The Atkins Chronicle: A Small Town's Voice ~ A Family Legacy

by | Feb 1, 2013 | Features

Embry, Godby, Cheek, Lemley, Murdoch, Matthews, Sorrels, Tyson… the names of a small town’s leaders, entrepreneurs, and high school sports heroes. The years turn into decades and the decades into centuries but the names remain. They have been chronicled. Logged into posterity one inky letter at a time and they weave a tapestry of heritage through the soul of this small town in Pope County Arkansas.
The City of Atkins was incorporated on November 3, 1876. Only two decades later, on November 30, 1894, George L. Parker established The Atkins Chronicle.
The Atkins Chronicle is the oldest business still operating in Atkins.
Parker promoted his creation as “the great thought-maker of the millions.” A pompous tagline to say the least, but Parker saw his paper as the antidote to the daily paper which as he put it, “is alright for those who wish to read about the smut, libels, scandals, gossip, trash, casualties, romances, and contradictions.”
Ulterior motives aside, Parker had a firm grasp on the power of the printed word. His other slogan, “a drop of ink makes millions think” was spot on. Until the advent of the radio, ink was what made people think.
In 1898, Parker sold The Atkins Chronicle to a W.F. Turner. Turner was a former teacher and wrote in his autobiography of buying the Chronicle.

“In 1898 I accidentally got The Chronicle shot into me or me into it. I don’t know which and to this day we’ve stuck. The prospects are that we will stay stuck — until the sheriff do us part – if delinquents fail to even up.”
By his words, it would seem that Turner viewed his relationship with the paper in similar light as a marriage. Both good and bad, give and take. Under Turner’s direction The Chronicle grew.
Another former teacher, this one from the Dover school district was the next owner of The Chronicle in 1917. Ardis Tyson was his name and under Tyson’s editorial leadership, The Chronicle became a family business. Tyson brought his sons, Van and Leroy into the newspaper business. Tyson’s wife Ila and daughter Catherine were proofreaders for the paper. Also along for the ride was Van’s son, Van Allen Tyson. Van Allen started out at the Chronicle as a printer’s “devil.”
That’s right, a printer’s devil. Who better to explain what that is than the printer’s devil himself, Van Allen Tyson.
“Well, I started working here doing all the dirty work. A printers devil is what they called a printer’s apprentice, that’s all it is. Cleaning up, setting type, that kind of stuff.”
Van talks about this as he leads the way through a room filled with the history of a small town known as the “Heart of the River Valley.”

Old issues of The Chronicle peek out from every nook and cranny – the construction of Interstate 40, the opening of the Atkins Pickle Plant, the flooding of Lake Atkins, and the Red Devils state football championship. It’s all in here.
A community isn’t built on headlines though. It’s built on people. The births, the marriages, and the deaths, those are the ties that bind folks together and The Chronicle has recorded those as well.
The roomful of sepia colored memories leads back to what was once the heart of the paper. The hulking Linotype typeset sits like a saurian fossil just off center in the room. It’s a relic of a simpler time. It’s also a reminder that work, even journalism, was fueled by elbow grease in those days. Folks may say that living was easier decades ago, but the fact of the matter is that the work was harder.
Van explains all of the different moving parts and configurations involved in just getting the type set ready.
“This is where you drop the type.”
“And of course the letters in the press go right to left as opposed to left to right.”
Of course.
“The Linotype keyboard is not like a typewriter. The most commonly-used letters are all together at the top, like a California job case, which is where the type was when we used handset type.”
A California job case? Handset type? Dropping the type? This is already a lot more labor intensive than Microsoft Word and we’re a long way from being ready to print.

Van continues explaining and the expression on his face says the years are falling away in his mind. The old tools move deftly through his hand. The printer’s devil is in his element.
“We used to print pickle labels for the pickle plant. We were doing that when I started working here. After I bought The Chronicle, the pickle plant put in its own print shop and started making its own labels. That almost ruined us. They were our biggest customer.”
“Job printing was about half of our business,” said Van. “It was about half and half with paper advertising.”
A look back at Van’s life confirms that printer’s ink runs through his veins. Journalism is common thread throughout his family.
“My Grandfather owned the paper for 40 something years. My dad edited it until he went into the army for World War II; he left in 1940 or 41. I started down here when I was 11.”
Van became owner and editor of the Chronicle in 1959. In 1961 he sold the paper to Tommy Gillespie. Tommy had started his newspaper career as a printer at the Chronicle for Ardis Tyson, Van Allen’s grandfather, in 1945.
After selling the Chronicle, Van Allen was off to Fayetteville.
“When I sold the Chronicle, I went back to school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and picked up my master’s degree in English. Later on I earned my Ph.D. in English and I thought I’d probably end up teaching college English.”
From northwest Arkansas it was on to the Midwest. He also married Virginia in 1963. “Right after we got married, I was in Des Moines, Iowa, at the Des Moines Register and Tribune for three years. Then I went back to school to get my doctorate in English.”

“We taught a couple of years at Wayne State in Nebraska, Ginnie and I both did. I taught English and journalism there. I had taught at the University of Iowa where I was a graduate assistant. I taught the labs.”
“When I came back to Arkansas I worked at the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock, workedthereforfiveyears.Then,Igotonat Arkansas Tech in 1974. I taught journalism at Tech for 33 years. While I was at Tech, I started covering meetings for Tommy and for The Courier in Russellville.”
Van was head of the Speech, Theatre and Journalism Department for 15 years during which time he added courses in broadcasting, public relations and technology. During his tenure there the department grew from about 25 majors to more than 100. The faculty grew from 3.5 to 10 at his retirement in 2006.
Putting her English Master’s degree to work, Virginia instructed at Arkansas Tech as well. She taught college English for 20 years. The circle of ink was completed when Tommy Gillespie decided to retire. The Tysons bought The Atkins Chronicle again in 1992. The Chronicle introduced its sister publication, the Dover Times, in 1994 as well.

“We bought it from a lady (Susanna Bewley) that started it up and ran it for a couple years,” says Virginia. “She wanted to revive and use the name of the original Dover paper that started… back in the 30’s I think.”
“It started in the 20’s,” says Van.
He knows this because the very first Dover Times surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, has a family tie to Van.
“My grandfather, Ardis Tyson had a partner when he bought the Atkins Chronicle. It was my great uncle, Hugh Matthews Ardis’ brother-in-law. Hugh started the original Dover Times sometime in the 1920’s after he left the Atkins Chronicle.”

Van and Virginia’s daughter Emory Molitor helped her husband, Jason, run the Dover Times for a few years. Their other daughter, Gail Murdoch, was managing editor at the Chronicle for 12 years as well, before she became a certified financial planner. She now owns Cardinal Investment Group in Conway. Gail’s husband, Mark, (also a journalism major) still does photography and oversees technology at the Chronicle. Van’s sister, Beckie Tyson, is now on staff at the Chronicle as managing editor. Beckie brings 25 years of journalism and public relations experience to a family already overflowing with it. The Tyson name is synonymous with rural Pope county news and has been for decades.
A small town newspaper faces many challenges in today’s journalistic climate, but Virginia believes that the Chronicle and the Times hold a special niche.
“I think that real connection to the community is what separates a paper like the Atkins Chronicle from the other publications. Where else are people going to find news specific to what’s going on in their lives.”
Like the two-car and bull accident that happened on Highway 105 north, near the Gumlog Creek bridge, a few years back
“The bull was killed and the two autos were of course damaged,” says Van.
While thinking about the headline possibilities for a rural story like this brings a snicker, this is news that matters for many Pope County residents. And, something you’re not likely to find covered by the larger media outlets.
The current Atkins Chronicle and Dover Times staff includes hometown folks that bring hometown news to readers. Managing Editor Elizabeth Brown and writer/sports editor/ad salesperson Joseph Brown report news in northern Pope County for the Dover Times.
Circulation manager Beverly Davis makes sure every paper gets where it’s supposed to be. Lori Johnson and Donna Hanke help out as proof readers. Mark’s dad, Gary Murdoch, writes sports and helps with distribution. Add yet another Tyson on staff as well. Van’s brother Bob takes care of the Atkins Chronicle/Dover Times web editions. The many community columnists and contributors help as well.
In this age of sensationalism, it’s easy to lose focus of what is really newsworthy. What matters to the members of small town America sometimes gets lost in the flashing headlines and braying sound- bites. The whisper of rustling newsprint filled with familiar names offers a refuge from the onslaught. What better way to stay connected with a community than sifting through the pages of a paper tracking the pulse of the heart of the River Valley.



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