The Randolph Leader is published each Wednesday in Roanoke, Randolph County, Alabama, by Randolph Publishers, Inc. Its weekly press run of 2,500 copies is distributed primarily in Randolph and surrounding counties..
The Leader is sold through news racks located throughout Randolph and northern Chambers counties and also is distributed to subscribers by mail. It is mailed directly from post offices in Roanoke, Wedowee, Wadley and Woodland.
The single-issue price is $1. Annual subscriptions are available for $42 in Randolph, Chambers, Clay and Cleburne counties and for $52 elsewhere. Six-month subscriptions are available for $29 in Randolph, Chambers, Clay and Cleburne counties and for $36 elsewhere. Our e-edition is available separately at an annual rate of $26 but comes included with a subscription to the printed paper. The e-edition is archived and searchable back to January 2009.
A number of newspapers existed in Randolph County before the birth of The Randolph Leader on Sept. 14, 1892 – going back almost 40 years to The Louina Eagle in 1853. In operation as early as 1856 was The American Eagle in Wedowee..
At least two papers preceded The Randolph Leader in Roanoke – The Roanoke Herald and The Randolph County News. The Roanoke Herald, dating back at least as far as 1875, was published on Thursdays by W.H. Hooker as late as 1898. Limited research did not reveal the date of the Herald’s closing, but a reasonable guess is that at some point, The Leader bought out The Herald and then became Roanoke’s only newspaper. The first issue of The Leader noted “Brother Hooker’s” illness and extended best wishes to him.
The Randolph County News goes back at least as far as 1876. No evidence has been found that it was still being published in 1892 when the Leader was established.
Arrival of the Stevensons
The moving to Roanoke of the family of the Rev. John Baxter Stevenson in 1887 prepared the way for the founding of The Randolph Leader. The preacher father came as pastor of the Southern Methodist Church in the little village at about the time the coming of the Central of Georgia Railroad was making the community look forward to a period of growth. Other members of the family were his wife and their four sons, ranging in age from approximately 18 down to 12.
The father died in 1890 while in the third year of his pastorate and was buried in Cedarwood Cemetery. The mother and sons liked the little town so much they decided to settle here after all their years of pastoral moving from one place to another.
Although the youngest son, Henry, became a Methodist minister and resumed the itinerant life, Roanoke remained home base for his brothers. The oldest, Leon, moved about some during the early part of his teaching career, but came back to raise his family, teaching, serving as postmaster for a time, and later working with The Leader, which he helped his brother Olin (the second son) establish, and which he jointly owned with his brother during the paper’s first 25 years. The third son in age, Worth, became a family doctor and practiced for many years in Roanoke.
In 1942, when The Leader was observing its 50th anniversary, Worth recalled how he helped Olin find his life’s work. The two were students at Southern University, a Methodist institution in Greensboro, Ala., and Olin, nearing the time of graduation, told Worth he could not decide what work he wanted to go into. Worth reminded him that he was a good writer and suggested that he go into the newspaper business.
Olin evidently thought this was good advice. After graduation, he went to LaFayette and asked of the editor, S.M. Richards, the privilege of working for The LaFayette Sun without pay. (The Stevenson family lived had lived in LaFayette for a time a few years earlier.) After a month, Mr. Richards offered Olin $10 a month and board, and for a year he worked for The Sun, living in the Richards home as a member of the family. Shortly after his arrival in LaFayette, he was more than a “printer’s devil,” as he began doing more and more of the editorial work.
New paper started
At the end of the year, according to the reminiscences of Leon Stevenson, Mr. Richards sought to retain Olin’s services and offered to increase his pay, but the young newspaperman, then 21, decided to operate a newspaper of his own. He bought on credit the small newspaper outfit of The Randolph Reformer in Wedowee, moved it to Roanoke, and went into business on the upper floor of a rickety frame building on Main Street, located at or near the present location of Gene Sherman’s store.
The youngest Stevenson brother, Henry, in 1944, wrote down his recollections of the many difficulties encountered in getting out that first issue of The Randolph Leader on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 1892 – lack of money, insufficient equipment, the necessity of setting by hand all of the type in the paper, and the physical strain of turning the old newspaper press by hand. Henry also remembered how the one experienced printer, Ike Ballew, looked when he drifted into the shop that first Monday morning, “sheathed in a swallow-tailed coat and looking much more like a school teacher than a printer.” Henry also remembered the main pressman, Bet Patton, “an excellent Negro man” whose duties he shared when Bet got “plum wore out.”
The first issue of The Randolph Leader had four pages with six columns on each page. The first copy to come off the press is still kept at The Leader office. The front page during the early years featured world and national news, as well as some advertisements.
The struggle to exist
The Leader’s original subscription price was $1 a year, not always payable in cash. From the beginning until the 1920s, farm food products, such as eggs, sausage and syrup were accepted as payment for subscriptions from subscribers who could pay no other way.
“For the first few years, the paper barely managed to exist,” Leon Stevenson wrote in a Leader article printed in 1937. “The town was small, times were hard, and legal advertising and county printing could not be had, as partisan feelings were high and Populists held the county offices and gave all the county patronage to a Populist paper published in Wedowee. Several times it seemed as if the little paper would have to suspend publication, but always some way would be found to continue it.”
The Roanoke of that time had a population of probably 200 or 300, according to later recollections of Leon Stevenson. There were no electric lights, telephones, street or sidewalk paving, water works – much less the later developments of radios, automobiles and other things. There was only one brick building in town, the whole county, in fact.
The first issue of The Leader reported that “the school at this place began Monday with 61 pupils enrolled.” Also in that first issue the building committee for the rebuilding of Roanoke Normal College advertised for bids on the construction of a two-story brick building 50 by 100 feet.
The first 20 years
Ten years after the founding of The Leader, the average issue still consisted of four pages, with advertisements and world and national news on the front page. However, there was one significant, noticeable change in the issue of Oct. 19, 1902. The management announced that The Randolph Leader, after 10 years, would have a new name, The Roanoke Leader. This new name was emblazoned across the front page in a new typeface, using all capital letters.
The name was changed, the editor explained, to reduce confusion. Other newspapers were frequently quoting from The Leader and giving credit sometimes to The Randolph Leader and sometimes to The Roanoke Leader. Other confusion came from the fact that Alabama had a town named Randolph, and there was a Randolph Leader in Randolph County, Ga. The editor pledged The Leader would be no less a county paper than it was before.
Also in 1902, the Leader installed a power press for printing the paper. No more backbreaking work of turning the press by hand.
The Leader suffered a heavy fire loss, probably between 1900 and 1910. It was probably at this time that The Leader moved to Chestnut Street, where, until 1981, it did business in at least three different buildings.
Inspection of files from 1911 and 1912 shows that The Leader had been growing along with the town. The average paper then contained eight pages instead of four. Display advertising had disappeared from the front page, and local news had made its appearance there. The biggest improvement was the setting of type mechanically on a Linotype machine instead of setting it by hand.
On March 27, 1912, The Roanoke Leader announced its purchase of the Wadley Comet and the moving of that paper’s equipment to Roanoke.
The ’20s and ’30s
The Roanoke Leader of the early ’20s was still basically an eight-page paper with six columns to the page. One difference was that news and editorials were being presented in a more departmentalized fashion than ever before.
A very important year in the history of The Roanoke Leader was 1923. In May the paper announced that it would construct on its Chestnut Street property a two-story brick building with a half basement. On the first floor would be the newspaper offices and printing plant and one rental space. The newspaper press would be in the basement, and there would be rental offices on the second floor. Since the old brick two-story building first must be torn down, how could The Leader keep printing without interruption during the construction period? The answer was to operate temporarily in one of the buildings of Roanoke Warehouse Company.
The new building was ready for occupancy in December 1923, and The Leader held an open house for the public on the 13th of that month. New equipment costing $13,000 was placed in the building, most of it for the mechanical end of the business.
“Prominent among these features,” editor Olin Stevenson wrote, “is a paper-folding machine. It is attached to the newspaper press, and when the papers are off the press every week, they are likewise folded, while the mailing machine in the hands of a rapid manipulator prepares them for speedy delivery to the post office.”
A medium-sized job press, a dustproof type cabinet with a wide range of job and advertising type, and a punching machine were other items of equipment added at this time.
In the early days of publication, all papers had to be folded by hand and addressed by pencil. The folder and mailing machine were a big step forward.
In April 1926 The Leader purchased The Randolph Star of Wedowee from Joseph H. Kerr, combined the two mailing lists, and closed The Star as a separate newspaper. Kerr came to work as Linotype operator in Roanoke. The closing of the paper did not sit well with the people of Wedowee, and soon outside men opened another paper, The Randolph Press, at the county seat. Kerr later purchased The Press and returned to Wedowee to operate it.
Politically, The Roanoke Leader had been basically a Democratic newspaper from its beginning, but in 1928 the editor, on moral and religious grounds, decided he could not support the Democratic presidential nominee, Gov. Al Smith of New York, who was a product of the Tammany Hall political machine, a Roman Catholic and an advocate of repealing the national prohibition laws. The Leader editorially supported the Republican nominee, Herbert Hoover, who was elected and who later was saddled with blame for the Great Depression, which followed the stock market crash in 1929.
Somehow the Leader managed to stay afloat through the difficult years of the Depression without missing an issue.
The Leader’s original subscription was $1 a year when the paper was established in 1892. In view of economic conditions, it reduced its 1931 rate of $1.50 back to $1 in a limited-time offer. The paper’s basic format in the early ’30s was little changed from that of a decade earlier.
Changing of editors
Editor Olin Stevenson was so tied to his work that he was 40 years old before he married a Roanoke young lady, Elsie Sharp, and settled down to family life. Their children, John Bluford and Mary Munn, were not born until he was 45 and 46. So it was that when the veteran editor left his office in June 1937, terminally ill, he had a son at home for the summer who had graduated from Birmingham-Southern College the year before and had just completed a year of graduate study at the University of Alabama.
The son became acting editor in June and editor-publisher in December, six months later, upon the death of his father at the age of 66.
John B. and Mary Stevenson became owners of The Leader in June 1938 upon the death of their mother.
The 22-year-old new editor was fortunate to have in the office with him for the next three years his “Uncle Leon” Stevenson, a wise counselor and friend and an excellent writer. This uncle had been associated with the paper in its early years and had returned as bookkeeper after a career in education. Now he took over some of the editorial writing he had been content to have his editor-brother do, and choice writing it was. “Uncle Leon” had to quit work a short time before his death in December 1940.
Newspaper styles were beginning to change at the time The Leader got its second editor, and he wanted the Roanoke paper to be in line. Columns were getting narrower, and papers were putting more columns on the page. The bed on The Leader’s old press was not wide enough to accommodate the wider pages. Since the old press had seen its best days long ago, the Leader bought a secondhand faster press in Atlanta and then was able to have seven columns on each page instead of six. Also added was a newspaper folder, which was operated independently of the press. In addition to the added column on each page, there were other changes in design and appearance, including a more modern “The Roanoke Leader” flag atop the front page.
One need John B. saw for the business was the use of more photographs. Although a photographer who rented studio space in The Leader Building would take the occasional portrait for the paper, the pictures were not usually locally generated.
Early in 1938, the novice editor ordered a camera and developing kit from Sears. A high school student worked with him until he got his own darkroom going and got caught up in photography as a hobby. Nearly every local photo published for many years was seen through John B.’s lens.
Three Stevenson cousins worked for short periods of time with The Leader late in the ’30s and early in the ’40s –
Frank “Mink and Hugh Stevenson, sons of “Uncle Worth,” and Helen Stevenson, daughter of “Uncle Leon.”
Mary Stevenson, part-owner, married Straiton Schuessler of LaFayette during World War II and returned to Roanoke to work with The Leader as a typesetter on the Linotype machine when he left for overseas army service in Europe. Her availability during the labor-scarce war years helped the Leader keep operating with a reduced labor force.
Newspaper in wartime
When the mobilization of manpower was at its height during World War II, The Roanoke Leader’s mailing list had jumped form its normal 2,400 subscribers to a new high of 3,600. Papers were going to local people in military service around the globe in addition to their families at home.
There were shortages of newsprint and other materials needed for newspaper production, but The Leader never ran so short as to have to miss an issue. Perhaps the most acute shortage was in manpower for producing newspapers. In desperation, the Leader tried transient-type printers with sad results.
Early in the war, The Leader gave a salesman an order for a Linotype machine, which was much more versatile in choice of typefaces than the old machine in use. In view of all the wartime shortages and priorities, it was quite a surprise when the new model was delivered in 1944 – one of the last machines the factory turned out before production for civilian use was suspended. This particular Linotype is still in the shop of The Leader.
Return to peacetime
When the war was over, Mary Stevenson Schuessler transferred her partnership interest in The Leader to her husband, and the name J.S. Schuessler appeared in the editorial masthead as the business manager. An army officer during the war, he had spent several months in a German prison camp.
It was not long after this that Edgar Stevenson, son of Leon Stevenson, joined the staff of The Roanoke Leader. It was in 1948. He had taken courses in journalism and had received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Alabama before teaching school and working on the staffs of The Gadsden Times and The Nashville Banner. The outbreak of World War II interrupted his civilian work and drew him into service as a naval officer, but now he was a civilian again and more interested in returning to the family home and developing a farm than he was in continuing on the staff of a city daily.
Edgar did not return home with the purpose of newspapering with the family weekly, but after he had been back for a while, his cousins talked him into helping them with the newspaper operation. Having mechanical skills as well as literary skills, he performed invaluable services over a period of 33 years while developing his farm. It seemed that history was repeating itself.
Now working together were the sons of the brothers who had started the leader and worked on it together for many of its first 45 years. John B. and Edgar grew up next door to each other and were in the same graduating class at Handley High.
Young teacher Gwen Wyatt came to Roanoke from Fairfield in 1944 to teach at Handley High School. She began dating John B., who served as a steward for First Methodist Church and was given her name on a list of people to visit. The two were married in 1946. Gwen did substitute teaching in Roanoke and worked at the front desk of the Leader for 40 years. She died in 1992 after 46 years of marriage. Copies of the paper in the early 1950s had a better appearance than the papers of the early ’40s, largely because of the better headline type, which came with the new Linotype. Another improvement was that the average paper had 12 pages rather than eight.
In 1956, The Leader received an Alabama Press Association first-place award for an editorial stressing the wisdom, urgency and necessity for promoting good understanding by keeping communication open between the races on the local level. It was the only article John B. ever entered in the APA contest the whole time he was editor.
Decade of the ’60s
The Roanoke Leader felt honored in 1964 when its founding editor, Olin Hampton Stevenson, was selected for admission into the Alabama Newspaper Hall of Fame in recognition of his high standards of journalism and his services to his community and state.
The Leader expanded its sphere of activities in August 1969 with the purchase of The Randolph Press (Wedowee) from its editor and publisher, Ridley T. Bailey, at his earnest invitation. The Leader, under the company name of Randolph Publishers, continued to publish The Press for more than 13 years. Edgar Stevenson was its editor for almost 12 years, after which his cousin, John W. Stevenson, served as editor.
Ridley Bailey had a long association with The Roanoke Leader as a fellow worker and as a competitor. Having been trained as a printer at Alabama School of Trades in Gadsden, this native son of Randolph came from a job in Montgomery in 1935 to work for The Leader’s first editor as Linotype operator and printer. He became shop foreman under the second editor after the outbreak of World War II. His tenure with The Leader continued until 1947, when he purchased The Randolph Press from the Joseph H. Kerr estate and took over its operation. When he sold The Press to The Leader, he returned to a part-time job as Linotype operator and as a printer in the job-printing department. He continued as an active but limited-time member of the staff who took great pride in his work into his 70s. Bailey died in 1991.
Changes in the ’70s
From 1892 to 1972, there was little change in The Roanoke Leader’s letterpress method of printing. Raised-letter pieces of type were set into lines, either by a machine or by hand. Rollers inked the raised characters, and a revolving cylinder on the newspaper press provided the impression to convey the printing to paper. The slow newspaper press in Roanoke could print no more than four pages at a time, making four separate runs necessary for a 16-page paper. The Leader found itself locked into this situation until the 1970s – at a time when there were more pages to print each week as a result of the acquisition of The Randolph Press.
However, an explosion of printing technology gave newspapers a way of escape from the limitations of the centuries-old letterpress method of printing. The newer, better way was called “offset,” and it is a photographic rather than a mechanical process.
The Roanoke Leader and The Randolph Press made their conversion to offset in December 1972 with the purchase of much new equipment. Space in The Leader’s own building was not adequate for installing offset equipment there, so the newspaper operation was moved to rented ground floor space in the Masonic Building next door.
There being neither the space nor the money for installing an offset newspaper press, the local county papers followed the general trend in the industry and contracted to have the printing done in a nearby plant. During the 70s and 80s, the papers were printed in Alexander City, Opelika, Auburn and Lanett, in that order. All of the production work except the actual printing was done in the Roanoke plant.
This was the decade in which the two sons of John B. and Gwen Wyatt Stevenson became associated with Randolph Publishers, joining their parents on the staff.
David, who had been attending Jacksonville State University, came full-time in 1974, working primarily in the production end of the business at first. He became business manager of both papers following the death of Straiton Schuessler in January 1978. Mary S. Schuessler, who worked as a typesetter for the family newspaper for more than 30 years, had died in October 1976.
John W., after six years of army service, joined Randolph Publishers in 1978, becoming associate editor of The Leader and later editor of The Press.
The biggest undertaking of Randolph Publishers this decade embraced the purchase of the old Roanoke Wholesale Grocery Company buildings on Main Street, the removal of one of the buildings and the remodeling of the other two adjoining buildings to provide modern newspaper offices and production areas, and the move into the new quarters on March 19, 1981. The result was three times the floor space of the crowded office and shop in the Masonic Building.
Edgar Stevenson had planned to delay his retirement from newspapering until the move into the new Randolph Publishers headquarters had been completely made. He retired to full-time farming in the late spring of 1981 after 33 years of hard work with The Roanoke Leader and 12 years with The Randolph Press.
John B. Stevenson, Edgar’s junior by six months, was looking ahead toward his own retirement as editor of The Randolph Leader and publisher of The Leader and the Randolph Press. For sentimental and historical reasons, he wanted to continue in those positions, at least nominally, until the 90th anniversary month of The Leader, September 1982. This would enable him to equal his father’s record of having served 45 years as editor. His retirement, which was not from all of his usual work, but from long hours and titles of responsibility, became effective at midnight Sept. 30, 1982.
A new newspaper
But after that date, there would be no Roanoke Leader for his successors to carry on. Instead, it seemed wise to combine The Roanoke Leader and The Randolph Press to form one new, countywide paper. This step would eliminate much duplication of work, would reduce the amount of materials used, and would permit the focusing of all energies on one product.
Each of the old papers in its last issue (Sept. 29, 1982) announced that John W. Stevenson would be editor of the new paper and David S. Stevenson publisher. Their father had divided his partnership interest in the business between them several months earlier. This, with what they had already inherited from Straiton Schuessler, made them equal partners in Randolph Publishers with Edgar Stevenson, who had bought into the business after the acquisition of The Randolph Press. Soon David would move on to church and computer-related work in Atlanta, leaving Johnny as editor and publisher of the Leader.
Thus, after having had only two editors during its 90-year history, father and son, each serving half of the time, The Roanoke Leader was to continue, like The Randolph Press, in the form of a new, redesigned newspaper to be called The Randolph Leader, with members of the third generation of the newspapering Stevenson family at the helm. It is of interest to remember that the newspaper carries the same name The Randolph Leader had during the first ten years of its existence.
The first issue of the new Randolph Leader on Oct. 6, 1982, Volume 91, Number 1, included a special historical section in recognition of two anniversaries – the 150th anniversary of Randolph County (Dec. 18, 1982), being observed during the sesquicentennial week of Oct. 3-10, and the 90th anniversary of The Roanoke Leader. The newspaper anniversary was celebrated with open house in the “new” building on Main Street, Roanoke, as the last event in the weeklong sesquicentennial celebration. Assisting at the open house as a special honored guest was Mrs. Juliabel Ford, who was born on Sept. 14, 1892, the day the first Randolph Leader came off the press.
But John B. was far from retired. He continued to edit submitted copy, proof read typed copy and write “Backward Glances.” He worked at The Randolph Leader office right up until the Friday before his death on Monday, Dec. 15, 1997, at the age of 82. He served on the Alabama Press Association’s board of directors three times. He was selected for admission to the Alabama Newspaper Hall of Honor in the fall of 2003.
Current Leader editor and publisher John W. Stevenson is a past president of both the Alabama Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.