Homes and business building began to sprout, and just two years later, the new town of Patterson had a newspaper. Its prime purpose: to promote the sale of the rich agricultural farmland. With local subscribers very few in number, the newspaper was mailed back to the Midwest and Eastern states in an effort to bring potential land buyers — including Portuguese and Swedish dairy farmers — to Patterson.
A San Francisco printing firm, Bolte & Braden, is listed as the newspaper’s first publisher. The Patterson Land Co., the largest advertiser in the fledgling four-page weekly, undoubtedly paid the typesetting, printing and mailing bills. The early issues were printed on a bright-white book stock that highlighted the early photos of Patterson.
However, Elwyn Hoffman was the first editor and soon became publisher and owner of the Patterson Irrigator. Hoffman had been brought here to write follow-up letters to prospective land buyers, and as he had previous newspaper experience, he was the logical choice to become the Irrigator’s one-person staff.
Reportedly, it was Hoffman who was responsible for the newspaper’s unusual name. He submitted a list of potential names to the Patterson family, and Irrigator was chosen from that list.
The first newspaper office was on the second level of the Patterson Mercantile building (now Oak Valley Community Bank). Hoffman sent his news and advertising copy by train to Bolte & Braden every Wednesday evening, and the printed copies arrived back in Patterson on Friday evenings for Saturday distribution. He is quoted as saying that his worst fear was a major catastrophe occurring in Patterson on Thursdays and Fridays.
Only once did a major problem arise. That’s when the printed Irrigators were erroneously shipped to Paterson, N.J.
Hoffman was about 40 when he came to Patterson. He had worked in Northern California mines and had gained a reputation as a poet, having had his writing published in San Francisco’s Overland Monthly as early as 1897. It might have been there he became acquainted with writer Jack London. The two exchanged numerous letters over the years, a couple of which were printed in the Irrigator. It is also known that Hoffman, a bachelor and strong prohibitionist who advocated keeping Patterson “dry” in his tenure here, visited the hard-living London at his ranch in Sonoma County. London apparently never came to Patterson.
In 1915, Hoffman and his mother, who lived with him, took a ship to Hawaii, intent on meeting up with the Londons, who were returning from an aborted ’round-the-world sailboat trip. They apparently missed connections in Honolulu, however. It might have been Hoffman’s only vacation, and his brother, who was editor of the Turlock Journal, edited the Irrigator in his absence.
Hoffman wrote the lyrics to “In the Valley of the San Joaquin,” which was put to music by local grammar school teacher Paul Corbell. The printing plate for this sheet music is on display in Patterson’s downtown museum.
When attorney William Logan came to town in 1915, they shared office space. The story is told that they had a gentlemen’s agreement to pretend that each hadn’t heard the private phone conversations of the other.
Hoffman suffered health problems that forced him to sell the newspaper to R.C. Fleharty in mid-1919. He moved to Middleton, Lake County, where he died in 1948.
Fleharty had grown up in Newman, where his father owned the West Side Index. He had recently returned from serving in France during World War I, after which he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. He immediately moved the newspaper office to the first floor of the Leverton Building on North Third Street, which now houses Schut Insurance. The Masonic Hall was upstairs. The Index in Newman handled the presswork, but equipment was added for the newspaper’s typesetting and commercial printing.
Fleharty and his wife raised two boys here, Bill and George, who both graduated from Patterson High and served in the Merchant Marine in World War II. The editor/publisher, like Hoffman, was very active in community affairs.
In 1929, Fleharty contracted with local builder Walfrid Knutson to construct a permanent home for the newspaper at 26 N. Third St., right next to the Leverton Building, using the California Mediterranean design that gave other downtown buildings — including the Del Puerto Hotel and Center Building — a unique look.
Next came Turlock newsman Lowell Jessen, who bought the Irrigator from Fleharty in 1947 and had it printed by the Turlock Journal. Jessen named Robert Jones its editor, and in early 1949, Jones purchased the newspaper and became its editor/publisher.
But not for long. Joe and Helen Hochschild, University of Iowa graduates with newspaper backgrounds, came here later that year from Los Angeles, where he had been employed by the Southern Pacific news bureau.
For the first time, the Irrigator was printed in its own shop. An ancient sheet-fed rotary press was moved here from Sonora. The “hot type” or letterpress form of printing was now complete under one roof.
The Hochschilds took in Ray Chapman as a partner in 1952. He was a Stanford graduate in journalism and had married the former Ruth Christopherson of Patterson. They had resided here for two years while he attended Modesto Junior College. Both Hochschild and Chapman were World War II veterans and had young families.
Chapman bought out his partners in late 1955, and Joe Hochschild then purchased a large commercial printing business in Delano, where he later became mayor.
Then came Ira and Monica Kaplan, who purchased the Irrigator in January 1961. They were from Chicago, where he had been in a family-owned furniture manufacturing business. His newspaper experience was limited to editing a statewide Democratic Party newspaper in Illinois, but like those publishers before him, he had a strong desire to edit his own small-town newspaper.
The Kaplans were here only 20 months before they moved to the East Coast, and the Irrigator changed ownership for the sixth time in 15 years. Two young men from Iowa, Edward Sternberg and Ronald Swift, became co-publishers on Sept. 1, 1962.
Sternberg had graduated from Iowa State University in 1958 and then served three years in the U.S. Army as a Russian linguist. Swift graduated from ISU a year later (both were business and not journalism majors) and then headed west, where he took a reporting position with the community newspaper in Prineville, Ore. Two years later, after Sternberg returned from military duty, they used family financing to make a down payment on the Irrigator.
Inheriting antiquated equipment, the new owners struggled for a couple of years until one evening in late 1964 when the old press built in 1905 came to a grinding halt on the final run of the week.
“It was a real blessing,” Swift recalls. “It died quickly and couldn’t be repaired. By the next week, we had entered the world of offset printing. Best thing that ever happened to us.”
It was necessary to re-equip, a process that required several years to complete. The presswork was jobbed out to the Tracy Press, which had a new plant and equipment. But the typesetting, advertising composition and layout and page paste-up were done in Patterson.
“Now, we didn’t need a linotype operator or printer,” Swift remembers. “Everyone we hired we could find locally. We had to train them, but first we had to learn ourselves.
“It was work, but it was fun. And we found some very loyal, devoted employees,” he added.
Swift married the former Kay Sue Mickel three months after becoming co-publisher. They raised a family of three, all born at Del Puerto Hospital.
Sternberg left the business to Swift in 1968 and moved to Monterey, where he still resides. He was a partner in a large Cannery Row restaurant and then did accounting work for many years before recently retiring.
The Irrigator’s production continued to change over the years, going from strike-on to photographic to finally computer typesetting and design. The press runs in Tracy continued for many years, as they are today.
In 1978, the Irrigator and Newman’s West Side Index linked in partnership on a Monday tabloid-size paper titled West Side Issue, giving each community two publications a week. The Irrigator continued the Monday paper after Newman discontinued in 1981 and in 1986 changed the publication days to Tuesday and Thursday.
The staff moved out of the newspaper building in late 1989. The building was then completely renovated, with a second story added for office space, a project that required nearly two years. Its commercial printing equipment and customer service department remains downstairs.
After 40 years serving as editor and publisher, Swift retired from the newspaper business in the spring of 2003 when the Irrigator was sold to Robert Matthews, publisher of the Tracy Press and a third-generation newspaper man. Production equipment was again upgraded in both plants, allowing the regular usage of color photography. The newspaper changed from broadsheet to tabloid size in 2004. Economic conditions required that the Irrigator cut back to once-a-week publication in 2009.
In 2000, the state of California microfilmed all issues of the Irrigator from 1911. The film and viewing equipment are available in the Patterson Branch Library.