True Grit

'America's greatest family newspaper,' begun in Williamsport in 1882, marches on as a glossy rural magazine.
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The September/October 2016 issue on sale at Tractor Supply near Harrisburg.

The September/October 2016 issue on sale at Tractor Supply near Harrisburg.

Decades before Williamsport, Pa., gave birth to Little League Baseball, it gave the world Grit.

Founded in 1882, Grit began as the Saturday edition of the Williamsport Daily Sun and Banner.
True to its name, Grit has persevered and reinvented itself, from broadsheet to tabloid newspaper to today’s glossy magazine.

More than 130 years later, Grit continues to serve rural America a steady diet of good news and helpful tips, albeit just six times per year (plus special issues) from its headquarters since 1992, Topeka, Kan.

“What’s up with gluten?” asks a headline in the recent “Guide to Homemade Bread” edition.

Lamade family

The directive for Grit to focus on “those villages and hamlets removed from the influence of big cities,” as his son George described it, came from Dietrick Lamade, according to Grit. A German immigrant who had been Grit’s typesetter, Lamade and partners bought Grit for $1,000 in 1884.

By 1932 and Grit’s 50th birthday, the newspaper had 200 employees and a circulation of 400,000. By 1957, Grit printed three editions: one for the Williamsport area, one for Pennsylvania, and one for a national audience. Circulation peaked in 1969 at 1.5 million subscribers.

Although Dietrick handed the reins to son George and died in 1938, Grit remained in the Lamade family until 1981. Stauffer Communications of Topeka, Kan., bought Grit, which moved to Topeka in 1993 after 111 years in Williamsport.

The Grit building remains at 208 W. Third St., Williamsport, where one of the tenants is the district office of the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. The Lamade name gains national attention every August, across the river in South Williamsport, during the Little League World Series.

Howard J. Lamade Stadium, opened in 1959, is named for one of Dietrick’s sons who was a Little League executive. The stadium was built on land donated by the Lamade family, which paid for renovations in 2006.

Since 1996, Grit has been owned by Ogden Newspapers Inc. of Wheeling, W.Va., whose 40 newspapers include, in Pennsylvania, the Altoona Mirror, Lewistown Sentinel, Lock Haven Express, Warren Times Observer, and Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Robert Nutting, Ogden’s president and CEO, is principal owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Stephen King and Lee Harvey Oswald

Newspaper routes were big in my family: four of the five Goulet siblings delivered for the daily newspapers from Lewiston, Maine. None of us delivered Grit; I remember one instance when a kid showed up at our house selling Grit subscriptions.

Young carriers (by one count, more than 40,000 strong) were the backbone of Grit, lured by ads in comic books. Grit was a first job for the likes of astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn, poet Carl Sandburg, and KFC founder Harland Sanders.

A boy selling Grit door-to-door is the basis for a funny scene in Stephen King’s 2011 book, “11.22.63.” The story’s protagonist, Jake Epping, travels back in time (by way of a diner in my hometown of Lisbon Falls, Maine) to try to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

While tracking Lee Harvey Oswald’s movements, Epping tape-records a conversation between the would-be killer and a young boy.

The kid was selling subscriptions to a newspaper — or maybe it was a magazine — called Grit. He informed the Oswalds that it had all sorts of interesting stuff the New York papers couldn’t be bothered with (he labeled this ‘country news’), plus sports and gardening tips. It also had what he called “fiction stories” and comic strips. “You won’t get Dixie Dugan in the Times Herald,” he informed them. “My mama loves ‘Dixie.’ “

“Well son, that’s fine,” Lee said. “You’re quite the little businessman, aren’t you?”

“Uh … yessir?”

“Tell me how much you make.”

“I don’t get but four cents on every dime, but that ain’t the big thing, sir. Mostly what I like is the prizes. They’re way better than the ones you get selling Cloverine Salve. Nuts to that! I goan get me a .22! My dad said I could have it.”

“Son, do you know you’re being exploited?”

“Huh?”

“They take the dimes. You get pennies and the promise of a rifle.”

“Lee, he nice boy,” Marina said. “Be nice. Leave alone.”

Lee ignored her. “You need to know what’s in this book, son. Can you read what’s on the front?”

“Oh, yessir. It says The Condition of the Working Class, by Friedrik … Ing-gulls?”

“Engels. It’s all about what happens to boys who think they’re going to wind up millionaires by selling stuff door-to-door.”

“I don’t want to be no millionaire,” the boy objected. “I just want a .22 so I can plink rats at the dump like my friend Hank.”

Orange Bowl queen

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December 1963 issue.

Kennedy’s assassination was a huge story, obviously, and unavoidable even for a good-news newspaper. On eBay, I found a listing for the Dec. 1, 1963, issue of Grit.

On the cover are the haunting, iconic photo of Jack Ruby fatally shooting Oswald in the stomach, and a picture of Kennedy’s horse-drawn casket.

They are joined by articles about possible scientific advances in the fight against leukemia and a blurb about the 1963 Orange Bowl queen.

Between the funeral photo and the queen were “Bits of Wisdom,” including this one: “Most knocking is done by people who don’t know how to ring the bell.”

Now 134 years since its debut, Grit keeps ringing the bell.

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