Stephens City Star
Place of publication: Stephens City, VA
The Stephens City Star appeared each week for two years, from the mid-summer of 1881 until 1883. Serving a portion of Frederick County, Virginia's northernmost county, straddling the entryway to the lower Shenandoah Valley, the Stephens City Star was--remarkably--the community's first newspaper.
A small town, Stephens City had for many years languished in the shadow of Winchester, the county seat five miles to the north. The community was first known as Stephensburg, named after its founding family, and later as Newtown--a name also affixed to its then principal product, the Newtown Wagon, a variant of Pennsylvania's impressive Conestoga. But that was an association established before the Civil War. The 1874 expansion of the railroad to the northern reaches of the Valley foretold the end to wagon-making as a major industry. However, the railroad and steady improvements to the Valley Pike (now U.S. Route 11, shadowed by Interstate 81) ensured the town's eventual recovery from the war's devastation. The town changed its name one more time to Stephens City. The new name coupled with renewed commerce likely added to the optimism that the town might, at last, be able to sustain a local newspaper.
Three editors guided the Star during its short history. The first, Charles E. Painter, a young man in his early twenties, gave up the paper after only three months. A local doctor, S. M. Stickley, followed--and continued to advertise his practice on the front page. He, in turn, sold the newspaper to Ben S. Gilmore, the paper's foreman. Each understated the Star's Conservative-Democratic profile, instead usually directing more comments toward encouraging local business rather than openly influencing political opinion. The price of wheat, the area's principal cash crop, drew far more editorial notice than Virginia's contentious political infighting between Funders and Readjusters over the state's crippling debt.
"We have come to stay," Gilmore had reassured readers in his initial issue as editor. Just over a year later, however, he decamped to Middletown, the next town south, even farther from Winchester, to reissue the Stephens City Star as the Valley Echo. With a title unfettered to a specific town, perhaps Gilmore hoped that the Echo could draw income from a broader market. But the Echo, too, vanished--ending in 1885 without merger or progeny.
It has never been an easy task for a small community in northwest Virginia to support its own newspaper. The Northern Virginia Daily, for example, still published today, resulted from the 1932 consolidation of four small newspapers: the Strasburg News, the Woodstock Times and Edinburg Sentinel, the Front Royal Record, and the Marshall Chief Justice. All that points to the significance and enduring interest of the short-lived albeit singular Stephens City Star.