Early in the 20th century, the rise of progressive politics sharpened a political divide in the nation. That divide played out in Madison’s media landscape when Wisconsin State Journal business manager William T. Evjue parted ways with the paper over its spurning of Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette over his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I. Evjue held the senator in high regard for his progressive politics.
It was on Dec. 13, 1917, that Evjue’s first edition of The Capital Times hit the local news stands, setting in motion a fierce, decades-long competition between the two papers for the hearts of Dane County readers. For 2 cents, readers were treated to local, state and world news, society tidbits, sports, comics and all the miscellany required to fill 16 broadsheet pages.
On the front page of the maiden edition, the war dominated the headlines. The paper made copious use of Associated Press copy to update readers on developments. A battle between the Germans and Russians near Belgorod was raging. A Senate committee grilled Major General William Crozier over delays in supplying arms and artillery to troops.
The Capital Times’ first edition sought to bring the cost of the war home. “BROTHER OF MADISON MAN DIES IN BATTLE,” read one headline. Another story related the story of area farmer Carl Vetter, who left an inheritance for his nephew, Karl Vetter, a German soldier who never received his largess — he was killed in battle and the inheritance was being held in probate pending the outcome of the war.
Another story told of a visiting professor who offered a local talk about German treachery.
In perhaps the most inauspicious story for the new paper, a large group of University of Wisconsin students, led by the Students Patriotic League, burned La Follette in effigy, a stinging rebuke to Evjue’s inspiration for launching The Capital Times. The protest followed a report by the Associated Press that misquoted La Follette as saying, “We had no grievances against Germany.” La Follette never made that statement, and the AP apologized for the error. But the damage was done, and La Follette was left to suffer the scorn of the nation. Hundreds of faculty at UW signed a resolution condemning him. The Senate considered a resolution to expel him. Theodore Roosevelt called him “a Hun within our gates.”
From the statehouse front, three senators and two assemblymen accepted positions on the draft board, thereby possibly forfeiting their seats because of a constitutional provision that prohibits legislators from accepting federal appointments.
But in the mix of the dozen or so headlines that filled the front page were other nuggets that shed light on the bygone days of 1917. “DOG STARTS SCARE AT SUN PRAIRIE” declares one.
“As a result of an attack by a rabid dog upon the son of a farmer near Sun Prairie, and the loss of many cows of his herd through hydrophobia following bites by the same dog,” the story reported, “careful watch against the spread of this disease is being maintained and a dog muzzling order will be issued by the state board of health if an epidemic should occur.”
It goes on to report that Milwaukee and Waukesha counties had in fact issued such an order for 90 days in response to a rabies epidemic, and “is being faithfully observed, so far as reports show.”
And a story that likely stirred a fair amount of feminine resentment then, as it would now, was entitled “DIVORCE PROBLEM INCREASING HERE.” It contained the following lead paragraph:
“Hasty and ill-advised marriages, frivolous wives who think more of entertainment than the keeping up of their home, and the failure of parents to properly prepare their sons and daughters for the responsibilities of marriage, are resulting in increased divorces in Dane county.”
Those views, we find in the following paragraph, belonged to Dane County Judge A.D. Hoppmann.
Evjue didn’t share La Follette’s anti-war stance, and inside the paper were a number of war-related stories that highlighted the hope and heroism that always accompany cataclysmic events. “DIVINE MOTIVE IN WAR BELIEF OF MANY HERE,” read one headline on Page 3, with a subhead that read, “Madisonians Connect Conflict With Second Coming of Christ Says (the Rev. George) Hunt." “DOCTORS GAIN SERVICE PRAISE FOR WAR AID,” read another.
A third story on that same page reports on a call from Superintendent of Public Instruction C.P. Cary to include patriotism into the state curriculum.
Page 5 contained the obligatory “Society” column, which noted that Miss Mary E. L. Hemmedien had returned to her job as general secretary of the local YWCA after months traveling the state raising funds for the National War Work Council, bringing in more than $100,000.
And in a dismaying sign of another time, a headline on Page 6 read, “MADISON NEGROES AGAINST NEWS PLAN.” The story reported indignation on the part of local African-Americans over plans by the Madison Democrat newspaper to include a feature in its Sunday edition entitled “Colored People News.”
Page 8 contained the first Voice of the People section, the letters feature that remains in the Capital Times to this day.
Page 10 was dedicated to “News From Neighboring Towns in Dane County,” which included the headlines, “DE FOREST MAN DEAD IN CHICAGO,” and “BIG RECEPTION FOR LODI PASTOR.”
And of course there were comics. You might not recognize the titles: Mike the Messenger, Snoodles, Petey Dink.
But back to the front page: Nearly lost in the clutter of tightly packed all-caps headlines on the debut issue was one of six tucked under the masthead, set off from the others with a box. It read, “THE CAPITAL TIMES: OUR AIMS.”
The column declared Dane County a fertile ground for the progressivism that formed the guiding principle of the paper.
“The people here are progressive — they desire to keep abreast of the times in all that makes for prosperity and better civic life,” it read. “It is the desire of this paper to promote the interests of our city, county and state in a broad, liberal spirit. It has no enemies to punish; it has no special interests to serve. It is the organ of no man — no set of men, no faction, no party.”
It promises that the paper “will always stand unwaveringly for good government in the city, county, state and nation.”
The paper’s adherence to nonpartisan coverage was at times tenuous. In an edition published exactly one year later, Evjue himself authored a front-page story lambasting the state Railroad Commission for hiking street car rates.
But standing up for the little guy has always been the unofficial mission of The Capital Times.
And for a time, The Capital Times was that little guy. While Evjue himself didn’t go on record opposing the war, his unwavering support for La Follette led to rumors that the paper was pro-German, prompting an advertising boycott. But Evjue, who personally boosted the paper in area communities and offered $1 subscriptions, oversaw a steady gain in readership. By 1920, the paper hit a circulation of more than 10,700. Five years later that doubled, making The Capital Times the local circulation leader.
And making true the sage prediction of the paper on that inaugural edition that, “The CAPITAL TIMES begins modestly but we believe that it will grow from day to day in the hearts of the people.”