While The Capital Times was born during the tumultuous years around World War I, the years leading up to World War II saw the newspaper begin to flourish. There was strong growth in both advertising and circulation, and the paper also started Madison’s first commercial radio station and moved to a much better home in a new building.
Those years also cemented the reputation of the paper and founder William T. Evjue as champions of workers, farmers and small businesses, and as enemies of corruption.
In 1920 the paper, with a circulation of 10,738, sold 26,000 inches of advertising. By the middle of the decade in 1925, it had doubled its circulation to 20,958 and saw its advertising leap to 375,239 inches. By Aug. 5 of that year, it took over as the circulation leader in Madison.
That perhaps made Evjue more receptive to what must have seemed to some as a crazy idea to establish a commercial radio station in Madison in 1925. Two men who ran a State Street music shop and dance hall came into the newspaper’s office on King Street on a cold day in February of 1925 with an unusual offer. If Evjue put up $900 he could have a two-thirds interest in Madison’s first commercial radio station.
“Though I knew little about radio, it seemed to offer possibilities,” Evjue would later recall in his book, “Fighting Editor.”
Evjue went to see business manger Tom Bowden, one of the group of young men who had left the Wisconsin State Journal to form The Capital Times in 1917. “Cautious as always, Tom frowned on the proposition,” Evjue recalled. “He pointed out that The Capital Times had now been in business for eight years and was just getting on its feet financially.”
Nonetheless, Evjue produced the money and bought an interest in the station, which would not get on the air until the night of April 7, 1925, when it broadcast Bunny Lyons and his orchestra for an hour. The station was on the air sporadically in those early years, with broadcasts being promoted in The Capital Times in a streamer across the entire bottom of the front page. It wasn’t until 1927 that the station began a regular five-day broadcasting schedule.
Evjue pioneered local broadcasts from his office in the old King Street quarters, and later from his office in the new building on East Washington Avenue. For years, City Editor George Stephenson kept up those duties from the offices of the newspaper, until the radio station began its own newscasts.
Capital Times reporters would still make carbon copies of their stories to be taken to the station for use on air, and the station’s news staff would consult daily with The Capital Times’ city editor on stories to be used. The station was owned by the paper for more than 50 years, until it was sold in 1977 to the Des Moines Register. Evjue would also try to establish a television station in Madison but was thwarted by U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy.
Prohibition, was of course, the biggest single issue of the decade and would eventually split the progressive moment between the “wets” and the “drys.” Although U.S. Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, whose politics inspired the paper, managed to stay above the fray by remaining neutral on the issue, that wasn’t true for Evjue. Not so Evjue, who was among the “drys” and whom, while serving in the Legislature as a Progressive Republican in 1916-18, introduced a bill to hold a referendum on the issue in Wisconsin. The bill passed both houses, but was vetoed by Gov. Emmanuel Phillip, who had run a beer hauling business in Milwaukee and was labeled the “Brewery Governor” by Evjue and others.
While La Follette kept neutral on the big issue of the decade, in 1919 he told his son Phil to “work the Pabsts for a couple of barrels of beer for the cellar at Maple Bluff . . . We are in for a terrible drouth and ought to prepare,” according to Bernard A. Weisberger’s book, “The La Follettes of Wisconsin.”
Prohibition, meanwhile, brought its messy problems to Madison. Bootleggers were prolific, particularly in the Greenbush neighborhood, whose heart was the triangle bounded by Regent Street, Park Street and West Washington Avenue.
That led to a strange development when the Ku Klux Klan took it upon itself to clean up the “Bush.” The Klan hired a detective from Milwaukee to come to Madison to get evidence against the bootleggers, and the Klan later sought to have its members deputized so they could make police raids in the Bush based on the evidence found by the detective.
On Oct. 4, 1924, the Klan staged a huge parade in Madison with an estimated 2,000 members marching around the Capitol Square to the music of a fife and drum corps, and down West Washington Avenue to Brittingham Park at the edge of the very neighborhood it promised to clean up. “It was encouraging, I thought, as the Ku Klux Klan marched by, to notice the big crowd of Madisonians who watched them viewed them silently, as if disgusted with the fact that a super-secret organization should show off in this way. There were no catcalls, nor was there violence,” Evjue wrote later.
While Evjue counted himself among the drys and did not take kindly to bootleggers, he despised secret and racist organizations such as the Klan, and exposed the whole organization and its Madison operation. The Milwaukee detective responded by filing a $50,000 libel suit against Evjue and The Capital Times, but the suit was dismissed before it got to trial.
That bootlegging had become pervasive in the Bush and other parts of town became all too apparent when then District Attorney Phil La Follette found that Dane County Judge Ole Stolen had been taking bribes from some of the biggest bootleggers in town. Since Stolen and the bootleggers always were careful to refer to the matters as loans, rather than try the case criminally, it was taken before the state Supreme Court by the local bar association, and the court disbarred Stolen, meaning he could no longer serve as a judge. The disgraced Stolen would go on to become one of the city’s most noted leaders on issues dealing with equal rights for all citizens.
Bob La Follette’s politics inspired Evjue to start The Capital Times, so there was sadness in the newsroom in the early afternoon of June 18, 1925, when word was received that La Follette had died. He had been ill for some time and finally succumbed at 1:21 p.m., Washington time. Almost the entire front page of The Capital Times was taken up with the story, and a large headline that read “La Follette Dead.” Two days later “Thousands of persons from all walks of life from all parts of the country,” gathered in Madison at the old North Western depot as the train carrying the senators body arrived, The Capital Times wrote. And thousands more filed through the Capitol where La Follette’s body lie in state that Sunday.
The story of the senator’s death and of the campaign of his eldest son, Robert M. La Follette Jr., as he sought to win the special election for the old man’s senate post filled the rest of the summer’s papers. “Young Bob,” as was known, won the election on Sept. 29, 1925 and served in the U.S. Senate until being beaten in the 1946 Republican primary by Outagamie County Judge Joseph McCarthy.
While gloom permeated the summer of 1925, the summer of 1927 brought unabashed joy to the newsroom of The Capital Times.
Not yet 10 years from its founding, the staff at The Capital Times moved from the hell of the cramped and dusty offices on King Street to the heaven of a new building on the corner of East Washington Avenue and Butler Street. The first paper published there came out on July 5. The building, which now houses Capitol Fitness, was an airy relief from the decrepit 104 King St. site.
Evjue wrote in his column that while the old building would be fondly remembered as the birthplace of The Capital Times, it’s awful conditions were a huge distraction.
“The rickety stairs, the editorial room with its dirt and smells, the confusion and noise of overcrowding and the game of trying to get out a newspaper in a dilapidated place that might go through to the basement any time” would be replaced by the new building built specifically to house a newspaper.
And, he promised, “The Capital Times will be loyal to the traditions of the past nine years and we shall not deviate from the policies and the principles which have made the splendid new building possible.”
The new building also had new presses far bigger than the old ones, which limited the paper to 16 pages. The newly constructed presses allowed The Capital Times to begin printing a Sunday newspaper after the move to the new building.
In February 1929, Evjue began printing a new slogan on the editorial pages that persisted through the end of its run as a daily newspaper: “Let the People have the Truth and the Freedom to Discuss It and All Will Go Well,” the caption says. The origin of the quote has been lost in time, but its meaning has informed the paper’s positions from Evjue through his successor editors, Miles McMillin, Elliott Maraniss, Dave Zweifel and Paul Fanlund.
Evjue made a key addition to the staff of the paper in 1928 when he hired Cedric Parker, who was to become a legend in newspapering in Wisconsin as he broke numerous stories on scandals in Madison and the state, and rose from reporter to city editor to managing editor before his retirement in the early 1970s.
Parker was once attacked by Dudley Montgomery, president of the Madison Railway Company, after a series of articles about the streetcar company had questioned whether it could justify a rate increase request. It took three men to pull Montgomery off of Parker, The Capital Times reported.
Parker did not let up on his work, and by 1942 Evjue would refer to him as his “key reporter.”
Jaw-dropping stories about Parker are legion. While covering a murder in southwestern Wisconsin, Parker was once detained by a sheriff there when he discovered the alleged murderer dining with the sheriff at his home. Once, he even hid the body of a Madison man until he was sure the State Journal would miss the story.
That happened when a man on a pleasure boat trip fell overboard and drowned. Police were not able to locate the body, but Parker did and promptly tied it under a pier so no one else would find it. The next day he wrote his story, then untied the body and told police where it was floating. He had the story and no one else did.
But Parker was more famous for continuing the Evjue tradition of stories that documented the unfair treatment of workers and farmers at the hands of the rich, and of exposing unscrupulous politicians and other leaders. His stories caused a huge crackdown on slot machines throughout Dane County and the state and led to the prosecution of some law enforcement officials who were making money off the slots.
Parker also forged membership documents in the Ku Klux Klan, which enabled him to attend an organizational meeting of the Nazi Bund in the 1930s in Milwaukee. His subsequent stories led to the demise of the Nazi organization.
Parker was also a leading union organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations and helped organize the Newspaper Guild at The Capital Times. The union’s first organizational meeting was in the basement of the home of Capital Times reporter and columnist Ernie Meyer, and Evjue would be among the signers of the first contract, which guaranteed a closed shop union among Capital Times staff. Evjue, as he wrote in Fighting Editor, was always proud of the fact that the union never struck the newspaper during his reign.
Evjue also played a key role in the formation of the state Progressive Party in Madison in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression. More than 500 men and women from around the state met at the Park Hotel and the group unanimously elected Evjue to serve as its chairman.
The question of whether to form a new party or not was not an easy one for Progressives, who had long run under the Republican banner in Wisconsin. There was concern by some, including attorney Herman Ekern of Madison, about how election laws would be interpreted and whether the new party could actually get a place on the ballot.
A committee that included Phil La Follette, Ekern and Evjue petitioned the Supreme Court and on May 1, 1934, the court issued a ruling that cleared the way for the third party. Evjue was again the convention chairman when, on May 19, progressives met in Fond du Lac and formed the Progressive Party. Both of the senior La Follette’s sons, Phil and Young Bob, told a roaring crowd they would wholeheartedly support the new party.
But it was Harald A. Smedal who had the honor of becoming the party’s first candidate. He announced he was running for Dane County Sheriff on the Progressive ticket in The Capital Times the following day.
By then, prohibition had come to an end, when the U.S. Constitution had been once again amended and the 18th Amendment overrode the 19th Amendment. While Evjue was a “dry” during the banishment of alcohol, others on the staff were not. And it was not uncommon to see a small item in the paper announcing the opening of another speakeasy in town.
The newspaper also noted that when prohibition ended on Dec. 5, 1933, it took the Madison City Council only four days before issuing licenses to 57 taverns.
Like other institutions, the newspaper suffered during the Great Depression. The rapid circulation gains that marked the 1920s leveled off in the 1930s. The Capital Times had an audited circulation of 27,123 in 1931, and while that had increased modestly to 28,000 in 1937, it fell back into the 27,000 range for the rest of the decade.
Evjue, always insistent on clean government, filed a lawsuit following the 1928 election in which Republican Walter J. Kohler Sr. defeated Democrat Albert Schmedemen, claiming that Kohler had violated the corrupt practices act, which in those days strictly limited the spending by a gubernatorial candidate to $4,000.
Evjue knew the wealthy Kohler and the Republican Party far exceeded that limit and he brought a citizens lawsuit, and the attorney general then appointed Harold Wilkie of Madison and Walter Corrigan of Milwaukee to prosecute the action.
Although the case was a civil suit, it is believed to be the only time a sitting governor was ever on trial in Wisconsin. The case against Kohler was tried in Sheboygan County, Kohler’s home, and he won. Several decisions of the trial judge, which gutted the case against Kohler, were appealed to the state Supreme Court, but by that time Kohler had been defeated in his run for re-election by Phil La Follette and the court declined to rule on the case.
Evjue’s gusty stands led to accusations that he was a communist, well before the newspaper’s long-running battle with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. John B. Chapple, publisher of the Appleton Press. Chapple accused both Evjue and Gov. Phil La Follette of being Communists. Evjue was used to such allegations, since they were almost routinely made by the right wing against anyone who fought for better working and living conditions for the workers and farmers in the nation.
But the attack coming from Chapple had a particular irony to it. As Evjue wrote in an editorial, Chapple was an ardent communist after he spent half of 1927 touring Russia. “As a matter of fact, the only person who ever asked this writer to get circulation for Communist propaganda was none other than Mr. Chapple himself,” the editorial said, adding that upon his return from Russia, Chapple asked Evjue to publish a laudatory article on Russia and convince the Associated Press to do the same.
As the war clouds in both Europe and the Pacific gathered, Evjue and the La Follettes split over how the United States should react. The La Follettes, who took control of La Follette’s Weekly from Evjue in 1941, wanted to maintain strict neutrality in Europe. Evjue supported American intervention.
William Gorham Rice, a law school professor who became widely known as a civil libertarian, had his own opinion on what caused the La Follettes and Evjue, normally in agreement on nearly everything, to split on the looming war. “On April 9, 1940,” Rice would later say, “Hitler invaded Norway, a country with which Mr. Evjue reputedly had a certain affinity.”
While Hitler’s invasion of Norway certainly angered Evjue, whose ancestors had come to America from Norway, he was more angered by the fascism of Hitler and Benito Mussolini, which was at the heart of the matter for Evjue.
After the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands on Dec. 7, 1941, opposition to American involvement evaporated, and a unified front against Japan, Germany and Italy formed. On Monday, Dec. 8, Congress, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, declared war on Japan. By Thursday, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, which in turn declared war on Germany and Italy.
“And so the issue is drawn,” Evjue wrote in a signed front page editorial. “It is now a fight to the death between the nations dominated by the brutal cult of totalitarianism and the nations of free peoples left in the world. The battle is now joined between Naziism and Fascism on one side and democracy on the other.”