Valsetz Star, edited by 9-year-old, won nationwide fame
If you’d taken a nationwide poll in 1939, asking people from outside Oregon to name as many Oregon towns as they could, the top three would probably be Portland, Salem — and Valsetz.
Portland, because it’s the biggest, of course. Salem, because it’s the state capitol. And Valsetz, because of its newspaper, the Valsetz Star, and the Star’s editor, 11-year-old Dorothy Anne Hobson.
The 9-year-old editor
Dorothy Anne was the daughter of Henry and Ruby Hobson, the cookhouse managers for the tiny company town of Valsetz, which was owned by the Cobbs & Mitchell Lumber Company. Her newspaper was hand-crafted on a card table on regular legal-size sheets of paper, and her printing press was a mimeograph machine in Cobbs & Mitchell’s downtown Portland office.
From there, each month, it went out to a small but influential (and growing) list of subscribers — including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Wendell Wilkie, and Shirley Temple. It was read on the air by countless radio announcers, all over the country. It was a sensation.
How the Star got its start
The paper was started in the summer of 1937 when Dorothy, then 9 years old, was having lunch in the Valsetz cookhouse with Herbert Templeton, one of the logging company’s executives.
“There’s going to be a newspaper in Valsetz,” she told him firmly, and showed him the first edition, sketched out on a school tablet.
“It was at once apparent that the editor was able,” Templeton wrote later. “Valsetz surely offered a good and fertile field. Why shouldn’t Valsetz have a paper? A deal was promptly consummated whereby our Portland office, splendidly equipped with a sixty-dollar mimeograph machine, would print the Valsetz Star. Dorothy Anne chose to dignify us with the title of Publishers.”
”Hemlock, Fir, Kindness and Republicans”
Although The Star didn’t adhere to AP style, its editor was a stickler for deadlines. The Star was published faithfully every month — with the exception of a couple months very early in its run (“We didn’t have a June issue of ‘The Star.’ Nellie and I played too much. We hope nobody wants their money back.”).
Right from the start, the paper made a big deal about its political affiliation. “We believe in hemlock, fir, kindness and Republicans,” Dorothy wrote.
But she was always careful to add that Democrats were also nice people. She adored President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor; she just wished they were Republicans, that’s all.
“The Republicans are nice and sensible, but the Democrats are lots of fun,” she wrote in 1939. “We don’t know what to think.”
Precociousness in print
The tone of the Valsetz Star, right from the start, is of a sort of hilarious precociousness — the kind of thing you would expect from a really intelligent 11-year-old.
“Everyone contributed toward the entertainment,” she wrote in July 1938, describing a company event. “This is the first time we have used the word ‘contributed,’ but we will be using bigger words from now on because Mother bought the ‘Book of Knowledge’ set for us from Mrs. Shea of Portland, and she gave us a big dictionary with the set. We will pay for it later.”
For a pre-teen, though, she had a wicked wit, which her parents always seemed to get the worst of — especially her mother, Ruby.
“Mr. Frank Trower, in San Francisco, said there is a new book out about the logging woods called ‘Holy Old Mackinaw,’ but was not a book for ladies to read,” she wrote in April 1939. “Mother sent for it right away.”
“Daddy is trying to find a place for his vacation this summer where his stomach won’t get any bigger,” she remarked in the “Local News” column for March 1940.
And then there was September 1939, when an attempt by the corset industry to reconquer American fashion met with mixed success in the Hobson home.
“Mother has some new corsets for a waist like a wasp,” Dorothy noted, “but when she laces them real tight she faints.”
The Star on life in Valsetz
The Star was most known for adorable observations on life in a small backwoods town.
“Things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving day:” she wrote, in the November 1937 paper. “That our living room leaks in one corner instead of all over. That the new truck road didn’t slide into the pond. That they have snow in Seattle instead of here.”
“Valsetz is small but very exciting,” she wrote in the July 1939 issue. “One couple got married, one couple got divorced, three men got in a fight, two babies were born, and two men got in jail. Greta Garbo can milk a cow. ... Weather Forecast: Too hot for words.”
As time went by, though, the tone of the Valsetz Star underwent a subtle change. As its prose got more professional, it grew less carefree ... its editor was growing up.
The Star and politics
The 1940 election brought with it a torrent of hate mail. The U.S. is a large country, and if only one-tenth of one percent of Americans think it’s OK to verbally abuse an 11-year-old girl for backing the “wrong” presidential candidate, that’s still a lot of people.
In response to them, she penned what has to be, even today, the gold standard for responses to anonymous trolls:
“A few people have written us dreadful letters for supporting Wendell Wilkie (for president), but they did not sign their names,” she wrote. “Please don’t be ashamed of your name. We are not ashamed of ours.”
The Star goes dark
Anonymous sarcasm and other crude, abusive feedback was easily sloughed off. But other, subtler malevolent spirits seem to have been more successful at stealing young Dorothy Anne’s dreams. Probably the most poignant issue of The Valsetz Star came in February 1941, when this celebrated, nationally famous 12-year-old author wrote the following, in her monthly “Special Editor’s Note” column:
“After reading several letters written to us, we’ve decided not to be a lawyer. One man wrote, ‘Women are failures as lawyers. They lack nerve and are too soft.’ And even one woman wrote from Chicago, ‘Women talk too much, honey. Try something else.’”
“Then,” she continued, “from a very smart young man in New York who signed his name with a great dash: ‘Women? Huh, they make me sick. Law! That’s a laugh. They better look after a man’s stomach instead of his lawsuits.’ We’ve gotten quite discouraged over all this, and although we can’t see anything very interesting about stomachs we think maybe we had better just keep house.”
At the end of that year, Dorothy folded up her newspaper and threw herself into extracurricular activities at her new junior high school in Salem.
So far as I’ve been able to learn, she never published anything again.
(Sources: Hobson, Dorothy Anne. The Valsetz Star. Portland: Creation House, 1942; Carlson, Linda. Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: UW Press, 2003)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
Image above: University of Washington. The Valsetz dining-hall crew around 1937. Dorothy Anne Hobson is in the center of the group; her parents, Henry and Ruby, are the two people at the left side in the front row.
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