Wallowa County Chieftain carries on long, proud tradition

Published on March 22, 2017 12:01AM


The Wallowa County Chieftain has a long, proud history of chronicling the daily life of the northeast corner of Oregon, week in and week out, year after year. In more than 125 years, the Chieftain has published every week, never missing an issue, while at least 25 other county publications have come and gone. Today it stands as the county's only newspaper and Wallowa County's oldest business by far.

The paper dates back to May 15, 1884, when the first issue was published in Joseph under editor H.S. Heckethorn. The idea of a local newspaper was conceived at a meeting called by Joseph storeowner F.D. McCully. He spearheaded a bill three years later separating Wallowa County from Union County.

The newspaper spent its first nine years in Joseph, before moving operations in 1893 to Enterprise, which remains its home base today. The Chieftain's first home in Enterprise was a building on Main Street that is now a bookstore. The paper moved into a custom-built structure made of native stone in 1916, where it remained until its transfer to its present modern quarters at 209 N. 1st St.

The Chieftain saw 11 editor-publishers come and go between 1884 and 1911, when a newsman from Kansas City, George Cheney, brought a new era of stability. He assumed the helm and held it for 30 years, through World War I and the Great Depression.

In 1941, a Springfield, Ill., lawyer named Gwen Coffin purchased the paper, starting a family tradition that spanned the next 60 years. Coffin himself was editor-publisher through 1971, when he sold the Chieftain to his son-in-law, Don Swart Sr, editor-publisher.

Coffin – who once took the very controversial stand of criticizing the government for its treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII – was inducted into the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association Hall of Fame in 1993. Coffin continued to write editorials and columns for the Chieftain until the week of his death in 1994.

Stewardship passed to Coffin's grandson, Richard Swart, who started working for the Chieftain shoveling snow from the sidewalk at age 7. Swart and his former wife Cheryl Swart purchased the Chieftain from Richard's father, Don Swart Sr, in 1998, becoming the third generation of his family at the head of the Chieftain. Cheryl worked at the Chieftain for over 13 years as the head of the advertising department.

The East Oregonian Publishing Co. (now EO Media Group), with its own long background as a family business, purchased the Chieftain from the Swarts in March 2000.

The Chieftain, like other surviving publications over a century old, has gone through a dizzying array of technological changes through the decades. In 1912, for example, it went from hand composing to Linotype and in 1977 from letterpress to offset printing.

In 1987 writing news stories on typewriter gave way to computer word processing programs. Manual page paste-up gave way to computer pagination, and printing in-house to transferring computer pages for printing at the East Oregonian plant in Pendleton, allowing the use of full color in every issue.

The Chieftain was the second newspaper in Oregon with a presence on the Internet, starting with a bulletin board service in 1995 and launching its first website with the www.wallowa.com address in 1996. 

The Chieftain has thrived with the ongoing support of its parent company, EO Media Group, serving its on-line customers with frequent news updates as part of a multimedia identity, while continuing to produce a quality weekly newspaper.

Though it is firmly grounded in the modern age, the Chieftain draws from historical roots in its continuing community news coverage for all of Wallowa County.