When he first came to the Salinas Valley in 1901 and started a tiny weekly newspaper, they called him “Visionary Vivian.” His editorials propounded his dream, which was to cut up the large land grants along the Salinas River and bring the Salinas Valley under irrigation.
Who was this “Visionary Vivian,” who offended the land barons of the Salinas Valley and dreamed of prosperous small farms growing irrigated crops in what was then marked on the maps as the “Great Salinas Desert”?
Fred Vivian had been a hand compositor who had set type for just about every major daily newspaper west of the Mississippi. He’d worked as a reporter on San Francisco dailies, edited two country weeklies in California before settling in King City, where he founded The Rustler in 1901.
Beside his ability as a printer and command of the language gained in composing and newsrooms across the West, he had optimism and vision.
Added to these qualities were large quantities of determination.
The Salinas Index of May 10, 1901, sneered editorially at the “optimism of a young fellow named Vivian in starting a newspaper in King City — a hamlet of 150 half-starved souls.”
It is easy to understand that editorial sneer if one forgets the present picture of the agriculturally rich Salinas Valley, a flourishing region of irrigated farmlands dotted with hundreds of comfortable farmhouses and served by four prosperous small towns. Instead, one must conjure up a view of the dry, windswept, dusty desert that was the Salinas Valley of 1901 into which Vivian brought his newspaper, his optimism, determination and vision.
The Salinas Valley, now long known as the “Salad Bowl of the Nation,” one of the very prime row crop and grape regions of America, was then planted only to wheat, and sparsely at that. Most of it was simply dust.
Land holdings were huge, many of them the remnants of Spanish grants and landowners were mostly absentees — large companies or individuals who were content to let their land lie fallow or take a marginal wheat crop. When the crop was off, the wind blew the dry soil in billowing clouds of dust the length of the valley. The Salinas River wound its course through the middle of the arid land, bone dry in the summer and overflowing its banks in the winter to flood the willows, the only green crop that flourished.
Vivian saw the land as it could be, transformed by irrigation. The water was there; it just needed to be controlled. The land could be fertile with the magic of irrigation. Hundreds of small farmers could prosper, raise families to enjoy the bounty of the land. The big land holdings had to be cut up, made available to settlers. But first the people must be convinced that irrigation was possible.
His editorials expounded the possibility of valley-wide irrigation through the foundation of an irrigation district to qualify for government assistance. Along with his editorials he published interviews, articles and news stories to be read by a number of incredulous subscribers.
Although he was dubbed “Visionary Vivian,” he kept at it.
Regardless of discouragements, of scoffing, of indifference, Fred Vivian continued to voice prophecies of development for the Salinas Valley.
By 1905 the boosting editorials began to pay off. C.H. Widemann, capitalist, was lured by The Rustler’s columns and decided to invest. He purchased the Coburn acreage and broke it up into tracts of 200 acres each, which he sold to Swiss dairymen, and soon the entire grant was under irrigation and became a dairy center complete with a cheese and condensed milk factory.
Then Editor Vivian’s articles and editorials brought Los Angeles promoters Hartraft, Clark and Green. They organized the California Homeseekers Association and purchased 12,000 acres of the Espinosa grant. There, 13 miles north of King City, on land known as “Three Mile Flat,” they founded Clark’s Colony.
The Rustler continued to print stories on the immigration to Clark’s Colony, always plugging for that community’s growth. The name of the village was soon changed to Greenfield, and Vivian was contracted to print the Greenfield Courier for a year. This little paper gave the facts about water, soil, and climate, and was mailed to addresses in the East and Midwest. It proved to be the best possible medium of publicity as it was the means of countless letters of inquiry, followed by hundreds of colonists.
Soon other investors came to the Salinas Valley. A stock company bargained for the Dunphy grant, a few miles north of King City on the west side of the Salinas River. A few years later this grant was divided into two sections; there the Salinas Land Co. and the California Orchard Co. both went under irrigation and began producing the finest of orchard products and the famous “King City pink bean.”
Gradually Vivian was seeing his dream become reality. Spots in the semi-arid valley were turning green, oases were springing up, but the majority of the valley was still desert-like. By 1907 Vivian was cheerful about valley-wide irrigation. A news item in March stated that the Salinas Valley Irrigation Association had been formed and that a committee met in the office of The Rustler to perfect a plan by which its needs could get government recognition.
Still, nothing tangible was accomplished. Vivian and his paper, and the small nucleus of far-sighted farmers that agreed with his dream, were scoffed at by the other county papers. Every foot of the way toward the formation of a government irrigation district was accomplished in the face of odds.
In a Rustler editorial March 11, 1909, Vivian announced a special edition to advance the cause of irrigation. “Ten thousand copies of this special number will be distributed in the 10,000 seats of delegates to the Seventeenth Irrigation Congress in Spokane, Wash. This Irrigation Special will be the largest ever tackled by any paper in Monterey County. It will contain in tersely written articles the story of our past dry years, the bravery, the hardihood of our ranchers and stockmen who weathered all the hardships, the history of all the big grants, including the few that have been cut up.”
A page ad in the May 8, 1909, issue urged: “Don’t turn down the solicitor for the special Irrigation Edition when he calls upon you. Be liberal and help pull for irrigation in the Salinas Valley.”
Consider that this was not only a tremendous editorial task, but also a gigantic physical effort for Vivian and his wife, Sarah, to run off two pages at a time on a sheet-fed flatbed press about 1,000 per hour and fold by hand. Then Vivian and his wife traveled by train to Spokane to distribute the edition and take part in the Congress.
After the Congress the story in The Rustler read: “The delegates from Monterey County to the 17th National Irrigation Congress at Spokane … H.A. Greene and Benjamin Wright of Monterey and F.G. Vivian of King City … did not succeed in gathering much information regarding the Salinas Valley project, but were referred to a Mr. Gerdine of the U.S. Topographic Survey, Sacramento.”
At last The Rustler and its adherents seemed to be on the right track. A letter from Gerdine to Vivian was printed in September. The gist of it was an acknowledgement of the special irrigation edition.
Said Gerdine, “Your story in this edition relative to the progress of irrigation and the urgent necessity of a complete reclamation system in the Salinas Valley has been read with much interest and I am glad to note that you continue to make this subject a prominent and real live issue to your readers.”
Gerdine went on to report that 10 geodetic positions were established, that the entire valley was surveyed and that the region would probably receive a large federal appropriation when all the facts were presented.
But it wasn’t until Oct. 11, 1911, that The Rustler was able to print another letter that seemed to put the finishing touches to its decade-long fight for a green Salinas Valley.
This letter was under the heading, “This is Good News,” and it read: “Plans completed and work will proceed sometime this fall on Salinas Valley Irrigation Project.
You have a wonderful valley, fertile in the extreme and overflowing with a fine climate. It is to be hoped that after all the surveys have been completed the good people will all put their shoulders to the task of developing it at once. It is a large undertaking, but well worth the time and money spent on it, and when you have a family owning and living on each 80-acre tract, the ‘knockers’ will disappear and The Rustler may rest. Yours truly, R.B. Marshal, Chief Geographer, Department of Interior, U.S.G.S.”
That year Vivian was appointed by Gov. Hiram Johnson to membership on the state advisory board to attend the Irrigation Congress in Chicago.
The fight was won. The Rustler continued to boost irrigation, but it was no longer alone. The Salinas Journal joined in, and the Monterey Chamber of Commerce took up the cause.
The Salinas Valley didn’t turn green overnight. It was a long process. But eventually — some 50 years after “Visionary Vivian” started writing his editorials — Monterey County constructed dams on the tributaries of the Salinas, and today Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio store the water that feeds Salinas Valley irrigation systems.
Vivian’s editorials for breaking up the large land holdings and for water to irrigate weren’t his only crusades, of course. He was an outspoken editor, a man of firm opinions, hardly reticent. He boosted for the usual for a growing community — schools, parks, better roads, incorporation, sewer systems, whatever was needed to make King City and the Salinas Valley a better place.
He also held opinions on national and world matters, and his “Record of Personal Opinion,” a front-page column in The Rustler for 40 years, was widely quoted and brought him to the attention of The Oakland Tribune, for example, which offered him the editorial page desk. He was flattered by the offer, but wrote The Tribune that he preferred the independence of his own newspaper.
This independence was evident from his attitude about the role of a newspaper and its editor. July 10, 1903, he wrote in The Rustler: “This newspaper is run for the interest of the community at large. It does not subserve the will of its proprietor to the detriment of anyone nor does it pull anyone’s chestnuts out of the fire. When anything is to be said of interest to the community The Rustler says it fearlessly, even though we know in advance that somebody will pull his ad out and stop the paper.
“We try to avoid enmities as far as possible and never air personal grievances in these columns. Following this rule, it is a sure shot that when something is said that causes the falling away of one disgruntled patron, that same something brings us several new patrons to refill the niche. Therefore, do not expect, Offended One, that by eliminating your name from our lists that the paper will suspend publication.”
This independence was apparent also by his refusal to accept public office.
On many occasions Vivian was urged to run for assembly, for example, an honor that he declined. He strongly believed that a newspaper editor should remain uninvolved personally in public office so he’d be free to exercise his opinions in print.
However, he did accept the position as delegate from California to various irrigation congresses.
Even in his earliest days as an editor, his outspoken editorials often brought him into confrontations. He started his career as a country editor in Angel’s Camp in 1889, where he edited the Angel’s Voice and kept a sawed-off shotgun by his desk. The story of how the shotgun came to be there is a yarn.
Vivian was told that he’d better leave town or “go heeled” by one who took exception to his editorials. So Vivian made a big show of walking into the Angel’s Camp hardware store and buying the shotgun and a box of shells. He then walked down the middle of the street to the blacksmith shop, and as the townspeople looked on, directed the smithie to “saw this off right here.” When the job was finished he walked back down the middle of the street to his office and set the shotgun by his desk. He was not molested. The bully left town.
That same feisty attitude carried over to his early days in King City. Never as good a businessman as he was an opinion writer, Vivian was deeply in hock to the local bank. But when the bank manager attempted to dictate Rustler editorial policies, Vivian literally grabbed him by the neck and applied his boot to help the man out the front door.
The note was called, and Vivian had no cash. He appealed to his newsprint supplier, Blake, Moffett and Towne, and was lent the funds to pay off the note and keep his newspaper.
But the result was a rival in the field. The banker financed the establishment of the King City Herald, which was started in 1914, and until 1937 there were two semi-weekly newspapers serving that part of the Salinas Valley. In 1937 The Rustler purchased the Herald, and the combined nameplate, The Rustler-Herald, appeared at the top of page one until 1961 when Vivian’s grandson, Harry Casey, dropped the Herald, returning the paper to the name given it originally by “Visionary Vivian.”
Frederick Godfrey Vivian was born in Pontiac, Mich., June 12, 1862, and spent his boyhood in Alexandria, Minn., where he could recall his family and other townspeople fighting off the Sioux. As a little boy he helped load the rifles that were passed to the men who fired through the holes in the stockade at the circling Indians.
His newspaper career started by accident. At age 12 he was helping a crew dig a ditch for a sewer pipe in front of a print shop in Alexandria. He thought the printers watching the project had a better life than the men digging the ditch, and so he soon made friends with them. They sent him on errands — such as lugging lard buckets full of beer from the nearby saloon. Then they taught him to hold a type stick and learn the type cases. Soon he was a compositor.
The following was written by Vivian himself at the request of Publisher’s Auxiliary in 1944 at the time CNPA honored him in Del Monte as the oldest editor-publisher in the state, not just in age, but in length of service: “At 14 I had served two years as apprentice on the Alexandria Post, and one year in a Minneapolis job printing shop, so, I ‘showed up’ as a new sub in the composing room of the Minneapolis Tribune. It didn’t take long to acquire speed as a typesetter.
“In those days morning papers were really morning papers. ‘Thirty’ was on the hook at 3:30 a.m. and at 6 a.m. that night’s news was being hawked in the streets. About 25 subs to 60 regulars got all the work they wanted. All had itchy feet and no thought of the marrow except to acquire sufficient mazuma to buy a few beers and get to the next big town. It was a carefree life, even disgraceful to ask for work!
“One merely had to ‘show up’ in the composing rooms. Soon a ‘reg’ would approach, ask pleasantly, “Wanta work tonight?” and at a nod from the tourist would hand the sub his rule and tell him; “Slug 19,” or whatever his frame and slugs were numbered. Showing up next afternoon the sub pasted together his ‘dupes,’ measured them and then, for the first time, met the foreman. Foreman would check the string of pasted dupes, write an order on the counting room, and the sub got his pay and was in town for three or four days, maybe.
“After better than 20 years as a carefree sub with no thought of the marrow, I found myself in ’92 on this coast again, but with nothing in sight, for the linotypes (which displaced 30,000 compositors) were being set up in all the metropolitan newspaper composing rooms.
“Seeing an ad in the wanted column for an editor to take charge at Angel’s Camp, I went up to that booming gold camp and nailed the job. But in less than a year, Tom Lane, who owned the mine, the town, and everything in it, sold the shop.
“Back in Oakland I conceived the idea of starting a paper of my own in Niles, a small town down the line. Finding an angel, we hauled a plant down there and the Niles Herald was born, right in the midst of a depression, too! Somehow the little sheet was fairly prosperous — or seemed so to a couple of Oakland fellows with money, so my backer sold to them.
“Then I came to King City where $450 worth of hand printing junk had preceded me and the Salinas Valley Rustler was founded with no strings attached. I’m sure the first two ventures were lucky, for I certainly gained in experience more than I had lost otherwise.”
Of interest also are the obituaries that appeared in the state and national media when Fred Vivian died in 1945. The United Press release said: “Frederick G. Vivian, 83, oldest newspaperman in California and nationally known for his editorials, passed away last night after an illness since last summer. He was publisher of the King City Rustler-Herald, which he started in 1901.
“Born June 12, 1862, at Pontiac, Mich., Vivian spent his boyhood in that state and Minnesota, and could recall his family’s fighting off Indian attacks. He worked on newspapers in Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul and then traveled throughout the country.
“First of his many projects for his community and the Salinas Valley was his introduction of the future of irrigation to farming.”
And Stanton Delaplane, then a San Francisco Chronicle reporter and today a featured columnist, bylined the obituary for Vivian. He wrote: “Fred G. Vivian, who edited country newspapers in California before the turn of the century, was dead yesterday, his capable hands, at 83 years, still ink-stained from putting the last issues of the King City Rustler-Herald to bed.
“Vivian was a country editor in the best tradition. He worked on newspapers throughout the United States during the period when newsmen roamed the nation, seldom hanging their battered hats twice or long in the same town or office.
“Before the 1900s rolled around Vivian had worked on the San Francisco Examiner and was a contemporary of Ambrose Bierce and other great legendary figures of this city’s golden age of journalism. “In 1895 he left the Examiner to found his first weekly in Angels Camp. Later he founded and published a small paper in Niles before he went to King City.
“As editor and publisher of The Rustler-Herald in the rich Salinas Valley, he pounded editorially for irrigation until parts of the valley took up his project.
“The 83-year-old editor died in the tradition in which he had lived. Up to the time he was taken ill a few weeks ago, he worked regular hours on the paper and wrote his ‘Record of Personal Opinion’ column.”
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*