one night in summer of 1941, four men rendezvoused at a downtown
street corner. A narcotics buy? Prelude to a burglary? Human trafficking
The men were not crooks. Indeed, they were pillars of the community:
Chris Fox, longtime county sheriff and head of the city's chamber
of commerce; William J. Hooten, editor of the El Paso Times; former
El Paso Herald-Post city editor L.A. Wilke, secretary of the El
Paso Gateway Club; and Charles D. Belding, insurance man and civic
When the sun rose the next morning, a dead cottonwood tree stripped
of its bark stood rooted in still-drying concrete near what was
then the Hilton Hotel. The newspaper tree was back -- well, a replica
story behind the pre-dawn shenanigans went back nearly a century
to the 1850s, when El
Paso was a small American community on the north side of the
upper Rio Grande known as Franklin. On the Mexican side lay the
larger town of El Paso del Norte, later renamed Ciudad Juarez. Lacking
a newspaper or telegraph, residents of Franklin took to posting
public notices to a large tree nourished by river water flowing
through the community's acequia, an irrigation ditch that predated
the Southwest's acquisition by the U.S. following the Mexican War.
(The tree was either a cottonwood or an ash; no one knows for sure,
though most believe it was an ash.)
Soon the tree on the southeast corner of the town plaza at Mills
Avenue and El Paso Street came to be known as the newspaper tree,
though some called it the "news tree," the "notice tree" or just
Not everything that got tacked to the tree constituted an official
On Aug. 6, 1860, early day surveyor Anson Mills reacted to criticism
of his pro-Union stance. Three men had called him out as an abolitionist
"for the purpose of injuring my character" and he, in turn, publicly
denounced them as "wilfull [sic] and malicious lying scoundrels."
He did so by affixing a document to that effect on the newspaper
tree, the 19th century equivalent of a virulent Facebook post.
The three men named in Mills's posting took due notice of the slur
and added their own note to the tree the next day: "We have only
to say that he [Mills] is so notoriously known throughout the entire
country as a damned black Republican scoundrel, we deem him unworthy
of further notice." (In this context "black" was short for "blackguard"
and had nothing to do with race.) Other accounts have the three
men adding that Mills also was a "contemptible pup," words suggestive
of a quite crude description of his mother.
Back then, those who said unfavorable things about someone, not
to mention casting dispersions on someone's female parent, often
got permanently "unfriended" by means of six-shooter "deletion."
But the social-political disagreement between Mills and the other
men remained only a battle of words placed on the tree, not a matter
of fisticuffs or bullets.
While most of the items posted
on the tree were more routine, things like governmental notices,
descriptions of lost or stolen horses or wanted posters, the newspaper
tree also saw use as a public shaming medium.
Elizabeth Gillock, who operated an overnight accommodation known
as the Gillock House, used the newspaper tree to expose the names
of people who skipped town without paying for their room or longer-term
residents behind on their rent.
“No citizen of Franklin ever passed the tree without stopping to
take a look,” El
Paso chronicler Owen White later wrote. “Some would look and
pass casually and calmly on their way; others would look and hasten
home to buckle on an extra six-shooter or two.”
Paso had traditional newspapers, a telegraphic connection to
the outside world and even local telephone service, the tree became
obsolete as a "media outlet." To accommodate increasing horse and
wagon traffic, the city cut down the tree in the 1890s, leaving
only its stump. In 1905, that last vestige of the newspaper tree
was dug up and presented to El
Paso's Pioneer Association to go on display in a hoped-for historical
museum that never materialized.
By the early 1940s, only a few old timers and local history buffs
knew of the tree and its important early day role as a communication
source. Vigorously competing daily newspapers, the morning El Paso
Times and the evening Herald-Post kept citizens informed of current
events, but those concerned with promoting El
Paso as a destination with numerous interesting things to see
and do sought more than news -- they wanted tourists and the money
they would bring.
So, to create an unusual attraction, the four men had conspired
to put up a new newspaper tree. Worried that some might object to
a dead tree standing in a vital downtown, the ad hoc committee hoped
for a favorable community reaction and went the "forgiveness-is-easier-than-permission"
route. And it was not at public expense.
The stunt went over without controversy, and the newspaper tree
replica and a plaque explaining its history was dedicated on Sept.
1, 1941, barely three months before the outbreak of a world war
which would likely have prevented such relative frivolity had the
men had not placed the tree when they did.
The second incarnation of the newspaper tree stood until it was
taken down preparatory to construction of the downtown Oregon Street
Transit Mall. But another replica was dedicated at Pioneer Plaza
on July 13, 2015.
That event made the local news, but no one posted anything about
it on the newspaper tree.
© Mike Cox
- February 11, 2016 Column
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