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El Paso's
Newspaper Tree

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Late one night in summer of 1941, four men rendezvoused at a downtown El Paso street corner. A narcotics buy? Prelude to a burglary? Human trafficking afoot?

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 booster.

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 of it.

The 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 "the tree."

Not everything that got tacked to the tree constituted an official notice.

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.”

nce El 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
"Texas Tales" - February 11, 2016 Column

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