Down in the dusty basement of the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research, Donna Reynolds surveys the scene to her left and to her right, where she’s surrounded by shelves stocked with stacks of black, hard-bound editions of the Grass Valley Daily Union — or The Morning Union, or simply, The Union, depending on which era of the paper’s yellowed pages are inside.
A volunteer at the library, Reynolds is a regular among those poring over pages of periodicals inside Nevada City’s old Carnegie building, now more commonly known as the Foley.
But her smiling face and her absolute enthusiasm for everything involving local history has been around that library long before she became a volunteer there.
In fact, she has had relationship with that basement and the newspapers it houses since she was a child.
Once she had wrapped up her daily paper route, delivering The Union to doorsteps and front porches all around Nevada City, Donna would follow her mother’s orders and head over to the library to retrieve her father for dinner.
But more often than not, she admits, she would join her dad downstairs in the library, looking through all those old newspapers, and they’d simply lose track of time.
“Pretty soon my mom would have to call the library to tell us to come home for dinner,” she said.
“It’s like when a wife would call the bar to tell them to send her husband home.”
She smiles at the memory and then turns her attention to the importance of preserving all the newspapers — dating as far back to 1867 — that line the library walls all around her.
“The farther you go back in history, the less types of media there were, and you get to where it’s truncated to the paper,” she said.
“That’s why newspapers are just fascinating to me … there’s nothing else that can take you back that far. Even the Internet couldn’t be what it is today without at one point relying on the history that came out of these newspapers — or out of books that people got information for out of these newspapers.
“People seem to overlook that. They think books are passé, newspapers are passé … but you wouldn’t have the history you have today without both of those sources. They’re very important.”
Newspapers proved to be important to one of Reynolds’ latest pet research projects, finding the full identity of The Union’s founding proprietor.
In “Finding The Union’s founder, hero,” a 4,500-word piece published at TheUnion.com on Saturday — with a much shorter version appearing in print — Reynolds tracked down “Mr. Blumenthal,” the man who started and saved the fledgling paper within the first weeks of its existence.
While his partner, James W. E. Townsend, was more well known — notorious for his tall tales, often told without being based in fact — Blumenthal proved to be more worthy of acclaim when he refused to sell out to a competitor after having been paid to publish a paper to “preserve the Union, one and inseparable.” Without Blumenthal standing firm, Reynolds believes the paper would have likely gone by the wayside well before reaching any sort of anniversary.
“So I was thinking, why don’t we know who Blumenthal is?” Reynolds said.
And so she set out to learn exactly that, with the help of century-old newspaper pages and some fellow volunteer friends from the library, like Kathy Gunning and Alexis Tjoa. Earliest references to Blumenthal list him with a single initial, but by digging through ancient editions of the Alta California, the Nevada Transcript, the Sacramento Bee — and the Grass Valley Daily Union — along with official government documents, the Union’s founder was found.
“I’ve always liked puzzles,” Reynolds said with a laugh. “You take the paper and you look for any mention of him. … So where’s the clue? He’s got to be somebody more than Mr. Blumenthal. You just keeping taking each little clue. OK, so at least we know his first name started with an ‘H’ — or at least we hope it did — and you keep going and now we have it as ‘H.M.’ And you just keep going through more and more newspapers to try to isolate this.
“Then at one point I was able to figure out he was in San Francisco. Then I looked for him on the (U.S.) Census. And that’s when his name starts to be getting longer; and then I found him on the voters’ register and it gave me his full name (Henry Meyer Blumenthal).”
Once she found our founder, Reynolds and her friends used the same approach to nail down the birthplace of the paper, which started within the walls of what was formerly known as the “Exchange Building,” which soon thereafter became the Holbrooke Hotel. And now they continue their quest to find the very first editions of the Grass Valley Daily Union. Although the paper started on Oct. 28, 1864, the earliest edition known to exist is Jan. 1, 1865.
“We get donations every year from people who left us materials in their estates or cleaned out their attics or their trunks; and they bring in papers from the 19th century — things you couldn’t imagine still existed,” said Gunning, who lends her expertise in genealogy to anyone visiting the Foley.
“And we can’t believe that paper issues from October, November and December 1864 don’t exist somewhere. So we’re trying at every possible opportunity to ask our community neighbors to — if they have elderly relatives or they have attic boxes or trunks in the attic — take a look and see if they can’t find an 1864.”
As she wrapped up the puzzle that put all the pieces — and people — back in place as a permanent record of The Union’s birth, Reynolds dedicated her work to the memory of “Henry Meyer Blumenthal, founder of the Grass Valley Daily Union. Although his time with the paper was relatively short, he did indeed succeed in keeping the paper alive in its infancy. May his name now long be remembered as not only the founder, but the hero of the paper that went on to surpass the longevity of all others that ever were put in print in Nevada County.”
Just to be clear, the current staff at The Union feels as though we also have a few heroes at the Doris Foley Library. We’ll do our best to keep their extensive research as the record of the paper’s history long after its pages have yellowed and taken their own place in the archives.
Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-477-4249.
“People seem to overlook that. They think books are passé, newspapers are passé ... but you wouldn’t have the history you have today without both of those sources. They’re very important.”
Donna Reynolds, volunteer at Doris Foley Library