Looking back over the history of local newspapers, one man stands out. Though short in stature, Dan Tompkins was a towering figure in local journalism.
“With his three-decade career in journalism and role in public office, Tompkins was able to inform the public and also promote what he considered worthy causes,” writes local historian George Frizzell. “With the Jackson County Journal, he had the public ear and was able, whether all agreed or not, to encourage a goal or promote debate. Ultimately, he was influential in decisions on education, roads, tourism development and other issues of the day.”
According to Frizzell, a local newspaper is a vital part of a community’s life.
“The adage that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history’ helps express the endurance and influence that some editors and journalists impart to their publications,” he said. “Newspapers capture the essence of a time, from such a diverse range of topics as current news, social events, sports, obituaries, legal notices and editorials. Even the advertisements, serials, cartoons and human interest items offer a glimpse back at an unfolding world.
“It’s important to note the role of an editor in a regional newspaper, especially in an era before television and the Internet or even widespread telephone and radio coverage,” Frizzell said.
A summary of Tompkins’ life is found in “Jackson County Heritage Vol. I,” published by the local Genealogical Society.
Born in Webster on Aug. 15, 1890, Daniel Dean Tompkins was the son of Dr. William F. Tompkins, a Michigan native, and Annie Luck Tompkins from Virginia. Dan Tompkins attended school in Webster until he and his mother moved to Waynesville, where he graduated from Waynesville High in 1908 before studying law at Wake Forest.
He was editor of the Jackson County Journal and was later elected mayor of Sylva and served several terms in the General Assembly. Volunteering for World War I in July 1917, Tompkins participated in the offensive that broke the Hindenburg line at Ballicourt, France. He returned to Jackson County and the Journal in April 1919, marrying teacher Emily Weigle in 1931. Tompkins died Sept. 15, 1950, and is buried in Webster Cemetery.
Tompkins had an outsized personality and was at the forefront of any initiative he felt would bring “progress” to Jackson County. He wanted to see his home area thrive, and he didn’t hesitate to use his newspaper as a vehicle to urge for the improvements he thought were needed.
Tompkins is mentioned often in “The History of Jackson County.” In a chapter titled “Economic Development,” author John Bell writes that Tompkins was a good roads advocate who, early in the 20th century, supported a county-wide tax to pay to build roads in all sections of the county at once. That suggestion was met locally with a popular uproar, but a 1913 state law allowed townships to issue bonds to build roads, which both Sylva and Cullowhee did.
While Tompkins held political office and served in WWI, he was first and foremost a newspaper editor, taking the reins of The Jackson County Journal in 1912 and remaining in that post for 31 years. In the “Communications” chapter of the local history book, John Slater writes that Dan Tompkins “came from a journalistic family.”
His mother was the daughter of Felix Luck Sr., editor of both the Sylva Sentinel and Tuckaseige Democrat; his paternal grandfather was W.C. Tompkins, founding editor of the Webster Herald.
When Tompkins took over the Journal on June 7, 1912, his first editorial promised that while the newspaper would not advocate for any political party, “we will do all that is within our power for the upbuilding of our county and town, in every way.”
To accomplish his larger goal he first had to strengthen the Journal. He doubled the size of the paper to eight pages, then staged a newspaper promotion with a prize of $310 worth of diamonds.
That fall, he partnered with Western Carolina Telegraph Co. to get election returns over the wire and charged a 25-cent admission for local residents to come to the Allen Building, located at Main and Keener streets, for live election coverage.
According to Slater, Tompkins had a “knack” for giving readers what they liked to read.
“Much of the front page was blatantly sensational – murders, deaths, lynchings, bad accidents and criminal cases were the Journal’s stock in trade,” Slater writes.
After Tompkins enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917, he left business manager Everette Brown in charge of The Journal. Brown later started his own newspaper, The Ruralite, in 1926.
When Tompkins returned from the war, he launched a “new era of social responsibility,” Slater writes. “This paper is the tool of no man,” Tompkins announced in an editorial, “but will interest itself in the welfare of every man, woman and child in the county.” According to Slater, Tompkins editorialized in favor of women’s suffrage and better roads, and in a front-page column titled “Real Danger Threatens our Homeland,” he told his readers about the scope of the chestnut blight that was beginning to kill local trees.
With the advent of Brown’s Ruralite in 1926, the county had two newspapers until the Journal folded, publishing its last issue on Oct. 12, 1943.
“The Jackson County Journal was a casualty of World War II,” Slater writes, noting that Tompkins’ last employee was drafted in April 1943. With no help to get out a newspaper, Tompkins was forced to cease publication for five months. During that time, the Journal lost both advertisers and subscribers and was only able to continue for a month after resuming publication in September.
Another source of information on Tompkins is a master’s thesis, titled “Dan Tompkins: Mountain Editor,” written at Western Carolina College in 1966 by Suelle Reece Austin. Austin bases her research into Tompkins’ career and personality on interviews with people who had known him as well as on Tompkins’ writings in The Journal.
“Tompkins dreamed of making Western North Carolina the ‘Switzerland of America,’” Austin writes. “His dream could be realized, he felt, if the area had paved roads, tourist accommodations, a national park in the Smokies, better public facilities and a better education for the mountain people.
“Tompkins was not just a dreamer, he was a man of action. Therefore, many of Tompkins’ dreams were to become realities for Jackson County and Western North Carolina. Dan Tompkins was largely responsible for the paving of Highway 107 from Sylva to the South Carolina line. Because of his heated editorials and active support in the state legislature, Tompkins was an important force in preventing removal of Western Carolina Teacher’s College from Cullowhee to Asheville.”
According to Austin, Tompkins’ passionate views eliminated his chances at financial security. “To make realities of his dreams, Dan Tompkins sacrificed any financial success that might have been his. His determination to represent only the people who elected him to public office was one cause of the folding of the Journal.”
In addition to editing the Journal, Tompkins usually also held some public office. He served as mayor of Sylva for 12 years. During that time he concentrated on appearance – he wanted the town to be kept clean and he wanted its streets paved.
Austin writes that four miles of town streets were paved while he was mayor, including Jackson, Mill, Allen, Spring, Balsam, Savannah, Keener, Hampton, Rose, Ridgeway, Sylvan Heights, Brendle and King. In addition, it was during Tompkins’ tenure as mayor that the city council voted to sell bonds amounting to $50,000 for a water and sewer system and expanded its streetlights. Tompkins helped organize the Sylva chamber of Commerce and was its president several times.
Tompkins’ statewide political career was not as successful. He lost his first bid for the state House of Representatives in the 1920 Democratic primary and four years later suffered a defeat in the state Senate Democratic primary. Tompkins lost that 1924 race by less than 100 votes but refused to contest the election.
“I made a good clean fight for the nomination upon my record as a man, a citizen and a soldier,” he wrote. “A good citizen and a good soldier knows how to meet defeat as well as victory.”
Four years later, however, he broke that pledge, prevailing in an election for local judge. In 1932, he again ran for the General Assembly, and his time Tompkins won, defeating Robert Lee Madison of WCTC by less than 200 votes. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1940, losing in the Democratic primary, but was again elected to the state house in 1942.
“Dan Tompkins never accomplished as much as he hoped to in his political career, but he was satisfied with what he was able to do,” Austin writes. “His failures he often attributed to his belief that Western North Carolina was neglected by the rest of the state.”
According to Austin, Tompkins’ political career contributed to the Journal’s end. For almost his first decade as editor, the paper got his full attention. However, after WWI, his desire to make Jackson County better caused him to enter politics.
When he was away serving in the legislature, his aunt, longtime Sylva librarian Sadie Luck, ran the Journal. Another of his legislative terms was during World War II, and the war itself made publishing a newspaper more difficult, Austin writes, due to increased cost associated with ink and paper.
As mentioned above, Tompkins’ Journal had a competing local newspaper between 1926 and 1943. Austin writes that Brown was a personal friend of Tompkins but could not survive financially as his employee, since the Journal didn’t even pay enough to support Tompkins, who relied on his wife’s teaching salary to keep his family afloat.
After Everette Brown’s death in 1932, his wife Attie Brown ran The Ruralite until 1943 when she sold it to Waynesville Mountaineer publishers Curtis Russ and Marion Bridges. They formed The Sylva Herald and Ruralite, publishing its first issue in August 1943.
“The new paper inspired a Tompkins editorial in which he wrote of his family’s 59 years in journalism, saying that the Herald was the name of the first Tompkins’ paper in the early 1880s,” Austin writes.
In the Journal’s final issue, published Oct. 12, 1943, there was no hint that it would be its last.
“A political career, a war, and another paper had ended a long hard struggle,” Austin writes, before concluding that Tompkins was an asset to Jackson County. “His energies were given unselfishly to the benefit of progress for Western North Carolina. Jackson County and this area owe much to the powerful pen and influence of Dan Tompkins.”
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.