Upland Chronicles: Editor Bill Montgomery left legacy in newspaper publishing

Dec. 14, 2013 @ 11:04 PM

Since Preston Love established The Sevierville Enterprise, in 1882, numerous publications have provided the news in print form to county residents. Arguably, none of them left as memorable impression as Montgomery’s Vindicator, founded and published by William R. “Bill” Montgomery.

Crisp, outspoken, unflinching and sometimes brilliant, Montgomery was a powerful and picturesque editor in the heyday of personal journalism. His pungent, humorous editorials were widely copied throughout the state, and more than a few were republished outside of Tennessee.

Born near Caton’s Chapel in Sevier County on Feb. 14, 1863, he was the oldest of 13 children of Capt. Robert Aiken Montgomery and Elizabeth McMahan Montgomery. He received his early education in the public schools of Sevier County, Porter Academy in Blount County, and Nancy Academy in Sevierville.

Montgomery married Itah Lee Stuart on June 5, 1895. The couple had four children; one died in infancy. A son, Roy V. Montgomery, edited The Vindicator after his father’s death. Their daughters were Pearl and Elizabeth (McSween)

Beginning his career as a school teacher, Montgomery later became a book agent. He entered the newspaper field in 1895 and for two years published The Sevierville Star for a stock company, but left the position because of political differences with the owners.

By this time Montgomery had journalism in his blood, and he decided to establish his own newspaper in July of 1897. He began publishing a weekly known as The Sevierville Messenger. The first issue carried the slogan, “devoted to the defense of Sevier County against robbers at home and slanders abroad.”

From that time he published a weekly paper, never missing an issue. At the suggestion of friend, Hal H. Hayes of Bristol, the name of the paper was changed to Montgomery’s Vindicator. The slogan of the new paper was: “Devoted to the development of the various resources of Sevier County.”

Montgomery’s Vindicator printed on big sheets seven columns wide and sold for one dollar a year. The paper was quite informative for a county weekly. It had the scope of a daily paper. State, national and even international news received big play. At different times, the paper carried such famous columnists of the day as Bill Arp, who specialized in humor, and Arthur Brisbane, managing editor for both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

Although the coverage was diverse, when people read The Vindicator they could expect to be reading the opinions of Bill Montgomery. Nothing that was printed in his paper escaped his scrutiny or his comments.

He believed in the power of the press and was not hesitant to use it. Montgomery would ruthlessly lambast anyone with whom he disagreed. He had his own biased opinions as to what was beneficial for Sevier County, and he attacked all comers with ridicule and sarcasm.

Montgomery was not just a critical screamer. His editorials were laced with genuine humor that was especially enjoyed by those he was not writing about. Although he sometimes seemed rough, he was a friendly and sympatric man. By his own account he “attended more funerals than any other man in Sevier County.”

His pockets always bulged with copy paper, pencils, rulers and other tools of the newspaper craft. He possessed an extraordinary memory that enabled his fine reporting. He traveled all over the state trying to dig up a scoop for The Vindicator.

He had the remarkable ability to coin a quip, and the newspaper was peppered heavily with his originals. One of his favorite targets for ridicule was Prohibition. When the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Montgomery was furious.

As a two-fisted drinker himself, his distain for the amendment resulted in humorous editorials on the subject which was widely copied. Once while standing on the public square in Sevierville talking to a friend, one of his neighbors passed. Without cracking a smile, Montgomery said, “There goes old (name omitted) loaded down with groceries, and I bet the devil he ain’t got a drop in his house fit to drink.”

Pink Sneed, who got acquainted with Montgomery in 1910 while traveling home on the K, S, & E Railroad train, shared a drink from a bottle of Montgomery’s Cumberland Club corn whiskey in the smoker coach. A few years later, Sneed met Montgomery in Sevierville and Montgomery asked “have you got any good drinking whiskey on you tonight?” Sneed replied, “Yes, I just bought a pint a few minutes ago.”

Montgomery said “let’s step in the back room and take one.” Sneed remembered the train trip and decided it would be nice to give Montgomery a drink out of the bottle. When Sneed reached it to him, Montgomery opened it, turned it up and never stopped until the last drop was gone. He threw the bottle behind some boxes and said thank you.

Another one of Montgomery’s targets was the Whitecaps, a vigilante organization that terrorized hapless victims throughout Sevier County in the late 1800s. At the time The Vindicator was established, most citizens were afraid to speak out against the ruthless group for fear of retaliation. Montgomery was relentless in his criticism of the Whitecaps until they were brought to justice.

While dealing with the problem of delinquent subscribers, Montgomery wrote, “It is reported that one of the fastidious newly-married ladies of this town kneads bread with her gloves on. This incident may seem peculiar, but there are others. The editor of this paper needs bread with his shoes on; he needs bread with his shirt on; he needs bread with his pants on. And unless some delinquent subscribers pony up before long, he will need bread without a damn thing on, and Sevierville is no Garden of Eden in the wintertime.”

W.R. Montgomery died Feb. 19, 1928, at age 65.His obituaries in the press across the state might have surprised the outspoken journalist. They were unanimous in their respect for him and lavish with their praise.

The following tribute was published in The Knoxville News-Sentinel: “East Tennessee has lost a forceful and picturesque editor in the passing of Bill Montgomery. He thought for himself and did not hesitate to say what he thought, and in unvarnished language. His plain speaking, wit and courage made his Vindicator a paper with personality. It is not surprising that his paper had subscribers far from the territory from which it was published.”

Montgomery’s Vindicator, one of the oldest and most widely known newspapers in Tennessee, was sold at public auction in March of 1954. A group that included William Coleman, Knoxville printer; John Oliver, Nashville publisher; James Pointer, Athens businessman; and William Postwaite, publisher of the Sevier County News-Record and the Gatlinburg Mountain Press; bought the paper for $10, 500. At that time, the Vindicator merged with the Sevier County News Record.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email ron@ronraderproperties.com.