The Watauga Democrat, based in Boone, North Carolina, originated in July 1888 as a megaphone for the Democratic Party of Watauga County. The founder and editor was Joseph F. Spainhour (1850-1939) who, in the first issues, also offered his services as an attorney. The initial publisher was John Syme Williams (1862-1932). The four-page, six-column paper appeared weekly and, in a style typical of the partisan press of the day, the owners praised their party’s candidates and demonized their opponents. The Democrat‘s rival Republican paper was the Watauga Enterprise, established by Leonidas Leander Greene (1845-1898) and Thomas Edgar Bingham (1845-1917) in Boone earlier in 1888. It folded after the success of Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison at the polls that fall.
Spainhour acquired a handpress known as a “Washington Press” manufactured by R. Hoe and Company of New York. Made of black cast iron with silver springs and a pressure arm assembly, the contraption incorporated a wood frame and a marble table to hold and print one page at a time. It required two teams of horses to transport from the railroad station in Lenoir, North Carolina, to Watauga County. In use until 1913, the press today is in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of History.
Spainhour sold the Democrat in 1889 to Daniel Baker Dougherty (1833-1902) and Robert Campbell Rivers (1862-1933). Campbell served as publisher and Dougherty as editor. A man with little formal education, Dougherty, known to some as “Squire,” had established himself in Boone as a farmer, miner, blacksmith, and grist mill operator. Dougherty served as justice of the peace from 1890 to 1900, a title that granted him the power to regulate elections, appoint judges and county commissioners and to approve or veto the commissioners’ actions. He also served as Boone’s mayor for two terms and as postmaster, a position in which he is credited with expanding postal service in Watauga County.
As editor of the Democrat, Dougherty wrote of the plight of the farmer and supported the Farmers’ Alliance. Although when the Alliance’s leader Leonidas L. Polk split from the Democratic Party and formed a third party in 1892, Dougherty urged Watauga farmers not to follow suit. Dougherty also pushed for improved roads and the growth of the railroad in western North Carolina, and he advocated for increased support for public schools. Dougherty’s sons, Blanford Barnard and Dauphin Disco, would go on to form Watauga Academy, the forerunner of today’s Appalachian State University in Boone.
Dougherty remained associated with the Democrat until his death in 1902, at which time Rivers became both publisher and editor. Under River’s leadership, the paper added display advertisements for products as varied as Ford vehicles, Castoria, and motorcycles, a reflection of the rise of the consumer culture. Rivers also promoted his printing business in the paper.