Happy Birthday to the St Helena Star!

Happy birthday–September 25, 1874–to the St Helena Star weekly newspaper, one of the oldest papers in California still publishing. (Downieville’s “Mountain Messenger” is the oldest, from 1854).

1878 sketch of new stone St Helena Star building, still in use as art gallery 1378 Main St
St Helena Star offices

1870s NAPA VALLEY: When the Star’s first issue hit the streets back on September 25, 1874, the town of St Helena had been growing steadily for twenty years as both a residential and market center for agriculture (wheat, grapes, fruit orchards), mining (cinnabar, mercury, silver), and tourism (second homes, health spa resorts). This was two years before the town incorporated officially (in 1876 during the nation’s Centennial) as City of St Helena. Napa’s Register began publishing eleven years earlier than the Star in August 1863.

There were multiple competing papers, even in a small city like St Helena, including papers published in German for the large German immigrant community. And it was common for papers of the era to have a distinct and open political point of view that affected all content, not just the editorial/opinion pages.

INSIDE THE STAR: The Star’s first Editor and proprietor Dewitt C. Lawrence introduced the paper with tongue in cheek: “To-day we commence the publication of the Star, which in size is not quite as small as some of its country cousins, or quite as pretensious (sic) as its City Fathers, but what it lacks in metropolitan grandeur, we aim to make up in local home intelligence, which in reality is of more absolute importance to the people of Napa County, than the mammoth journals of a great city.”

St Helena Star’s very first front page, Sept 25, 1874

Reading the back issues of the Star can be addictive fun–incredibly detailed stories of parades or political debates mix with an almost-Twitter-like stream of short news updates mixing hometown news such as who had family visiting from back East to news briefs from nearby counties or from Washington DC. Plus there are the advertisements from blacksmith and livery services, to undertakers, to hardware, to health cures.

Want to take a dive into the “Star-ry” past yourself?  Two ways:

COME VISIT DOWNTOWN ST HELENA–You may visit the Star’s original “bricks-and-mortar” at 1328 Main St…. The paper’s second proprietor/publisher, lawyer Charles Gardner, took over in 1876 and built this stone beauty building downtown, making it the only newspaper in the county at that time to occupy its own building. Over a century later, new owners Caldwell-Snyder Gallery rescued and beautifully repurposed this piece of Napa Valley heritage in 2008 and welcome history lovers to come see–and enjoy the art, too.

The Caldwell-Snyder Gallery refurbish the Star’s 1870s building in 2008

VIRTUAL VISIT ONLINE -Anyone can now access the St Helena Star’s past issues online through the St Helena Public Library HERE–no squinting at microfiche necessary! You can even search for names or terms that hold an interest for you. While the labels and cross-referencing are not error-free, this is a powerhouse for both casual and professional researchers.
Digital archives here include:

  • St. Helena Star from 1874-2015
  • Napa Valley Register 1863-2016
  • The Weekly Calistogan 1877-2016 (including forerunners like The Independent Calistogian

By the way, the wonderful folks at the St Helena Historical Society are holding on to the original full-sized bound copies of the St Helena Star. Serious researchers may make an appointment to take a gander by contacting shstory@shstory.org.

1878 Sketch of the Napa Valley Register’s early offices above a livery store in Napa
1878 sketch of Napa County Reporter (founded 1856) newspaper office in Napa, above a hardware store.
St Helena Star front page 1888–more advertisements than news!