Seventy years ago on Sunday, a devout man with more energy than follow-through started The Black Mountain News.
Above a large headline announcing its arrival in the Swannanoa Valley were two boxed messages. One said “Business goes where its (sic) invited.” The other declared the new News was “A home newspaper with a weekly message.” Editor James C. Cornelius published that first edition, with assistant editor L.J. Barrett, on Sept. 6, 1945. Both likely groaned when they saw Barrett’s name misspelled above his front-page photo.
The Black Mountain News wasn’t the first paper of record in the town, according to “A History of Black Mountain North Carolina and Its People” by Joyce Justus Parris. The Black Mountain Advocate was published in 1934, and The Key City started up in 1942. “These probably did not exist long, and it was not until 1945 that Black Mountain had a dependable weekly paper,” the book states.
Each page of the paper in 1945 about 141/2 inches wide, about 3 1/2 inches wider than it is today. Subscriptions were $2.50 a year, dropping to $2 the next year, and papers were eight to 12 pages thick. The first issues were full of ads from local businesses welcoming the newspaper to town. A year later, in September 1946, the merchants congratulated the paper for surviving its first year. So did its editors.
“While we look back over the past twelve months, and review the earlier numbers of the News, we too wondered if it would ever become a newspaper,” Cornelius and then assistant editor John Ealy wrote on Sept. 26, 1946. Just over a year since they started it, Cornelius announced in a small front page article that he and Ealy had sold the paper to “two mighty fine boys from Illinois.” George Dougherty and Gordon Greenwood were the new owners, Greenwood having returned to the town he grew up in.
“Mr. Ealy and family will be moving back to Indiana before long where he has new interests,” Cornelius wrote. “Mrs. Cornelius, baby, and I will make our future home here in Black Mountain where we are building a new home.”
Greenwood, editor until Nov. 1, 1967, served in the state House of Representatives on two occasions (1959-1967 and 1977-1992). In 1967, Gordon Greenwood and Garnett Greenwood sold the paper to Community Newspapers, and in September 1969, James E. Aycock bought it. The Black Mountain News is now owned by Gannett.
For the first couple of years after its beginning in 1945, the paper had few photos. But it ran the column by popular - and later controversial - national gossip columnist Walter Winchell. By including one-paragraph reports of who had died, who was in town visiting and who was on vacation, the News could pack more than two dozen stories on the front page alone.
“It was pretty local,” Black Mountain resident Jim Buckner said. A postal carrier in Black Mountain who moved his family to North Fork, Buckner remembers the paper being much wider than it is now, full of weddings and the comings and goings of town folk. Black Mountain was much smaller then than now, so everything was big news, he said.
Buckner’s father-in-law lived in a house near the log cabin that Cornelius built on the corner of Oakland Drive and Church Street. The house, covered in siding, is still there, but “you can still see a few of the logs on the very back of the house,” Buckner said.
Carole Cornelius Peters, who lives in Florida, and Janice Cornelius Jacobs, from Gastonia, were in Black Mountain this summer to learn more about their family’s time here. They found Buckner, who took them to their old home on Church Street. Peters, the older of the two sisters, was about 2 years old when her family left Black Mountain soon after her father sold the paper. The older of the two Cornelius girls, Peters doesn’t remember much about her time here.
“Mother said (Cornelius) and another person (Barrett) decided to start a newspaper, and so they went to Black Mountain. I don’t know why,” Peters said. “My dad was an entrepreneur,” she said. “He had been involved in a lot of different jobs. He would do something, conquer it and move on. In the past he had worked for a lithograph company.”
By 1947, Cornelius had become restless again, it seems. The family moved to Florida, perhaps to be near Mrs. Cornelius’ parents. who lived there, Jacobs said. But Peters, her sister, thinks differently. “It was more likely he changed his mind and wanted to do something else,” she said.
Cornelius was the firstborn of seven siblings. “And the firstborn has a unique personality – they’re real go-getters,” Peters said. “We called (Daddy) a jack of all trades. He lived life leaning forward. He cared deeply for everything he did. But I don’t think he cared for it for very long.”
“My mother was not very fond of that aspect of him,” Peters said. “She wanted someone who worked 9 to 5, and Daddy was definitely not that. He was just so interested in every aspect of life that he just couldn’t be still. I don’t think he ever found his niche. But his being a pastor was probably the most meaningful thing he did.”
“His main job,” Jacobs said, “was as the white pastor of an all-black church in south Florida in the early ’50s. That was quite something for that time. It didn’t make our family very popular. He did chalk drawings to illustrate his sermons. Mom played organ.”
By then a pilot, Cornelius died in 1954, right before he was to start his new career as a traveling evangelist. He is buried in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“There wasn’t anything he was afraid to try,” Jacobs said. “His nickname was Speed. He did everything at a fast pace.”