 1932 when Frits became sole owner of the paper.
That Frits considered The Islander a political rival was clear from the outset. "The Islander is a liar as usual, when it says that John L. Murray paid his poll tax," he fumed in 1909 (Friday Harbor Journal [FHJ], June 17, 1909, p. 5). A staunch conservative and ardent defender of individual freedom in thought and action, Frits took every opportunity to comment on what he perceived to be The Islander's susceptibility to the pernicious influence of John McMillin (1855-1936) of the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company, the acknowledged power in San Juan County Republican politics. Otis Culver held the patronage position of Collector of Customs, which Frits and others considered a political payoff for backing McMillin, and, in addition, Otis was charging the government rent for his office in the Islander building. Frits was so relentless in his editorial attacks that by 1914 The Islander quietly ceased publication, and the Journal became the county's primary source of news -- local, state, regional, national, and international.
The Journal Covers It All
From the earliest years, the Journal included an eclectic assortment of town, island, and county social and political news; stories of state, national, and international news of current importance or, sometimes, just of fascination like "Trials of Travel in Persia" (FHJ, June 19, 1913, p. 3) or "Interest in History of Arctic is Revived" (FHJ, February 2, 1922, p. 2); tidbits of humor like "LORD! Pity the postmaster! You can ship limburger through the mail" (FHJ, March 14, 1935, p. 2); practical news for the farmer, housewife, and businessman, e.g. "Ten Commandments for the Business," including the important No. 8: "Thou shalt not be afraid to blow thine own horn, for he who failest to blow his own horn at the proper occasion findeth nobody standing ready to blow it for him" (FHJ, January 7, 1909, p. 2); and admonitions for town property owners. In short, a bit of something for everyone. And Frits prided himself on his evenhandedness. Displayed prominently with the masthead in the early years was the slogan "A Square Deal for Everybody" (FHJ, January 7, 1909, p. 1).
Virgil Frits never flagged in his love of everything concerning the San Juan Islands. The climate, even in the midst of a typically dark, rainy winter, was superior in his mind to all others. "It would be well to remember when San Juan County is experiencing disagreeable weather," he admonished, that people experiencing "conditions in most any other locality in the United States, including California, [are] far worse off than we are" (FHJ, January 26, 1927, p. 2), and throughout the years he would often declare, "San Juan County has the most equable climate to be found on the face of the earth" (FHJ, January 21, 1954, p. 2). He particularly liked to point this out when passing on reports from elsewhere of blizzards and bitterly cold winters or steamy, sweltering summers.
Almost every spring Frits would include in his editorial column a reminder that town residents should take the opportunity of the warming weather to clean and spruce up their homes and business properties. Not only would such activity bring the owner the satisfaction of knowing that his surroundings were pleasant for himself and his neighbors, he said, but it also would enhance the overall impression of the town for the growing numbers of summer visitors. For, in his view, "there is no better advertising or means of creating a good impression than neat, well-kept community homes" (FHJ, March 16, 1939, p. 2).
Frits felt strongly that the San Juan Islands, and indeed the entire state of Washington, were not sufficiently known and appreciated by those in the East, and made his argument forcefully: "At various times the Journal has stated in no uncertain words that the San Juan Islands were the most favored locality in the Pacific Northwest. This statement we believe, can be repeated again without contradiction" (FHJ, January 31, 1935, p. 2). He was active in projects to promote his beloved area. When, in 1922, the county began a campaign to raise funds to develop promotional materials in hopes of luring more tourists and area investment and development, Frits urged, front and center on page one, that islanders contribute to the publicity-funding campaign (FHJ, April 27, 1922). To begin the year 1927, Frits wrote a deeply felt editorial, "Wanted -- A Washington Consciousness," in which he noted that the East was largely ignorant of either the progress that the state had made or the prospects that it held for future expansion and development. It just needed to be articulated and promoted properly, he opined, and "when we get this consciousness and wake up the East, the world will take notice. Then prestige and power will come to Washington and her people" (FHJ, January 13, 1927, p. 2).
A Voice of Strong Political Views
Virgil Frits was a lifelong and staunch Republican. In 2016 older local residents still remember seeing pictures of every Republican presidential candidate, whether that person won the election or not, posted in the Journal office, but Frits made every effort to be fair in his coverage of political events and topics. In an interview at the end of his career he noted that, "I am a Republican, but I never let politics enter into the paper since it's the only paper in the community" ("Fifty-one Years ..."). Once or twice, however, he couldn't quite resist offering a little voting advice: "If you are in doubt as to how to vote just put a cross at the head of the Republican column; by so doing you cannot go wrong" ("To the Voters ...").
Even if he had not so forthrightly announced his political preferences, readers would never have been in doubt about his deeply conservative views. He was vigorously anti-union, and over the years editorialized against the United States joining the League of Nations and the World Court and against the establishment of old-age pensions and New Deal relief programs and what he felt was excessive foreign aid. In 1940 he noted skeptically, "We have observed that the great majority of those who advocate the entrance of the United States into the European squabble are well over the military age" (FHJ, July 4, 1940, p. 2), although once the U.S. was involved in World War II, no one was more supportive of the troops and the war effort than Virgil Frits. But his generally small-government views never changed: When the state legislature approved a project to improve transportation on Puget Sound, Frits characterized it as a "socialistic scheme to start the state of Washington in the ferry business," and closed his comments by stating, with assurance, that "if there is anyone in San Juan County other than a few summer home owners who are bemoaning the governor's veto [of the legislation] we are not aware of the fact" (FHJ, March 29, 1945, p. 2).
Something for Everyone
Editorials in the Journal, however, were far from limited to subjects of serious national or political bent. Instead, they covered a broad range of topics and, much more often than not, were devoted to small amusements and items of entirely local interest. Events as humble as "Apple Day" received top of-the-editorial-column billing: "Remember 'Apple-day,' Saturday, April 5, and eat lots of apples. You can eat them raw, baked, stewed, fried, or dried" (FHJ, March 21, 1913, p. 4). Frits didn't like fireworks (they were too noisy) and was glad when they were banned in Washington during World War II. He frequently included musings purportedly from "Uncle Zeke," sometimes at the expense of "Aunt Minnie." "Uncle Zeke says that the only time he doesn't need credit is when he starts borrowing trouble" (FHJ, November 23, 1950, p 2). Often Frits included brief reminders to the community: "Have you registered as a picker during the strawberry season? You can do so at the Journal office" (FHJ, May 30, 1946, p. 2). A single editorial column could contain 10 short items on a wide variety of topics.
When Virgil Frits started at the Journal in 1907, the population of Friday Harbor was slightly more than 400, while there were fewer than 1,500 people on San Juan Island and only 3,600 in the entire county. The office printed 500 copies of the paper each week, and a quarter of them were delivered by mail. The area was entirely rural and, far more so than today, isolated from all activities and events on the mainland. As a consequence the Journal included, right into the 1950s, a heavy emphasis on articles of interest to farmers and local businessmen and their families who had few sources of information about new inventions, changing styles and trends, and important factors potentially affecting the local economy. The price of dairy cows, the glories of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, the newest in dress design, the latest scientific discoveries, and Puget Sound shipping issues all found space in the paper. Fiction and poetry were popular features. Along with articles about local events and topics of special interest, the front page often featured obituaries under headlines that usually announced, gently, that the deceased had been "summoned' or "called by death."
Articles about local people or local events or topics took up almost the entire content of each Journal front page. No matter how important outside events might be, Frits never lost sight of his readers' particular concerns and interests. As the world celebrated the defeat of Germany toward the end of World War II, Frits acknowledged the important event with a headline across the entire top of the front page of the Journal: "Germany Surrender's [sic] -- V-E Day, May 8." But not a single article on the front page related to this historic moment, although inside the paper there were stories of international and war news. Instead, the front page featured articles that included "Friday Harbor Enjoys School Band Concert," "Summer Sprinkling Hours Announced," and "Try Paper Collars for the Cut Worms" (FHJ, May 10, 1945, p. 1.) And the "Surrender" headline was in a smaller type-font size than the usual "Merry Christmas" greeting that topped the front page each December or the happy announcement in the summer that it was county-fair time.
The front page also regularly carried news of other islands, such as "Lopez Grange Install New Officers" (FHJ, January 8, 1953) and "Orcas Island P.T.A. Hold Interesting Meeting" (FHJ, March 20, 1958). Other local communities (including Deer Harbor, Islandale, Crow Valley, and Richardson) and islands (among them Decatur, Stuart, Shaw, and Waldron) even had their own columns in each week's issue with information on people and happenings sent in weekly by local resident correspondents.
Despite his long hours at the Journal office gathering the news, writing the articles and his commentaries, setting the type (until 1915 this was done entirely by hand), printing, folding (supplementing the work of enthusiastic school students paid $2 per week), and distributing the paper each week, Virgil Frits took on yet another important role in the community when he became first the deputy clerk and then the town clerk in 1911. Responsibilities included recording the minutes of town council meetings; preparing final-form resolutions and ordinances for signature, witnessing them, and maintaining them in records books; writing and sending official letters and inquiries; and other secretarial duties -- almost all hand-written for decades.
His council meeting notes are succinctly recorded in a neat legible hand in sober black ink, except for 10 months in 1920 when they unexpectedly appear in the records in a sprightly green. His notes were well organized for easy reading and reference, and he was very tactful when dealing with difficult or delicate issues. Since Frits was also publishing the ordinances, annual expenditure reports, and other official public documents in his newspaper, it sometimes was more expeditious, apparently, to paste a newspaper cutting of a particular ordinance or report into the minutes than to write the document contents into the minutes by hand. After years of working to meet weekly deadlines, Frits was extremely efficient.
He continued his service as town clerk until 1957. While his clerk duties were a great service to the community, they also enabled Frits to stay abreast of all the significant happenings in town that became important topics for his Journal articles and editorials. Frits was an indefatigable proponent of his town and the betterment of community services and activities. Over the years he encouraged the establishment of the county fair, campaigned for the incorporation of Friday Harbor (despite considerable opposition), urged the damming of Trout Lake to create a reservoir and town water supply, and backed efforts to establish a sewer system for the community.
Marriage and Home Life
Life for Frits and the publication of the Journal were both immeasurably enhanced when, in 1928 at the age of 46, he married Maude N. Rairdon, a Bellingham schoolteacher of 38. She was already familiar with the community, having taught school on both San Juan and Lopez islands. After a honeymoon in Yellowstone National Park (their last vacation for 11 years), they settled into a pleasant cottage on 2nd Street just a few minutes' walk from the Journal office on Spring Street. The house, which had been built in 1910, had a hipped roof and unusual hipped-roof dormer. A small covered porch and two Doric columns led to the front door. Inside there was a living room across the front with French doors to a bedroom, a dining room on the side, and a kitchen toward the back with a comfortable sun porch that doubled as a guestroom looking out over the garden.
Both Virgil and Maude took pride in their large vegetable garden. Each spring Virgil prepared the soil with his old hand-push cultivator that featured a large wheel at the front and a row of tines at the back. When the vegetables were ready to harvest, Maude sat at a table in the back yard cleaning and preparing her just-picked produce for dinner. Family gatherings always included a festive meal (Maude is remembered as an excellent cook) featuring fresh vegetables from the garden as well as raspberries from a long row of bushes at the side of the property. House and garden were always meticulously maintained. Passers-by commented on how straight the vegetable rows were and how lovely the flowers.
Virgil and Maude had no children of their own, but nieces and nephews and their families were frequent and cherished visitors. In 2016, great-nieces and great-nephews still remember with affection the times that they spent at the Frits home and their visits to the Journal office where they watched Virgil at work at his linotype machine and printer and sometimes even had small projects of their own. One family member said that he could still recall the scent that permeated the office, a combination of cigar smoke and printer's ink. Another remembered Virgil clearing a table and giving the children bunches of scrap-paper strips with which they created small hand brooms that they were allowed to sell for a nominal sum to those dropping by the office. Both Virgil and Maude are remembered by family and others in the community as warm, easy-going people who were welcoming and caring, good listeners, but quiet and unassuming.
Maude at the Journal
Very early on in their marriage, Maude Frits became an important partner in Virgil's work at the Journal. He would leave the house first in the morning with their beloved golden cocker spaniel, Bo, at his heels. Bo would keep him company at the office but if Virgil did not go home early enough for Bo, the dog would simply leave the office and head home on his own. It was his routine for almost 16 years. Maude would come down to the office later in the morning. She soon took on a number of tasks, including typing up on scraps of paper the information that people had dropped off for publication; proofreading; taking care of want-ads; dealing with subscriptions; and operating the second smaller printing press on which they produced, in fulfillment of orders, stationery, letterhead statements, invoices, advertising posters, and other small projects.
Perhaps her greatest contribution, however, was the lengthy column in the paper titled "Friday Harbor in a Nutshell," a compendium largely of one- or two-line social notes about everyone in the community -- who was visiting whom, who was ill or hospitalized, who was on vacation, who gave a party, etc. For many people in the small community it was their favorite part of the paper and let them know what was happening in the lives of residents scattered all around the island. To be sure that she didn't miss anything important, Maude would go down to the ferry landing and take notes about everyone who was leaving or arriving, so that later she could contact them and get all the news about why and where they were traveling. The column expanded until it was filling almost three quarters of a large-format newspaper page each week, and the community loved it.
"Storybook Country Editor"
With Maude's help, Virgil continued to publish the Journal until he sold the paper in 1958, when he was 75. His legacy was so honored that for years after his retirement the masthead included the note "Virgil W. Frits (Retired), Owner-Publisher 1907-1958" above the name of the new owner. During 51 years, Virgil was proud to say, he never missed an issue. Not that there weren't weeks when it was a near thing. In 1920, for example, Frits had to insert prominently on page one a "Notice to our Readers -- Owing to the Journal's gasoline burner on the typesetting machine refusing to work this Wednesday morning ... we were compelled to omit this week our correspondence from West Sound, Richardson, Decatur" (FHJ, October 28, 1920, p. 1). When the weather was bad, boats couldn't deliver advertising and news from other islands. Machines broke down. It was a constant challenge.
Maude and Virgil had only a few years together after his retirement from his position as town clerk and his sale of the newspaper. Maude suffered a stroke from which she seemed to recover for a while, but she soon began a slow decline in health and died in 1964 after a long stay in a Bellingham nursing home. Virgil continued to live in their 2nd Street house and maintained a lively interest in the Journal. He even contributed a few articles from time to time that were always published on page one. The last three years of his life were spent in the Convalescent Center in Friday Harbor, but he was always interested in keeping up with the latest news and politics. When his absentee ballot was brought to him for completion and signature during the 1970 election, it was reported that he "hopped out of bed with a fiery twinkle in his eye ... .'You can't keep a good man down,'" he proclaimed, "'especially a good republican'" (FHJ, January 21, 1971, p. 1).
Virgil Frits died in January 1971, with his signature green eyeshade hanging next to his bedside. The Journal eulogized him as "Tradition, Honesty, and Moral Strength in Capital Letters" (FHJ, January 21, 1971, p. 1). In an interview at the time of his retirement, Frits commented that he had never regretted his life of long hours and hard work. "Fact, I've enjoyed it an awful lot. I always wonder what the next week is going to be," he mused ("Fifty-one Years ..."). Virgil Frits was truly, as he has been described in Washington publications, the quintessential "'storybook country editor,'" (FHJ, January 21, 1971, p. 1) and, equally, one of Friday Harbor's most fondly remembered residents.