Before Facebook, We Had the Valley News

Whenever I’m researching local history I read a lot of old newspapers. I’ll scan their pages, looking for articles that relate to my topic, and sometimes I get a little distracted by a news item from days gone by.  This was the case for me recently, when I was reviewing a past issue of The Valley News. Something I found in it made me think that Fulton’s newspaper used to be a lot like Facebook is today.

Why would I compare our hometown paper with an internet site that reaches six billion people worldwide? It has to do with a regular feature The Valley News used to run. They called it “Personals.”

The Personals weren’t like regular newspaper columns that cover events happening at churches, schools or sports arenas. They were short “announcements” spread throughout the paper, sometimes a dozen or more on a single page. Here’s a sample of what I found in the August 25, 1971 issue:

Mr. and Mrs. Gus Dormeyer, the Baldwin Road, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ives, the Streeter Road, have returned home after having visited the Amish Country of Pennsylvania.

Miss Ann Luke of the County Line Road, was a counselor last week at the Methodist Church camp at Casowasco on Owasco Lake.

Mrs. Joseph Zizzi of South Sixth Street is a patient in Lee Memorial Hospital.

A few pages later, there were more Personals:

Mr. and Mrs. Luther Bryan, West Second Street, were among those who attended the recent Sealright clambake at Silver Lake.

Cherie Morgan of Phoenix visited her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. William Rill of Phoenix, last week.

Mrs. Arthur Hallstead of Cayuga Street was a dinner guest, last Sunday, of Mrs. Catherine Knapp, Oneida Street.

And so on, page after page. I ended up reading every Personal (There were 85 in that one issue!), looking for names I’d recognize, curious if I might remember the events described. It turns out lots of people did the same thing back when Personals was a regular feature in The Valley News. We caught up on who was doing what—you know, kind of like why we log onto Facebook today.

But there was no Facebook all those years ago, so it wasn’t as easy as hopping on your computer to find out about people’s lives. Who came up with the Personals idea and how did The Valley News keep it going twice a week, year after year? I asked that question to some longtime Fultonians, including my friend Paul McKinney, who had this to say about our hometown paper’s unique feature:

“Personals was the brainstorm of Vince Caravan, longtime editor of The Valley News. Vince hired someone to make regular calls to people throughout the city, including my mother, Helen. The office worker would regularly ring up Mom and ask, ‘Do you have anything for Personals?’”

Paul thinks one of the reasons the regular feature in The Valley News was such a big hit was because “people loved seeing their name in the paper. For many years, it was the first thing subscribers would read when they got their latest issue.”

To find out more about Personals, I got on my computer and headed to Facebook, logging onto the page called Fulton New York Memories. There I put out a request for information about The Valley News’ Personals and received over 40 comments. Here are a few:

Rusty Okoniewski responded to my question by telling me about his Great-Aunt Caroline Bateman: “She lived in Volney Center and was a ‘paid’ reporter for The Valley News. Each week she made note of the ‘Personal’ items she learned by simply talking (on the telephone or face-to-face) with her friends and relatives. She was paid a fee (I think 10 cents) for each item.”

That pay-per-item system was confirmed by Alice Doss, who also gathered Personals stories for the paper. “I remember it well!” Alice said. “I was paid 10 cents to type up stories about visits, riding snowmobiles, birthdays, etc. It was fun to do, and I liked reading others’ ‘reports.’”

Those Personals weren’t just read in Fulton. City residents who’d moved away or were temporarily out of town didn’t want to miss an issue. Stuart Wilson mentioned that “My mother had The Valley News sent to me at college so I could keep up with local goings on. My college friends were really amazed at Personals. They’d never seen anything like it.”

In fact, if you weren’t a Valley News reader back then, you’d probably never seen anything quite like Personals…at least until Facebook came along. I have to admit, reading about someone having dinner with someone else seems a bit gossipy to me. But the more I think about it, the more I believe there’s something important beneath all those shared stories, either from 50 years ago in a newspaper or today on the internet.

In some ways, isn’t our curiosity about people really about our concern for one another? Isn’t it a way of making sure our friends are doing okay? Of course, as we’ve seen, comments on Facebook can sometimes be hurtful or too strongly opinionated (something you’d never have seen in the Personals), but if you scroll past all that, you’ll probably read something about a friend you haven’t seen in years. Wasn’t it nice remembering them?

I got nostalgic after reading those Personals, pining for days gone by. It made me wish some people on Facebook wouldn’t be so cruel or quick to judge. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be, as one of my favorite Fulton historians, Grace Lynch, always said, “the way it used to be.” The next time we share something on Facebook, let’s take a lesson from local history, when a small-town newspaper made a big difference by printing good things happening to our family and friends.

The Valley News’ “Personals” feature was once the first thing people read in their hometown newspaper.

The Valley News’ “Personals” feature was once the first thing people read in their hometown newspaper.