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Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

Baytown Sun Roots

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

The consolidation of the Tri-Cities isn't the only merger of a threesome in local history.

Before voters approved the charter for their new city of Baytown in 1948, three newspapers in 1931 consolidated in the Tri-Cities. These newspapers covered the waterfront with locations in Goose Creek, Pelly and Baytown.

Involved in the merger were the Pelly Telegram, owned by Joe Noland; the Goose Creek Tribune, owned by Herman Bell; and the Baytown News-Herald, owned by the Tribune and run by J.S. Ott.

A fourth publication, the Democrat, existed then, but owner Chris Myers chose not to participate in the merger.

The reason for combining the three newspapers was similar to what would motivate the consolidation of the Tri-Cities years later. From an organizational standpoint, it made more sense for these newspapers to pool their resources, just as the one city, evolving from consolidation, was able to pool talent and experience from employees from the Tri-Cities.

The newspaper merger was based on other factors, too, such as the fact that advertisers preferred buying ads in one newspaper with a widespread readership.. And the readers liked the convenience of buying one newspaper with an overview of news in the area.

However, all those efforts to blend three newspapers into one would have been for naught if the final product turned out to be average or below. The new newspaper had to be bigger and better than any of the previous publications had been, and it would require highly qualified leaders.

The new era began with the arrival of W.L. Pendergraft, formerly of the Houston Post, and Robert W. "Bob" Matherne, a Beaumont newsman and syndicated writer for the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Again, to compare the newspaper history with that of consolidated Baytown, Pendergraft and Matherne were the prototypes of a future city manager, Bill Taylor, the municipal government expert hired to steer consolidated Baytown in the right direction.

Pendergraft and Matherne were experts in their field, too, and the newly formed Peoples Printing Co., composed of local business leaders, hired them to steer the consolidated newspaper in the right direction.

They named it the Tri-Cities Sun and the first issue, after three weeks of reorganization, rolled off the press on July 19, 1931. Sun staffers headquartered where the Goose Creek Tribune had operated - at the corner of West Pearce and South Ashbel.

Initially, Pendergraft started out on the business side while Matherne had charge of the newsroom. As time went by, the versatile pair reversed their roles - Pendergraft in the newsroom, Matherne in the business office - but, the fact was, they could be found running the show, as needed, in any department. They were everywhere.

Every issue had their fingerprints all over it.

In 1935 they reached across the Houston Ship Channel and persuaded Fred Hartman to leave Sparky Bond's newspaper in La Porte and come to work at the Tri-Cities Sun.

Hartman proved to be as versatile as the Pendergraft/Matherne team, with his business savvy and the ability to report, write and edit.

After graduating from Baylor University in 1929, Hartman was an instructor in the journalism department, business manager of the Baylor Student Publications and director of athletic publicity.

He left the campus to work for the Wichita Daily Times and the Vernon Record, but returned to Baylor to earn a master's degree. A few years later, he graduated from the Houston Law School but never pursued a legal career. At the Tri-Cities Sun, he handled two jobs: circulation manager and sports editor.

The name change from Tri-Cities Sun to Daily Sun was made in 1933 and the press continued to roll as the Daily Sun until a year after Baytown consolidation. Since 1949 it has published under the name, The Baytown Sun.

Pendergraft retired in 1944, selling his interest in the Tri-Cities Sun to Matherne, and Hartman was promoted to editor.

When Matherne retired from the newspaper in 1950 to focus on his office supply business, he sold his interest to business tycoon Carmage Walls on one provision - that Hartman would serve as the editor and publisher. Fortunately for The Baytown Sun and Baytown, Walls agreed.

The guiding light at The Sun, Hartman won respect for his managerial skills as well as his journalistic talents. Employees never called him Fred; he was Mr. Hartman, also known as The Leader. During his reign, The Sun saw many changes and advances, including a new building on Memorial Drive in 1965.

Hartman continued to run the newspaper until 1974 when his position as chairman of the board of Southern Newspapers Inc. dominated his schedule. He was succeeded as editor and publisher by his son-in-law, Leon Brown.

Hartman retired from Southern Newspapers in 1983 and died in 1991 on July 28, only a few days after The Sun marked its 60th anniversary.

July 19, 1931, was chosen for the anniversary date because that was the beginning of a new era -- when Pendergraft and Matherne took charge.

The history of The Sun, however, goes back to 1918 when Frank Boyer founded the Goose Creek Gasser, a semiweekly. In 1924 Boyer sold the newspaper to Herman Bell, who renamed it the Goose Creek Tribune and in 1928 turned it into a daily. After doing business in several locations, the Tribune found a long-lasting home on West Pearce.

Publishers since Leon Brown have been Gary Dobbs, Wanda Cash, Cliff Clements and the current publisher, Janie Gray.

© Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist
"Wandering" January 1, 2018 column

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