James J. Ayers holds the record for shortest tenure as editor-publisher of The Tribune, October-December 1871. He was the second editor, of the then weekly newspaper. Taking over for founder Walter Murray who wanted to devote more time to pursue a judicial career. He would also be the second editor born in Great Britain. Murray was English and Ayers was Scottish.
Ironically, short-timer James J. Ayers, also penned a book that is still in print, written in 1896 and published in 1922 the book now in the public domain, “Gold and Sunshine, Reminiscences of Early California…”
There are interesting sketches of 19th century life in the west from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento and the most compelling stories come from his time as a gold digger.
Weak points include the five pages squandered on an elaborate love poem to Ventura.
The book leaves basic biographical information oddly blank. His background and education before departing to California is only hinted at. Ayers was educated, at points he translates for Spanish and French conversations, enjoys the theater and fashionable places in New York.
The Online Archive of California says James J. Ayers was born in Glasgow, Scotland on August 27, 1830. His parents moved to New Jersey when he was one.
By age 18 Ayers was trained in printmaking and working at The Missouri Republican when he made the fateful decision to go seek his fortune in the gold fields of California. (The Online Archive of California states he was editor but that claim is doubtful given his age. It was a good choice to leave, a month after his departure the paper’s offices were destroyed when fire swept the city of St. Louis.)
The book also meanders into testimonials for men Ayers admired and feels that fate and history unfairly neglected.
Fortune hunter, actor, editor, name dropper, political activist, bureaucrat and politician are all part of his resume. His seemingly short attention span and desire to pursue the next big thing restlessly push him from New York to the shores of Hawaiian empire.
San Luis Obispo is only given five brief mentions in the 359 page book. He founded four newspapers and owned or worked for several other newspapers, mentioned in the book but The Tribune is not mentioned in his memoir.
To be fair the town was an obscure backwater.
“I spent the winter of 1871-72 in San Luis Obispo, and I met there for the first time the late Judge Anson Bronson. He had started overland for Sacramento to put in his claim to the Governor for the appointment of District Judge of Los Angeles county to fill the unexpired term of Judge Morrison, who had just died. But when he had got as far as San Luis on his journey the stages were compelled to cease running.The rain had come down in torrents and the roads were impracticable.”
Ayers spends the next half page mooning over Bronson’s personal qualities while the author’s reasons living and leaving San Luis Obispo were left unwritten.
A sampling of the Tribune at the end of 1871 leaves the reader with as many questions as answers.
On September 39, 1871 an unsigned editorial, likely by Tribune founder Walter Murray, paved the way for an orderly transition of ownership. The paper had been founded by Murray two years earlier and had operated under the name of his printer, H.S. Rembaugh & Co.
The Tribune was the Republican answer to the Democratic Pioneer and was a vehicle for Murray to push his legal career; he wanted to become a judge. The paper was absorbing too much of his time and when an experienced editor and publisher like James J. Ayers appeared on the scene it must have seemed like the perfect time to leave.
The editorial assures readers that the principles of the paper will remain as before, it will be pro-Union and will benefit from a full time editor. Even though the Tribune had outlived the Pioneer there was no ill will expressed.
“More particularly are we grateful for the support extended to us by many of our leading fellow-citizens of an opposite political faith…”
Next week Ayers outlined a platform of good will and full time support of prosperity, morality, political support of the party in power.
Things went bad quickly.
Ayers didn’t last three full months before the ownership reverted to H.S. Rembaugh & Co.
There was no warning, no orderly transition, Ayers is editor-publisher December 23, 1871 then the unforgivable happens. The paper misses publication the next week.
On January 6 an apologetic issue appears. They blame the missing issue on heavy rains and there may be some truth to this. On December 28th a man was killed when the stage coach he was in was swept into the flood swollen Corral de Piedra Creek five miles south of San Luis Obispo.
The editorial in that issue promises nothing more than they will try as hard to earn the trust of local readers as they did in the previous two years.
“We therefore trust that all our former patrons will continue to patronize us, and we assure them that they will find us instant and eager to give them satisfaction.”
The an editorial signed with a Spanish acronym used to close letters Que Besa Su Mano (Who Kisses Your Hand)
H.S. Rembaugh & Co.
On another page a note says: “Calm your feelings, messieurs readers, and we will promise you hereafter never to be found wanting.”
The issue was so hastily put together that a house ad promoting The Tribune as the leading county newspaper still listed J.J. Ayers as publisher. An oversight corrected in the next edition.
What went wrong?
The election season that year had been a bitter one. The January 6 apologetic editorial promises to tone down political rhetoric.
Backtrack to November 4, 1871 the Tribune published an editorial fiercely attacking the Santa Barbara Press and their endorsement of Dr. Brinkerhoff for State Senate. The editorial calls him unreliable and that San Luis Obispo County voters have no use for him.
Two weeks later Ayers reverses the paper’s course. Dr. Brinkerhoff had been nominated at a meeting in Foxen Canyon. Ayers blames Murray (without naming him) for writing the editorial in his absence, claims Murray now endorses nominee Brinkerhoff. Ayers admits he does not have knowledge of the region’s political history but bases his endorsement on the unanimous convention nomination.
Beginning in December Ayers begins running a strident notice telling subscribers to pay up or have their delivery cut off.
The Scottish native said, “Business is business, and as we cannot afford to furnish the TRIBUNE without compensation, we shall stop sending the papers of all those who are in arrears after the 15th of the present month.
It could be that Ayers, found the region suspicious and unwelcoming of outsiders. He could have offended advertisers or subscribers and found business untenable. There could have been a scandal that no one wants to refer to. He may have found the region boring.
The end was sudden and unexplained in either the Tribune or Ayers’ book.
By Spring of 1872 Ayers had moved south to Santa Barbara. His description:
“Its population, too was more largely composed of the old native Californians than that of any other community to the north, with the exception of San Luis Obispo.”
A glimpse into the California Spanish culture and Walter Murray – The Tribune’s lawyer/founder – comes a few pages later. “Don Pablo de la Guerra was, in 1871, Judge of the 1st District Court, the jurisdiction of which included San Diego Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, and it was a rare treat to attend his court and see Walter Murray and Wm. J. Graves conduct a case in which nothing but the pure Castilian tongue was heard.”
Ayers spent several months in San Buenaventura — now Ventura — at the request of E.D. Boust, publisher of the Santa Barbra Times.
By August 1872 he was in Los Angeles, population about 5,000.
There was a business district of newer buildings but the old section retained the old flavor.
“It was Mexican all over. The adobe house flourished there in its most formidable, as well as its most contracted shape, from the great rectangular building with its ample patio in the centre, to the hut of one or two rooms with the evidence apparent of an indefinite amount of filth and squalor. To cross the plaza and enter this ancient part of Los Angeles was like stepping from an American town into a small pueblo in Guadalajara or Sinola.”
Ayers made friends with one local “curious characters” Major General George Washington Barter. The General had leased the Los Angeles Daily Star from one of Ayers’ old friends, Henry Hamilton. Ayers and Hamilton had started newspapers in Calaveras and Hawaii and now Hamilton had retired, to his orange orchard near Mission San Gabriel.
Major General George Washington Barter had a reputation as a “bachelor par excellence” and dressed in a loud manner. He hired Ayers as a writer. One morning Barter came to Ayers and confessed that he had a wife and two small children, who had arrived in town that morning.
“I was about to congratulate him, when he said the union was not a felicitous one, and that her arrival was very inopportune.”
Ayers refused to be the go-between and told the General to act as a man and go to his family.
The reconciliation was short, divorce soon followed and one fine morning Barter disappeared.
Hamilton returned to help Ayers keep the Star afloat until a buyer could be found.
A new job was not long in coming when Ayers became editor of the Los Angeles Evening Express and soon he and a partner organized a stock company to buy the Express.
Ayers became more involved in politics during this time, attending Democratic conventions.
In the Fall of 1879 Ayers ran for congress, a candidate of the Working Man’s Party. The Working Man’s Party was a one issue, immigration party targeting Asians in particular. His bid failed and the newspaperman blamed a back room deal by Democrats that sold out his chances. Republican Romauldo Pacheco won the 4th district seat.
In 1882 Ayers was asked to join governor-elect George Stoneman’s administration. Ayers was named Superintendent of State Printing and was directed to take on the powerful text book lobby. In a story that sounds familiar to anyone who has bought a text book, publishers were charging high prices and making unnecessary updates to materials to drive profits. Ayers began printing the elementary school books.
“Parents are now enabled to get the books at nearly cost price,and they are protected against the frequent and onerous changes which the greed of the school-book ring were in position to bring about.”
According to the California Online Archive, James Ayers advocated for allowing women to attend the University of California while a delegate the 1878 Second California Constitutional Convention.
James J. Ayers died November 12, 1897 in Azusa, California at the age of 67.