All year long, The Californian has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of Kern County’s incorporation with historical accounts of its founding and development, old photos and reader stories of how their families came here.
Now it’s The Californian’s turn to celebrate itself.
The paper also turns 150 this year, having first published as the Havilah Weekly Courier in August 1866. It has been under its current family ownership for 119 years.
The following chronicles the history of the newspaper you read today.
One hundred fifty years ago this past month, the first edition of the Havilah Weekly Courier, Kern County’s first newspaper, came off the press.
The first issue of the Courier, published Aug. 18, 1866, was a four-page, six-column sheet and printed on an old Cottrell flatbed press, propelled by a steam engine. At the time, Havilah was a booming mining town and the seat of a brand-new county, Kern, established by the California Legislature on April 2 of that same year.
The editor, Charles W. Bush, promised the Courier would be “a journal especially devoted to the interests of this county and surrounding country” and summarize all important news, “Local, state, national and foreign.”
The paper’s politics were solidly Democratic and even sympathized with the Southern cause, much like the town itself. Havilah was founded by Asbury Harpending, who at the time was on the run from Union authorities for aiding the Confederacy.
“Although gray by modern standards, the Courier looked much like other weeklies of the period,” Barbara Boyd Voltmer wrote in her book “Kern County’s Courier.” “Articles varied in length from several lines to three or four columns. Its printer made liberal use of bold face capital letter labels over important stories. Illustrations were limited to the advertisements.”
She said the paper gave “news summaries, descriptions of Havilah and its surrounding countryside, articles on mining techniques, ‘little known facts,’ stories about oddities, agricultural progress and local gossip.”
The Courier only published in Havilah for about three years, until Dec. 14, 1869. Like the county seat eventually would, the paper moved to Bakersfield, and continued as the Kern County Weekly Courier.
In May 1876, the newspaper merged with The Southern Californian.
The unified paper soon became The Kern County Californian, and later The Daily Californian and The Bakersfield Californian.
In 1897, 34-year-old Alfred Harrell purchased The Daily Californian for the “substantial” sum of $1,000. He was the son of a California pioneer who came with the Forty-Niners to try his fortune in gold mining in Mariposa County.
Harrell’s timing was fortuitous: Before the decade was over, oil had been discovered at the place now called the Kern River field.
Harrell, in his third elected term as county superintendent of schools, a job he had since age 24, couldn’t manage both jobs alone, so Virginia Harrell acted as her husband’s deputy in the school’s office.
The Harrell-run Californian, like the Courier, was a four-pager, with two pages of imported, pre-produced “boilerplate” articles and two pages of exclusively local stories.
His daughter, Bernice Harrell Chipman, once recalled her father’s experience at the fledgling paper:
“Dad had not yet completed his third term as county superintendent of schools when he bought The Californian and my mother went each day and kept the office open for him. I have heard him say that he did everything on the paper except set the type and run the press.
“At the time of purchase the circulation was about 300. Dad wrote most of the news, all of the editorials, kept the books, read the proofs and secured the ads.”
Harrell’s employees apparently liked the man.
Beth Henley, once a society and women’s page editor for The Californian, wrote in 1960 that Harrell’s “eyes twinkle with wit and good will.” Harrell, she said, was full of charm and sincerity with a “cordiality to life … of a rare vintage.”
Harrell valued allegiance and rewarded it by guaranteeing “jobs for life” to several employees, including longtime composing room foreman Elmer Forgy. When World War II broke out, Harrell personally promised employees they would have jobs when they returned from military service.
In 1897, The Californian was housed in a rented room on 18th Street. Its complete force at that time comprised one reporter, a printer, three young women typesetters, a printer’s “devil” (an apprentice) and three carrier boys.
In October 1901, The Californian moved into its own quarters on Eye Street between 18th and 20th streets. On that date, The Californian inaugurated its Associated Press leased wire service and a Linotype machine supplanted the old hand-set method and a fast Duplex press was installed along with a modern job office.
Harrell was one of the original promoters of development of the Central Valley Project and was keenly aware of the problems of agriculturalists throughout the years. The versatility of Harrell’s interests were numerous and he encouraged business, banking, schools, highways, construction, farming and cultural growth.
In 1927, Alfred Harrell bought out his competition, the Echo, for $865,000. He rechristened it The Bakersfield Courier, but the paper survived only three weeks.
A big milestone in the history of The Californian was the move in 1926 from the paper’s old home on Eye Street to its present location at 17th and Eye streets. Designed by the late Charles A. Biggar, it was for four years the most modern newspaper structure in California.
By this time, The Californian had reached metropolitan stature in local news coverage, departments and telegraph services. In 1938, Harrell added a new wing to the building to house its new photography and engraving departments.
When Harrell died on Dec. 14, 1946, on the 77th anniversary of the Havilah Weekly Courier’s final edition, he was still involved in the newspaper’s daily operations. He had served as the newspaper’s chief executive for 49 years, until his death at age 83.
Since Harrell’s passing, The Californian has been, to a great extent, a matriarchy.
Harrell’s wife, Virginia McKamy Harrell, served as publisher for eight years after his death; their only child, Bernice Harrell Chipman, served as the next president (1954-67), and Chipman’s only living child, Berenice Fritts Koerber, in turn succeeded her (1967-88).
Under Koerber, in 1984, the company constructed a $21 million publishing facility near Meadows Field. Included in the facility is a state-of-the-art offset press built by Tokyo Kikai Seisakusho Ltd., of Japan. The news and advertising copy gathered at The Californian’s downtown offices is transmitted to the facility using an underground fiber-optic cable system, which was the first of its kind for a newspaper in the United States.
Koerber’s three sons, Bill, Don and Ted Fritts, served in various roles, including publisher, from 1967 to 1992, but it is Harrell’s great-granddaughter, Virginia “Ginger” Moorhouse, who leads the company today.
Her three children — Tracey, Virginia and Peter Cowenhoven — are Harrell’s only heirs.
Family-owned newspapers are a rarity today. Though they couldn’t say it definitively, officials at the California Newspaper Publishers Association believe The Californian to be one of only two family-owned daily newspapers left in the state, the other being the Fairfield Republic.