William Allen White arrived in Emporia, Kansas, in the early evening of Saturday, June 1, 1895. He had just bought the Emporia Gazette, borrowing all of the $3,000 he had paid for the down-at-the-heels little newspaper. He had $1.25 in his pocket. As he stepped down from the train he had taken from Kansas City, he faced a decision. Nearly fifty years later he would relive the moment with particular relish:
I still can remember with what joy I rode across Kansas into the sunset and through the long twilight. . . . This also I remember: when I stepped off the train at Emporia it was into a considerable crowd of idlers who in that day came to the station to see the two plug trains come in from Kansas City. The announcement had been made that I had bought the Gazette. . . . I knew many of the faces that greeted me. I had a moment's indecision: Should I lug my heavy baggage uptown to the boarding house where I was expected, and establish a reputation as a frugal, thrifty young publisher, or should I establish my credit in the community by going in a hack? The hack was a quarter. I decided, as a credit-strengthening act, to take the hack. . . . I never regretted it. A good front is rather to be chosen than great riches. 1
Evoking Benjamin Franklin's account of his arrival in eighteenth-century Philadelphia with only a Dutch dollar and a copper shilling in his pocket, White's story is an origin myth that has been often related as the beginning of his ascent to fame. Like Franklin or a Horatio Alger character, he went on from this moment to make a successful career. By the time of his death, in 1944, he was nationally known, and widely beloved, as an author, political leader, and social commentator. 2
This story of White's arrival in Emporia is more than a steppingstone to his eventual renown, however. It vividly illustrates that the small-town newspaperman was a public personage in nineteenth-century America. He played a major role in his community, and he performed it in a public setting, very much as an actor performs a role onstage. Emporia was a face-to- face community in 1895, its population just over eight thousand. The small town was a world that paid close attention to the behavior of its citizens. In a simple society with few formal institutions, members of the community needed personal knowledge of one another, and behavior bespoke character. 3
Moreover, the proprietor of the local newspaper wielded special powers.