It is hard to imagine a more troublesome time in which to start a newspaper in Madison, particularly one that supported progressive politics in general, Robert M. La Follette Sr., in particular, and the cause of civil rights as America succumbed to mounting war hysteria.
But on Dec. 13, 1917, in the midst of World War I and heavy criticism of his political and personal friend La Follette, William T. Evjue and a group of other young men rolled the first edition of The Capital Times off a rickety old press in a converted ice cream parlor at 106 King St. in downtown Madison.
Despite false accusations that the newest paper in town was financed by Germans in Milwaukee, despite reckless accusations against the intentions of the paper from Evjue's old working buddies at the Wisconsin State Journal, and despite boycotts aimed at advertisers and physical abuse of newsboys selling the paper, The Capital Times survived its first awful weeks and would eventually flourish in Madison.
Evjue started the paper only three months after leaving a well-paid job with the Journal as its business manager, a job he gave up because of disgust with the way the State Journal had joined in the fashionable war hysteria of the day and its vicious attacks against La Follette.
In that first edition, Evjue made it plain in an editorial that his Capital Times would support the war effort. "The war is reality. We are in it. And, being in it, there is just one thing to do. We must go through with it," the editorial said. It also called on the sacrifice needed to win the war to be spread out among all the people, including the rich. "Self-servers who seek profits out of the calamities of war and those who seek self-aggrandizement out of the desolation of war may not hope for the esteem of The Capital Times," Evjue wrote.
In a front-page editorial that first day, Evjue explained that the paper's aim was "to be a people's newspaper," and would serve no special interest. "The Capital Times is the organ of no man, no faction, no party. We shall endeavor to abide by principles rather than men," the front-page editorial said. "The Capital Times will be independent of political parties and is fully determined to hear all men, all parties, all interests, honestly and fairly, and will always stand for good government."
That Evjue's disgust with the State Journal and its new owner and editor Richard Lloyd Jones was so huge that he would take the risk of starting a new paper in a town with two daily papers of general circulation, plus the daily Cardinal on campus, and 20 or so weekly papers, marked a major change in the way Evjue and Jones operated in the heady days when both were at the Journal. Evjue was the first person hired by Jones in 1911, after he purchased the Wisconsin State Journal from Amos Wilder.
Evjue was working as a reporter for the Record Herald in Chicago when, on a steamy August day, he decided to stop for a beer at the bar in the LaSalle Hotel on his way to work. There he ran into a longtime friend from his college days who told him the big news from Madison -- that Jones had purchased the State Journal from Wilder and was looking to fill various positions.
Evjue, a native of Merrill, Wis., had worked at the State Journal while attending the University of Wisconsin, and like generations of UW students before and after, was anxious to return to Madison. He immediately boarded a train for the capital to visit with Jones, who had been staying at the old Levi Vilas mansion on Langdon Street, which had been converted to the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. The pair spent a long summer evening discussing the progressive battles they envisioned in a lively new version of the State Journal and Jones brought Evjue aboard as the managing editor. Their joint vision was for a hard-hitting newspaper that would fight corruption at every turn and would support Senator La Follette and his progressive legislative program.
That vision was fueled in part by La Follette, who encouraged his progressive friends to loan Jones $85,000 needed to help buy the State Journal, and the paper was proud of supporting such progressive legislation as child labor law reform, women's suffrage, civil rights for all people and new labor legislation.
In 1913, while on his western honeymoon with his wife, Zillah Bagley, Evjue was called back to the office to learn that the Journal was on the verge of bankruptcy and that he had been picked to replace the company's business manager. He accepted the promotion and bailed the company out of its financial troubles.
He kept that job until September 1917, as the United States prepared to go to war.
Early in year, Jones' support of La Follette began to waiver as the prospect of entry into World War I began to look inevitable.
During that time, La Follette issued stern warnings against American involvement, and Jones increased in both volume and tone his criticism of La Follette, going so far as to call the town of Primrose native "un-American" for his support of a munitions embargo. Later, when La Follette voted against the congressional declaration of war against Germany, Jones called the senator "half-baked and insincere" and questioned his honesty and integrity. The split between Jones and Evjue, who continued to support the senator, became a deep fissure.
Evjue responded by resigning from the Journal and immediately began a series of meetings with men who would be the first staff of The Capital Times, including Harry D. Sage, who resigned as State Journal circulation manager to help form the new paper. Sage was still with the paper as an associate editor when Evjue died in 1970.
Alfred T. Rodgers, La Follette's law partner, was instrumental in the forming of the paper and also among the founders were Tom C. Bowden, William Allman and Elmer Homberger. Evjue, at 35, was the oldest of the group.
While the war hysteria was raging in Madison and throughout the nation, Evjue received the first inkling of how it would affect the new Capital Times just days before publication of the first paper. Well known Madison businessman Alexander Kornhauser, who ran a large store on the Capitol Square, had taken out a full page ad to be published in that first edition of the newspaper, but a day before the launch date he came into The Capital Times Office on King Street and cancelled his ad.
"This was a forewarning of what was in store for The Capital Times. It was known generally that the State Council of Defense, the owners of the State Journal and the Madison Democrat, and the wives of officials of big business in Madison were organizing to strike a solar plexus blow against The Capital Times," Evjue wrote later in his autobiography, "A Fighting Editor."
Kornhauser later repented, but his business fortunes were ill-fated. The day after World War I ended, Kornhauser came into The Capital Times to renew his advertising. Five years after that, Kornhauser's Madison store burned down. Soon after that he opened a store in Chicago on Michigan Avenue. That business failed, and in 1924 he returned to Madison to open another store in the German-American Bank Building at the corner of Main and King, virtually next door to The Capital Times. He paid a visit to Evjue, and hit him up for a $500 loan to start his latest Madison venture. That too, ended in failure.
While advertising sales for the first day of The Capital Times were brisk, with 46 retail ads and several classified ads, by the next day only eight retail ads appeared and by the following week in one issue of the paper there were only theater ads, with no other stores risking the enmity of those who had organized the boycott against the new paper.
"Evjue could not have picked a more difficult time to introduce a new newspaper in Madison -- certainly a liberal La Follette-tinged paper of the type the testy young Norwegian was contemplating," wrote David Mollenhoff, in his "Madison: A History of the Formative Years."
Indeed, leading up to the war La Follette and his supporters were still at least tolerated by the people of Wisconsin. La Follette, elected to the Senate by the Legislature in January 1905 to replace Sen. J.V. Quarles, did not take office until January 1906 after resigning as governor. He was re-elected in 1916 after the method of selection had been changed to a popular vote. He defeated Malcomb Jeffries in the Republican primary by a vote of 99,720 to 66,576, then handily defeated Democrat William Wolfe by a vote of 251,303 to 135,144 in the general election.
But La Follette's popularity waned as he continually spoke out against entry into the war, and when he was labeled one of a handful of willful small men by President Woodrow Wilson for his anti-war speeches and votes he became more disliked, even in his home state. On April 6, 1917, a resolution declaring war with Germany came before the Senate, and La Follette was one of just six senators who opposed it. Despite the fact that all but one of Wisconsin's 10 members of the House of Representatives also voted against the war, La Follette seemed the one singled out for the harshest criticism.
"In Madison loyalty took on a particularly virulent form," Mollenhoff wrote. "From the day he cast that vote, the senior Wisconsin senator was a veritable pariah."
It was not only in Madison. Federal Judge Waller T. Burns of Houston, in giving charges to a grand jury, said he wished they had the power to indict the six. "If any man deserves death, it is a traitor," he said, adding that if the six senators stood in front of a firing squad he would gladly pay for the ammunition used to kill them.
In Wisconsin, Green County Judge John Becker was indicted and convicted of violating the federal Espionage Act because he called the European conflict a "rich man's war," and warned farmers to "beware of taxes." He was sentenced to one year in prison and was run out of office. In 1920 his conviction was overturned by the federal Seventh District Court of Appeals, but Becker's judicial career was ruined by then. He sued to have his salary paid for his lost years, but was denied that in a ruling by the state Supreme Court.
Other examples of war hysteria include a Madison librarian being detained in Boston after taking several pictures. Citizens called police who took the man in as a suspected German spy and let him go only after he convinced them he was only taking pictures of well-known sites in early American literature. An Evansville woman was paraded around town in a cage and threatened with being tarred and feather because she was suspected of harboring pro-German feelings, while a former Assembly member from Wausau was arrested when he refused to allow Red Cross workers to sell war bonds in his hotel.
Louis Nagler of Madison was arrested and convicted of violating the espionage act when he refused to buy war bonds and called the Red Cross and the YMCA "a bunch of grafters." Sentenced to prison, Nagler appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction, but that didn't happen until 1920, well after the war had ended.
La Follette was expelled from the tony Madison Club at the insistence of Carl and Hobart Johnson, brothers who ran the Gisholt Machine Company on East Washington Avenue, and La Follette was censured by nearly all the faculty members in a round-robin petition circulated at his beloved University of Wisconsin.
For Evjue and The Capital Times there was much of the same. The night before the first edition of the paper was printed, La Follette was hung in effigy on the University of Wisconsin campus at a rally at which a mock Capital Times was also burned. Newsboys were hounded by groups of women and threatened with jail if they sold a disloyal newspaper; other women, some wearing the uniform of the Red Cross, went to local businesses and threatened them with boycotts if they purchased ads in The Capital Times.
Others simply tore the newspaper from its vending stations and destroyed it, much to the consternation of Abe Epstein, who made his living selling newspapers from Madison and beyond. "I wasn't sure I could make money with that paper if it was going to be torn up from the news stands, ripped up and thrown around," he said in recalling those early days later when talking to Evjue.
Another young newsboy, Harold Spraetz, 14, picked out a spot near the Gisholt plant to sell his papers. His father worked at Gisholt and the boy figured the workers would be buying a paper that fought for them rather than the bigwigs who owned industries.
But when the boy's stack of papers was just inside the company property, a watchman hurried to the scene and told him to "get 'em out of here," because one of the Johnsons "didn't want the damn Capital Times around the plant," Evjue would later write in his book.
The State Journal's Jones meanwhile, kept up his steady drumbeat of accusations that The Capital Times was financed by German money. He campaign against La Follette even went so far as to pass on misinformation to a New York reporter, who wrote a story about La Follette and the new paper that supported him.
At this juncture, La Follette had enough and filed a lawsuit against Jones. The Capital Times extensively covered the depositions in the suit, and Jones was forced to admit under oath that he knew nothing of any Germans financing the new paper and that he learned of the rumor from Magnus Swenson, a member of the Wisconsin State Council of Defense, a group largely composed of businessman whose central purpose was to investigate the loyalty of various people and institutions.
The confession by Jones that both his stories and those of the New York paper were based on hearsay gave a big boost in credibility to Evjue and The Capital Times, and helped vastly increase its circulation. But with his paper promising a fair shake for farmers and laborers, the circulation growth of The Capital Times was about to get another boost.
Still, Evjue would later admit, passage of a sedition act on the federal level and the espionage act in Wisconsin and resultant war hysteria made it difficult for anyone to say anything that might be construed as anti-war or favorable to the Germans. At one point during the war, Evjue groused that most newspapers in Wisconsin that now ardently supported the war had printed anti-war editorials before the war. If he reprinted those editorials now, Evjue said in 1918, he would be subject to arrest.
But that didn't stop the feisty editor from pointing out what he thought to be the essential question surrounding the execution of the war: the unfairness of it all. While those who owned the capital in the country reaped millions, the sons of farmers and workers were the ones to be wounded and killed on European battlefields. Evjue routinely printed the profits of the large companies and showed the huge increases in profits made from the war, and he continued to print the incomes of the owners of those businesses, and the huge sums they were making from the war. Income tax records of both businesses corporations and individuals were public records at the time, and Evjue made great use of them.
Meanwhile, in late 1917 and early 1918, Evjue was touring the countryside, holding meetings in small towns in Dane and surrounding counties, selling subscriptions to the new paper as well as stock at $1 a share to many farmers and workers who could afford to fork over a meager amount to support what they saw as their future as well as the paper's.
Evjue said later that he got the idea from attorney Andrew Torge, whom he met one day on the Capitol Square in Madison. Torge, like Evjue of Norwegian descent, said he would organize a meeting of the farmers near Mount Horeb, most of them also Norwegian, and Evjue could tell them directly of the big profits made by the wealthy manufacturers from the war while the drafted sons of farmers and workers were killed in the process.
"The meeting was successful," Evjue would later write. The meeting generated $1,000 in pledges to buy stock and more importantly, "each man paid every dollar of the amount he pledged."
Back on King Street when Evjue related the results, there was general joy and everyone on the staff agreed the method should be employed in other southern Wisconsin communities. D. W. Heiney, the owner of a meat market in Black Earth, offered his building for use for a meeting, and Evjue gladly accepted the offer. But because Heiney was German, and because antipathy toward all things German was running at a fever pitch, he didn't want use of his building seen as a German effort to help the new paper, so he told everyone to come to the meeting in groups no bigger than two, and to use the back door.
The front of the building was kept dark, and only one single kerosene lamp provided light in the meeting room. Evjue delivered his same speech about the obscene profits being run up by such manufacturers as the Gisholt Company in Madison, while workers were paid low wages and farmers getting little money for crops, meat and milk, despite their increased production during the war. Another $900 was pledged in stock.
And Evjue's tour continued, with stops in Stoughton, Barneveld, Sauk City, Blue Mounds, Middleton, Daleyville, Hollandale, and numerous other towns. One such meeting occurred in the town of Christiana near Cambridge, heavily populated by Norwegian immigrants and their children. They listened intently as Evjue, whose parents emigrated from Norway, spoke, and just as intently as one of their own, Lars Lien, got up to talk. Lien, Evjue later wrote, "made a stirring appeal" for support for the upstart newspaper, and it became one of the most successful of the meetings. Many of the descendants of those initial stockholders still hold their shares in The Capital Times today, company records show.
In early 1918, Evjue made a financial stroked that greatly contributed to the survival of The Capital Times. He managed to convince the American Equity Society, an organization of about 30,000 farmers in several states, to print the weekly newspaper of the organization at The Capital Times in Madison. Obtaining that printing job, Evjue would later write, was crucial to the financial well-being of the newspaper.
La Follette, meanwhile, continued to be excoriated in the Senate, largely because of a misquote in an Associated Press story out of St. Paul, Minn. The story followed a lengthy speech by La Follette on Sept. 20, 1917, in which the Senator said that while America "had grievances" with Germany, the country did not have sufficient reason to go to war. The story that went over the AP wire, however, wrongly quoted La Follette as saying America had "no" grievance with Germany and the inclusion of the two-letter word caused a furor throughout the nation, which did not die down until the war's end. A resolution to have him expelled from the Senate was even introduced, but the committee had a copy of the speech recorded by a stenographer and was able to see the error in the story.
The end of the War to End All Wars came on Nov. 11, 1918, and most of the war hysteria died out as a consequence. Both Evjue and La Follette survived and even prospered after the war's end.
In 1919, Evjue saw the circulation of The Capital Times surpass the 10,000 mark. In a letter to his friend dated Feb. 5, 1919, La Follette wrote: "It was fitting that you should cross the Ten Thousand mark on Lincoln's birthday."
"In its field The Times is a daily proclamation of emancipation and it is making government free, society free, news free, as it blazes its way through the jungle of privilege and oppression," La Follette wrote to Evjue.
"You are called to a great work. You are endowed with conscience and courage and have ability. On with the fight. May the good God preserve your health throughout."
And The Capital Times had survived a hard-fought beginning.
La Follette's vindication came at the ballot box. He amassed amazing totals when he ran for re-election in 1922. In the Republican primary, he beat William Ganfield by 362,445 to 139,327, 72 percent of the vote. Then in the general election he totalled an astounding 379,494 votes against a field that included Democrat Jessie Jack Hooper, the prohibition party's Adolph Brockman, and the independent socialist labor party's Richard Koeppel. La Follette pulled in 80 percent of the vote and continued his service in the U.S. Senate until his death in 1925.