It is August 1958 in Spencer, Massachusetts. Spencer’s downtown is still thriving and the postwar economy is booming. The space age has arrived and the world seems to be moving faster. You want to catch up on the latest news. There are choices. You can stop by Ernie’s Newsroom to pick up the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, which publishes a morning and evening edition and sometimes an “extra edition”. Or maybe you have the paper delivered to your home. The Country Courier (formerly the Spencer Leader) is now published in West Brookfield once a week and covers the towns of Spencer, Warren, and the Brookfields. You could also pick up a copy of Life Magazine, with national and international stories covered by famous journalists and award-winning photographers. Or you might visit the Richard Sugden Library Reading Room, which has provided free papers and comfortable chairs since 1889.
The radio might be on in the kitchen, tuned to one of the Worcester stations for news and maybe the farm report or the afternoon soap operas. You could be one of the growing number of families in Spencer who have purchased a television. The national news comes on in the evening and you’re probably waiting for Don Kent’s weather report on WBZ-TV in Boston. There is no news channel and all programs end every evening with the playing of the National Anthem before the hum of the “test pattern” comes on for the night. For really local news, you can just stroll downtown, stopping in one of the many businesses along Main and Mechanic Streets to talk with neighbors and shopkeepers, or perhaps visit the Puritan Restaurant or one of Spencer’s many drinking establishments. And you might even be able to listen in on your neighbor’s phone conversation if you still have a “party line”.
The history of how we get our news stories in Spencer goes back to Colonial times. The colonies were under British rule and the English Crown published newspapers at high cost; they focused on European politics and interests. But the founding fathers of the Revolution recognized the importance of the press. Samuel Adams wrote newspaper articles and letters that were distributed to over 260 towns: Spencer was one of them. Isaiah Thomas, a printer in Worcester, published the Massachusetts Spy, whose motto was “Open to all parties, but influenced by none.” Because it cost money to print and distribute them, newspapers were often only a few pages.
As the new Republic came into its own, newspapers began to proliferate. The Post Office Act of 1792 provided for the delivery of newspapers by the Post Office at extremely low rates. By 1840, there were almost three newspapers published for every person in New England. By 1900, newspapers were at the height of their power and influence.
The first newspaper published in Spencer was the Spencer Sun on October 31, 1872. One of the early publishers was James Pickup, who for a time ran the business out of the third floor of the Union Block at the corner of Main and Maple Street. The building owners were concerned about the weight of the massive presses and machinery so he eventually moved to the basement of a new brick building on Elm Street. He established the Spencer Sun as an important community resource, setting high standards for local reporting. A competing newspaper, the Spencer Bulletin, was published in 1885, but was eventually absorbed into the Spencer Sun. In 1891, the paper was renamed the Spencer Leader, and a year later William J. Heffernan took over as publisher. Under his leadership, the paper flourished. He built the Heffernan Press building on Mechanic Street. In 1939, Heffernan donated bound copies of the newspaper from 1872-1937 to the Richard Sugden Library, providing a crucial written record of Spencer’s history during that period. By then he had sold the newspaper but had moved the Heffernan press to Fremont Street in Worcester where it remained in business into the 1990s. Over the years, the paper changed management and office locations several times and it remains the paper of record today.
While smaller newspapers came and went – among them the Catholic Home Journal, the Spencer Merchant News, and Le Canadien – the other newspaper read by Spencer residents was the Worcester Daily Telegram and the Evening Gazette. Founded in Worcester in 1866, two papers – The Worcester Telegram in the morning, and the Evening Gazette in the afternoon – were published by the same company until the 1980s, when they were merged into a single Telegram & Gazette. An alternative weekly, the Worcester Magazine, occasionally published stories featuring Spencer events and history.
Newsrooms, first established in Spencer in the 1890s, provided a place to pick up newspapers and often to socialize. Newsrooms controlled the distribution of newspapers in a town. Perhaps the best known of these was “Ernie’s Newsroom”, purchased from Anna Latour by Ernest L. “Ernie” Roberts in 1951. His daughter, Carolyn Roberts Bain, recalls the system by which the Worcester Telegram & Gazette was managed. Young men contracted to deliver the newspapers (on foot); they purchased the newspapers at cost and made their money as a percentage and on tips. She recalls that the first girl to deliver newspapers convinced Ernie to give her the job because she had been delivering them for some with her brothers. There were morning and evening editions as well as the occasional “extra”.
Newspapers weren’t the only way we got the news. In earlier times, local residents often got news from travelers. Spencer was located on the Boston Post Road, with several inns including the Jenk’s Tavern (later the Massasoit Hotel) on the main road. Guests staying at these taverns brought news from as far away as Boston and New York. People also got news and advertising from broadsides and pamphlets published by local printers.
New technologies were being developed for public and private news consumption. The Western Union Telegraph Company set up an office at the railroad depot in South Spencer in 1878 and later in the center of town, but there were complaints about the cost and delays. In 1881, American Rapid Transit Company put up poles to carry wires into the center of town and competed with the more expensive Western Union. Eventually, telephones overtook the role of the telegraph, and in 1910 Western Union merged with the American Telephone Company and shared the Spencer office space.
The first telephone in Spencer is said to have been installed in the Isaac Prouty Boot Shop in 1879. At the time, the Prouty Shop was one of the biggest boot and shoe manufacturers in New England, covering a large area that is now Spencer Shoppers’ Village. The phones were used to communicate between shop offices. Richard Sugden also installed lines to his Wire Village wire shops in 1882. By 1884, the New England Telephone Company had 58 phones in Spencer, and the numbers grew as phone service became affordable for the average household. The first pay phone appeared in 1900. A tangle of telephone, telegraph, trolley, and electric wires grew over Main Street, sometimes emitting a buzzing sound at night. Since each company had put up their own poles, a “forest” of them became an eyesore, and in 1915 the selectmen asked them to share poles. A large telephone switchboard had been set up at the Massasoit Hotel, then moved to the Bank Block, then eventually to the present Verizon building located opposite the post office on Mechanic Street. It was staffed by operators until 1930, when Spencer residents could dial direct. The Spencer ‘Tuxedo” exchange number was used up to the early 1960’s until new systems came into place. The advent of cell phone technology and the increased affordability of personal mobile phones and smartphones has changed forever the notion of a dedicated phone “landline”.
Radio, movies, and television brought news stories to Spencer in new formats.
By 1897, moving pictures came to Spencer and by 1908, Spencer’s first movie theater opened. For the next decades, into the 1960s, newsreels were a part of the movie-going experience. Often produced by major film studios, the newsreels were usually shown before the featured movie and remain to this day important documentation for news events, entertainment, and travel of those times.
Radios were appearing in Spencer in the 1920s and were first popular with young men who embraced the new technology. Home receivers were reported in private homes such as the John G. Prouty mansion on High Street. In 1922, Fortier Electric on Mechanic Street had installed a radio speaker. Large groups stood outside his shop to listen to a live broadcast of the World Series. Over the next few years, most households had a radio set in their homes. It was said that attendance at clubs and lodges had decreased as people stayed home to listen to radio programs. The invention of the transistor radio made music and information suddenly portable. It was followed by boomboxes and digital devices, all of which allowed you to access the larger world anywhere you were.
Television came to Spencer soon after World War II. Before 1947, only a few thousand American households had televisions, but by 1955 half of American homes had a set. Ads for televisions in Spencer began appearing in newspapers by the mid-fifties. Many locals remember the first television sets which were often large consoles with small black and white screens, sometimes equipped with a magnifying device. Deluxe models often had a record player as well and were often a central and decorative feature in many living rooms. Local appliance stores offered services to install antennas which began to show up on roofs all over town. Cable television came to town in 1971 when Parker Cablevision began to install cable on Route 9 starting at the Leicester-Spencer line. Charter, now Spectrum, eventually became the cable provider, and Spencer’s local public access station, Spencer Cable Access, began in 1999. The television landscape continues to evolve, as streaming services and twenty-four-hour news stations change how and when we consume news stories. Newspapers no longer have Spencer offices, and much coverage of local events has moved to the Internet.
That Spencer resident in 1958 could never have dreamed of the profound change that was coming. We can visit that world because we have access to print and film and personal stories of that time. It is now in our hands to save the story of our Spencer for future generations.