Larry LaRue: Golden era of newspapers delivers author to Tacoma

larry.larue@thenewstribune.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Carl Lane was a heck of a paperboy in 1950, and when he died 47 years later, his younger sister worried that his grandchildren might never know what he’d been like in his younger years.

So Sandra Walker started jotting down memories, and kept coming back to that paper route, which she helped with when she could. And she started asking friends if they’d had paper routes as kids.

“I talked to neighbors, went to a senior center, and at first people seemed puzzled,” Walker said. “And then they started remembering these wonderful stories.”

Over a six-year period, she recorded more than 400 oral histories of a job — and an era — many of today’s youngster don’t know existed. She researched the project and learned that during World War II paper boys and girls sold stamps for war bonds.

“They were just kids, and they were asked to sell these stamps for the war effort,” Walker said. “They sold 2 billion of them.”

She found the entire history so fascinating that, at 72, she became a first-time author, writing “Little Merchants: The Golden Era of Youth Delivering Newspapers” in her Everett home.

The book and its author are so charming that the Tacoma Historical Society asked Walker to talk Monday night at the University of Puget Sound.

Among the stories she might tell is the one of the nine Grab sisters, born to a Swiss immigrant family, who delivered The News Tribune in South Prairie for more than 15 years — with each girl handling the route before passing it down to the next sister in line.

“The benefits of a paper route? The kids made good money for themselves and their families,” Walker said. “And you learned to be accountable, handle customers, be part of the community.”

Today, virtually all big-city newspapers are delivered by adult carriers, working from automobiles to cover huge routes. But back in the day, paper boys and girls would load up canvas saddlebags, throw them over their bikes and head out.

Like Walker, we started casting about for stories about being a paper boy or girl and — like Walker said — the stories were everywhere.

Richard Wollin is retired from the Air Force and lives in Parkland, but as a boy he delivered papers in New Ulm, Minn., where he had to be quick in winter not to freeze to his bicycle.

“We had to put the paper between the storm door and the front door, no throwing it on the porch in winter,” Wollin said.

His most memorable day on the job was his most lucrative.

“When (Adolph) Hitler committed suicide, the paper put out a special edition and I took arms full of papers and went from restaurant to restaurant yelling, “Extra! Extra! Extra! Hitler commits suicide!’” he said. “I sold a lot of papers that day.”

In the summer of 1966, Michael Morehart took over a route in Spanaway when a neighbor went on vacation. He still remembers customers he and his younger brother met.

Among them: “A boat manager from Spanaway Park who always gave us stuff and told us where the hot fishing spots were on the lake,” Morehart said. “Most of our customers were good tippers, and in the summertime they offered to let us go swimming at their home, and offered us pop in the summer and cookies and hot chocolate in the winter.”

When she was 8 years old, Heidi Nishi lost her mother, and recalls that her father believed he had to help prepare her for life in case he wasn’t there. At age 10, she became a papergirl.

“I took on the responsibility of a 150-subscription route in Lakewood and slowly built it up to over 200,” Nishi said. “I was so proud having the job of delivering the newspaper every morning, collecting the monies every month and going to the bank to make the deposits. I felt like an adult.”

On Monday, Walker will discuss why that golden age of delivering papers ended in the late 1970s, early ’80s.

“The industry went to morning editions, which meant there were no after-school routes, and family allowances grew,” Walker said. “There were so many changes, and you can’t go back.”

Except in memory, and Walker has done a fine job capturing so many of those. If you have the chance, stop by Monday and share a few of yours.

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

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