The Leader at 120 years: A brief history

The Leader was not Port Townsend’s first newspaper. In 1859 the fewer than 200 literate souls in Port Townsend read the Port Townsend Register. As the town grew so did the papers: The North West, The Message, Puget Sound Argus, Puget Sound Express, Democratic Press, Cyclops, Port of Entry Times, Port Townsend Call and my personal favorite, The Evening Incident. Only the Call lasted until 1910.

On October 2, 1889 W.L. Jones published The Morning Leader, a daily of eight pages. Earlier Jones had spent three years with the Argus, then departed for Hillsboro, Oregon where he was on the city council. He returned to a seaside town of 6,000 people, brimming with confidence about future growth. Stories about Port Townsend’s vast resources and potential for industry dominated that first edition, along with tales of Yukon miners dying of scurvy, and the arrival of ships from all over the world. The largest advertisement? Ward, Harper and Hill, Real Estate Brokers. The Leader was a daily until 1908 when it went weekly.

After W.L. Jones, the next sure hand at The Leader’s helm was Winslow McCurdy. He became editor in 1917 and in time bought out W.B. Jessup. (Jessup would move to Bremerton and start the Bremerton Sun.) McCurdy was named Port Townsend postmaster in 1923. That’s when he leased The Leader to Fred Willoughby. Upon McCurdy’s death, control of The Leader fell to Willoughby and Ray O. Scott. The cigar-smoking, roly-poly but frugal Scott ran the business. He hand-delivered subscription bills to save a penny on postage. He was a wizard on Linotypes, the car-sized typesetting machines that turned molten lead into lines of type. “Don’t bother proof-reading that,” he would tell his printers. “I set it.”

Around 1930 printer Claude Mitton joined The Leader. He was the backbone of the press operation for the next five decades. In the early years he mastered hand-set type and hand-fed presses. Later he led the way to mechanization with Linotypes and a flat-bed press. The Leader fed its presses with some 50 commercial printing jobs a week, along with printing the newspaper. In 1945 15-year-old Tom Camfield started a career with the Leader that spanned 44 years, with interruptions here and there. Camfield was Mitton’s printer’s devil and returned for stings as managing editor and chronicler of Jefferson County’s youth and athletes. He retired from The Leader in 1988, millions of words and thousands of photos later.

In 1946 the business was reorganized with Mitton, Winslow’s son Richard (Dick) McCurdy and Dan Hill joining Ray Scott as owners. Scott died in the early 1950s and Richard McCurdy became owner. He was an active civic leader who was central to the arrival of Centrum in Port Townsend. He was recognized by having Fort Worden’s performance hall, McCurdy Pavilion, named for him.

Frank and Pat Garred arrived in 1967 from a weekly in Lakewood, Wash. and purchased the paper from McCurdy upon his retirement, also purchasing a minority share held by Mitton. Garred’s staff consisted of Claude Mitton, his son Terry Mitton, Camfield and office manager Laverne Horton. The staff grew slowly with the addition of Betty Grewell in 1968 and Dan Huntingford in 1975. Claude died in 1977; his son Terry stayed on through the 1990s. Garred ushered The Leader into the era of off-set printing and helped it become one of the most recognized weekly newspapers in the state.

In 1989 Scott and Jennifer Wilson joined the Garreds as co-owners. Wilson, who grew up in a weekly newspaper family in Omak, Wash., became publisher in 2000 while Garred guided the Sequim Gazette. In 2002 Frank and Pat – she was circulation manager -- retired from newspapering. Frank has remained active in pursuit of independent media, open government and journalism education.

Today The Leader supports the families of 31 great local people. Betty Grewell remains today – the bookkeeper has kept The Leader on track for 41 years. Other longtime staffers who remain are Chris Hawley and Kathy Busic who joined in the mid-1980s. Several others – Patrick J. Sullivan, Scott Wilson, Marian Roh, Lynn Nowak and Drew Elicker – are at or near the 20-year mark. The Leader has a paid readership of over 20,000 Jefferson County residents. It is regarded as among the best community newspapers in Washington, a regular winner of top newspaper awards, and is among the strongest independent newspaper companies left in the state. In 2009, despite widespread problems in the industry, The Leader gained 5 percent new readers. The Leader has also led the way in digital media, establishing the state’s first news website from a newspaper company in 1995. today has over 10,000 unique visitors and over 300,000 page views per month. JeffConnections, a social networking site for local businesses, is also a Leader creation.

At 120 years old, The Leader is laying the foundation for its next 120 years.