published Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Holmberg: Adolph Ochs: A granddaughter's perspective

By Ruth Holmberg
  • photo
    In the late 1880s, The Chattanooga Times moved into what is now known as the Dome Building.
    Photo by Archive Photo

My grandfather, Adolph Ochs, came to Chattanooga in 1877, when he was 17 years old. He lived here until 1896, when he bought The New York Times. But until his death in 1935, his response to the question of where he was from was always "Chattanooga, Tenn." His heart was here, and this is where the Horatio Alger story began.

Adolph was born in Cincinnati in March 1858. The family soon moved to Knoxville. His father, Julius, a native of Bavaria, was a scholar and a dreamer, later a lay rabbi, and never fared well in business. He fought in the Mexican War and was an officer in the Union Army. His wife, Bertha Levy, was a Confederate sympathizer and would cross through the Union lines pushing a baby buggy that contained medical supplies for the Confederate Army.

Julius prospered briefly with a drapery shop in Knoxville, but the panic of 1867 wiped him out. As the oldest child among six, Adolph began to supplement the family income. At age 9 he was delivering newspapers. He was a pretty ragged looking newsboy. By age 15 he was a printer's devil but was soon looking for other opportunities.

During the Civil War, Confederates and Federals fought over Chattanooga valuing its rail hub and strategic location on the Tennessee River. Historians Gilbert Govan and James Livingood noted that, when Adolph came to Chattanooga in 1877, "40 years of age and pockmarked by the ravages of war, the town in its outward appearance was typical of the settling phase of frontier development.

Nothing but the most miserable dirt roads was at the command of the farmers who wished to market produce in Chattanooga, and only a crude ferry operated by an old mule on a treadmill bridged the river." Still many flocked to a city that was neither Northern nor Southern but American in character. Chattanooga welcomed the newcomers' capital and experience. Advertisements began to show growing industrial development, especially in iron, railroads and utilities. Adolph saw the town's potential.

Adolph joined the Chattanooga Dispatch as business solicitor. Newspapers were starting and stopping at a great rate in those days, and the Dispatch lasted only a few months. Accepting responsibility as receiver of the newspaper, he solicited job printing and published a city directory. He was able to pay off the Dispatch's debt and established a reputation for earnestness and honesty while learning about Chattanooga and its people.

In 1878 the nine-year-old Chattanooga Times was on the verge of bankruptcy. Adolph persuaded its owner to sell him half interest with the opportunity to buy the other half. Soon the 20-year-old Adolph had full control and set to work with confidence and energy. The Ochs family moved to Chattanooga, and Adolph's two brothers began working with him. The paper prospered becoming a great supporter of Chattanooga, "primarily devoted to the material, educational and moral growth of our progressive city and its surrounding territory." In the late 1880s the Times moved into what is now known as the Dome Building.

During the 1880s, a land boom hit Chattanooga. Adolph was soon well over his head in debt. To bail himself out he went to New York City in search of financing and also on a fishing expedition -- to buy another newspaper. In 1896 the New York Times with circulation down to 9,000 was heavily in debt and one of the smallest against 15 other newspapers including the World, Journal, Herald, Tribune and Sun.

The New York Times was a failing newspaper much like the early Chattanooga Times. Various businessmen were impressed with the young confident publisher from the South and rallied together to salvage the paper. Within four years the paper was profitable, and Adolph had taken control. Today the New York Times is the lone survivor of those great giants of the industry.

His physical health declined in later years, and Adolph Hitler's rise threw him into a bout of depression. In April 1935, his spirits rallied, and his thoughts returned to home. Making a trip to Chattanooga, he spent a few glorious days with old friends and associates. Over lunch at the old Coffee Shop on Cherry Street, he lapsed quietly into a coma and slept his life away. The Ochs Temple, Ochs Highway, Ochs Museum, and Dome Building are a few of the reminders of my grandfather's love for Chattanooga.

Ruth Holmberg, granddaughter of Adolph Ochs, is the retired Publisher of the Chattanooga Times. Visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call Lavonne Jolley 423-886-2090.

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