Documenting the former headquarters of the Mercury News
Mercury News Collection at History San José
Over the years, many Mercury News journalists and photographers have donated their personal and professional papers to the History San José Collection; in some cases, the journalists have been involved in both preserving San Jose’s history and contributing their time to History Park. The San Jose Historical Museum Association also published books by Mercury News journalists such as Patricia Loomis and Harry Farrell under their own imprint.
In addition, artifacts have been donated by both individuals and the newspaper organization. Please see our Google Cultural Institute exhibit for more of these items.
Reporters’ Papers at the History San José Research Library and Archives
Columnist Richard F. Barrett was born in Washington, and came to San Jose in 1925, where he graduated from Santa Clara High School. After enrolling in an adult education class in Journalism in September 1928, his teacher hired him as San Jose News correspondent in the Burbank School District for 10 cents a column inch. In May, 1929, he was named a general assignment reporter on the city staff. He was named city editor of the San Jose News in December 1936 or 1937.
After the News merged with the Mercury in 1942, Barrett started a column called “Joe Weatherman” on October 22, 1943, the first day weather forecasts were resumed after the wartime ban. He left the city desk in February 1954 to travel the globe for his “Share It With Barrett” column; he also wrote a Sunday historical column until September 11, 1977. His freelance writing was sold to a broad spectrum of magazines.
The Dick Barrett Papers contain research notes, correspondence, drafts of stories, and accompanying photographs created by Barrett, as well as a series of photographs of the bicentennial in San Jose (1976), and original sheet music for songs written by Barrett for the Bicentennial, arranged by Len Aulett: “San Jose Ole” and “Spirit of ’76”. Two oversize scrapbooks contain Barrett’s bylines for 1954-1962.
Arthur L. Clarke was editor in chief of the San Jose Mercury-Herald, and prior to that worked with newspapers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Clarke began his newspaper career on the sports department of the Omaha Bee. After serving the San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune he was sent by the latter paper to London as special correspondent during the Boer war. He was later city editor of the Chicago Examiner, managing editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, Chicago Examiner and New York American. He died in San Jose in 1928.
Clarke had a special interest in collecting cartoons and illustrations of fellow workers and friends. These mostly pen and ink drawings, as well as a small number of photographs, feature scenes of newsrooms, Los Angeles artist Paul de Longpre, Walter Russell, John T. McCutcheon, artist Howard Chandler Christy, Richard Mansfield and Sarah Bernhardt. Most are autographed. Many are undated, but appear to date from 1905-1927.
Award-winning journalist Harry Farrell was born in San Jose in 1924. He first caught the journalism bug while attending Hoover Junior High School, on the staff of the “Coordinator” student publication, and later served as the editor of the San Jose High Herald. Farrell joined the Mercury News staff as a copy clerk in 1942, but left to serve with the 79th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troops during World War II. Returning after service, he worked towards a degree in journalism from San Jose State University (1948) while serving as a Mercury News reporter from 1946-1954. In 1948 he was named political writer, and covered City Hall for the San Jose News. In 1969 he was promoted to political editor. He began a column, “Harry Farrell’s Views,” for both papers in 1975, and in July 1980, his column “Farrell at Large” began running in California Today magazine, offering glimpses of life in Santa Clara County. After leaving the newspaper, he wrote several investigative books, including Shallow Grave in Trinity County (1997) and Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town (1992).
The Harry Farrell Papers consist of original material accumulated by Farrell during his book research, as well as personal correspondence and mementos from service during World War II. Farrell researched the kidnapping of Brooke Leopold Hart and subsequent vigilante justice in San Jose for Swift Justice. Shallow Grave in Trinity County recounts the murder of fourteen-year-old Stephanie Bryan in 1955 near Berkeley, California, and the subsequent trial and execution in 1957 of Burton Abbott of Alameda. Includes research notes, correspondence, photographs, copies of evidence used at trial, and grave site soil samples.
Frank Freeman’s column “Here ‘Tis” was featured in the Mercury News seven days a week starting on February 22, 1941, until his retirement on August 31, 1975. Freeman went to work in the Mercury-Herald newsroom in April 1938 after working the city desk at Prescott, Arizona. His first assignment was carrying out copy-editing and preparing special selections for the Sunday edition. Depending on who tells the story, his break came in February 1941 either when a new managing editor wanted to give the newspaper a new look and Freeman suggested a local names column, or, as Dick Barrett recollected, when Freeman was given the job of compiling a list of meeting notices, which then turned into a regular column. The “Here ‘Tis” column worked off the premise that people make news, and the more people you write about the more readers you attract. Freeman became a household name in San Jose, and was selected as one of San Jose’s six distinguished citizens in 1963. In 1974 he was honored at a “Frank Freeman Day” by the City of Santa Clara. The New York Times said in 1944, “He gives interesting comments about people and daily turns out columns of universal human interest.”
The Frank Freeman Papers consist predominantly of background information supplied to Freeman by way of personal note or letter, as well as original manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera.
Ben Hitt (1916-2005) was born in Riverside, California and began his editing career early. He was editor of his high school newspaper and went on to become Editor-in-Chief of Fullerton Junior College’s Weekly Torch and San Jose State College’s Spartan Daily. Hitt also served in World War II and wrote small articles for the troops newsletter. After the war he settled in Santa Clara Country and eventually worked his way up to Managing Editor at the San Jose Mercury News. His first wife, Anne Hitt, worked for the Mercury and collected records from early Santa Clara history. Hitt passed away from bone cancer in 2005, but the records and Hitt mementos were not found until 2013 when Hitt’s wife’s niece found the material while cleaning out her aunt’s garage.
Hitt is described in a Mercury News article dated 6/20/2001, as an “old-time city editor,” “shepherding the growing paper through the tumultuous ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s when San Jose was sprouting like an awkward teenager. He never had enough people for the job, and some of those he did have sorely tested his patience…He had too many news pages to fill and too little time to do it, and no time to spend on reporters who didn’t know what they were doing. So he scared the hell out of them.”
The Ben Hitt Papers contain newspaper clippings from the multiple newspapers at which Hitt worked (including clippings from military newspapers that Hitt wrote for during World War II), and bound volumes from the Fullerton Junior College Weekly Torch and San Jose State College Spartan Daily during the time that Hitt served as Editor-in-Chief. His papers also include photographs of Hitt, Mercury mementos, and his typewriter.
Loomis was born in June 1920 in San Francisco, California, to Ivan and Christine Loomis. She grew up in Arroyo Grande, California, where her family had resided since 1882, descendants of prominent pioneers E. C. and Clara Loomis. After graduating from San Jose State College in 1943 with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, she went to work at the Mercury News, where she was employed for 40 years. She began by writing church notices, articles based on letters from soldiers, reports on frost and weather for farmers and then moved up to cover the police department and City Hall. She also wrote regular columns on the history and origin of San Jose street names, eventually compiled in book form.
Loomis’s professional work as a Mercury News journalist, member of the Argonauts Historical Society, and author of several San Jose local history books is documented through correspondence, bylines, research notes, manuscript drafts, and a large collection of news clippings of local interest.
Harry Plate Collection on the Rikers and Holy City
Harry Plate, journalist and writer, served as Associate Editor of California Today, the Sunday magazine section of the San Jose Mercury News. He subsequently moved to Arizona. These files were compiled in 1970 to support what Plate intended to be a series of three feature articles on the life of William Riker (1873-1969), and the evolution of Holy City, California, home of the disciples of Riker’s Perfect Christian Divine Way.
To get beyond the “tidy collection of vignettes” that made up most popular accounts of Holy City, Plate interviewed Riker family members, aging disciples, and Holy City neighbors and critics. Riker’s niece, Helen Dunning, and nephew, Ray Riker, helped Plate pin down elusive details of Riker’s early life and background. “First disciple” Irvin B. Fisher, then approaching 90, provided additional details about The Philosophy, while Joe Albert, an early disciple and one of the few remaining PCDW residents of Holy City, allowed him limited access to the Riker house. The PCDW’s youngest disciple and self-proclaimed heir, Wallace Stovall, gave Plate access to early documentation and photographs.
Plate’s extensive correspondence with Robert Alexander Clogher provides special insight. Clogher, a local surveyor and self-styled “Passing Paladin of the Holy Citizens,” had helped the remaining eight elderly PCDW disciples protest Riker’s illegal “sale” of Holy City to an alleged Hollywood producer, Maurice Kline, in 1956. Fourteen years later, Clogher still held the San Jose Mercury News culpable for siding with Riker and Kline in dispossessing the elderly disciples. Clogher found Plate a sympathetic ear, however, and he shared much of what he’d learned about the community and helped correct many apocryphal stories.
Included among Plate’s research and interview notes are many original Riker letters, 100 photographs and postcards, other early PCDW documents and printed material. In addition to the original material, several sources (particularly Wallace Stovall) allowed Plate to photocopy their originals. Also included are news clippings, and a notebook kept by postmistress and bookkeeper Winifred Allington.
Plate’s “Riker: From Mechanic to Messiah,” California Today (San Jose Mercury News) (30 August 1970), pp. 6-10, about Ed Riker’s early years, was the only article he completed on the topic. “I’ll probably do two or three other installments, covering the subsequent years—but not right away,” he wrote Helen Dunning. “First, we’ll wait to see if this brings any new witnesses out of the woods.” Local and national events of this busy summer apparently intruded. Nevertheless, Plate’s collection remains a rich source for further study of Holy City’s community.
Steffi Abbott Sims was born Velma Gilarden circa 1920. Gilarden attended San Jose High School when it was located on the campus of the San Jose Normal School. As an editor on the school paper, she got her first taste of newspaper work. Gilarden went on to San Jose State College, pledging to Kappa Kappa Sigma sorority, and using the nickname “Steffi.”
During her college years, Gilarden developed her talents in art and journalism. A gifted designer and painter, she turned out dozens of cartoons and sketches, many illustrating her newspaper columns.
She married Burton Abbott, a business manager at Stanford University, around 1938. Abbott was a PhD candidate at Stanford when he died suddenly, circa 1945. Now a widowed mother, Steffi Abbott created a niche for herself in the business world, writing a newspaper column aimed at shoppers looking for new and interesting items. Always on the lookout for a bargain, she contacted local merchants to hunt down the best deals, and befriended the downtown San Jose business leaders.
Esther Walker was the San Jose News and Mercury Women’s Editor (as of 1975) who began her career as the police and society reporter for the San Luis Obispo Telegram Tribune. Walker moved to San Jose in 1943 while her husband Edwin was serving in the U.S. Navy, and became a general assignment reporter for the San Jose News. After returning to San Luis Obispo for a period after her husband’s discharge, they moved back to San Jose in 1948 and she returned to the News and Mercury as women’s editor. Her column appeared Sundays in the Women Today section of the Mercury-News during the 1970s, under the byline of Mr. Ed. She was a multiple award winner for editorial excellence in fashion reporting.
Walker’s papers comprise personal and business material, including San Jose Mercury expense account records (1963-1979), personal and business correspondence (1958-1979), drafts of and final news articles, research notes, clippings, and a series of publicity photographs of fashion designers with accompanying press releases circa 1978-1980.
Michael Conversa was a Mercury News photographer for 41 years. He moved to San Jose from Chicago with his family in 1928 and originally pursued a music career. After taking a photography course at San Jose State College, he took a part-time photography job with the San Jose Mercury Herald in 1937 to help pay college costs, and didn’t leave until he retired in 1978. Named chief photographer for the Mercury News in 1971, Conversa covered a range of events and won numerous awards. In 1942, he became the first news photographer to have his work exhibited at the San Jose State art gallery; his photographs were displayed in multiple exhibits and reproduced in publications worldwide
The Mike Conversa photographs at History San José contain a selection of his prize-winning photographs, and portraits taken in the 1960s.
Frank “Flash” Gordon spent six years as a photographer for the San Jose News in the 1930s before going to work in San Francisco. In the 1950s he returned to work as a relief photographer for the News and Mercury, and was the subject of a Dick Barrett column dated November 25, 1954. “Frank showed up at the office with an album of photos, many of them taken in the 1930s, when he and your boy covered a lot of assignments together…” The photographs in History San José’s collection appear to comprise most of this 1930s albums, and include images of Amelia Earhart, Moffett Field, Upton Sinclair, Governor “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Knute Rockne, Helen Wills Moody, and other images of San Jose and the Bay Area from that era.
Shirlie Montgomery worked as a freelance photographer for the Mercury News, as well as other local newspapers, during the 1940s and 1950s, capturing the essence of mid-century San Jose and the Valley. In addition to her street photography, and portraits of celebrities and De Anza Hotel parties, her striking wrestling images are what made Montgomery her name — a pioneering female photographer in a male-dominated arena.
The Shirlie Montgomery Collection at History San José comprises an extensive selection of Montgomery’s personal papers, photographic equipment, photographic negatives and prints.
San Jose Mercury News Negatives of Sporting Events consists of 98 sets of negatives taken by San Jose Mercury News staff photographers at local sports events between 1980-1996.
Mercury News Clipping File
The Mercury News clipping file, or “morgue,” is comprised of 45 filing cabinets of biographical clippings dating between the 1930s and 1980s, four cabinets of Mercury News reporter bylines, and two cabinets of subject clippings. The clipping file continues to be used by the Mercury News on a regular basis for background research, as well as providing a wealth of biographical and corporate information to private researchers.
History San José’s collection includes both bound volumes and microfilm.
Daily Mercury (1869-1899)
Weekly Mercury (1868-1872, 1880-1900, incomplete)
Mercury News iterations from 1861 through the 1940s