A Home News History: Depression, Then War Effort Led To Newspaper’s Beginning

bill-1Bill Halbfoerster in a printing class at Northampton High School, circa late 1940s.

By BILL HALBFOERSTER
The Home News

The Great Depression of 1929 and into the early 1930s found the family of William and Edna Halbfoerster at a loss. While Bill Sr. had a job with the Elizabeth Daily Journal in New Jersey, the hard times took their toll and the family lost their home in Roselle, New Jersey to foreclosure—something that is all too familiar now in the early 2000s.

Bill Sr.’s brother Ferd, a former piano player in Vaudeville, had established an egg business at his farm in the Jamesville area just west of Bath, Pennsylvania. Here was an opportunity to start over again; Bill Sr. and his wife and two young children moved to Pennsylvania.

Printing Business

With his printing background, Bill Sr. started the Main Street Press in Bath in 1936 and Edna had a stationery store at the front of their home at 91 W. Main St.

In a building to the rear of Schaeffer’s Candy Store next door was a newspaper business called The Bath News, run by Alfred “Yockey” Green. After World War II started in 1941, there was a gigantic push to build planes, tanks, and artillery.

The war effort drew Green to Bethlehem Steel and he abandoned the newspaper, which, at the time, was a full-sized sheet of very few pages and contained much boilerplate advertising along with news of happenings in Bath. It was a good weekly newspaper.

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Home News Born

With its demise, Bill Sr. saw an opportunity to get into the newspaper business and he started a tabloid called The Home News in December of 1942. It was only four pages with local ads and most news written by another next-door neighbor, the late John Sencenbach, who had a shoe store and typed news for a city newspaper, writing his notes on used envelopes. Your editor often visited him as a youngster and got some words of wisdom from John. I had just turned 12 years old.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald H. Helfferich, then pastor of Christ Evangelical & Reformed Church in Bath, was the first editor. His and Bill Sr.’s idea was to have a newspaper that could carry local news for those serving in the armed forces, helping them to keep in touch with folks back home. Part of that was a folksy column written by Pete Foxhole, containing names of people they knew, often with a comical flavor.

We had a Kluge Platen Press that used suction cups and an arm to deliver the folded sheet and print one page at a time. This was done four times for the four pages. All the type was hand-set, one letter at a time. I remember studying in school during the day and setting type at night, sometimes falling asleep in front of the California job case.

It was a quiet time in Bath in the early 40s. But two major events happened: the July 9, 1945 flood when a cloudburst flooded downtown and swept Spengler’s barbershop across the street, and German prisoners of war helped in the clean-up. A little youngster was swept to his death. The other major event, of course, was the ending of World War II when we celebrated along Main Street.

bill-11-bwSome time later, we moved from that location on W. Main Street to the Ed Barrall building a couple doors away. Mom had her stationery store in the front of the residence and Dad ran the printing and newspaper business out of a converted garage on Barber Street at the rear of Main Street. We now had a cylinder press. Sheets had to be hand-fed, but we printed four pages at a time. The sheets came off the cylinder and were flung down into a box by what I called a “gate.” The editions were mostly 12 or 16 pages, but later they grew to 24, 36 and even much larger in four sections for a Bath 225th anniversary edition.

Now we were covering not just Bath, but also Moore, East Allen, Allen, Lower Nazareth, and Bushkill townships, plus the boroughs of Nazareth and Northampton. The paper grew in circulation and the number of ads that made it possible.
My parents moved to S. Chestnut St. and Dad had a building erected by a local contractor. Inside, another cylinder press fed the 24×36-inch sheets, printed the four pages from a “chase” that held the news and ads, all consisting of lead, with the type now completely in linotype, which I set. The sheets went across flame that dried the ink and fell into a platform with rollers.

Rev. Helfferich left Bath to become Executive Director of Church World Service in New York City and to start Heifer International, a relief program with cows in Europe after World War II.

I was drafted into the U.S. Army in November of 1952, trained with the Army Engineers in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and was then shipped overseas to Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany. I worked in the historical section of the Seventh Army and came out a sergeant. After I returned from serving from 1952 to 1954, I was given the task of editor, something I enjoyed since I did well in English and spelling in school and liked to get around and meet people.

Married in 1954

I married the former Anna Wagner and together over the years we had five children. They were all part of the family business, and while Anna operated a beauty salon in Bethlehem, she also helped out at The Home News. When she sold the beauty shop, she worked full time at the print shop doing bookkeeping and welcoming customers up front, all the while raising our children. We enjoyed working together.

Dad passed away a day after Thanksgiving in 1966 at the age of 64 and Anna and I took over full ownership.

As our newspaper evolved into the offset process during the late 1970s, we had to have it printed by a Lehighton daily newspaper. The preliminary work was still done in Bath. We had two Compugraphic machines (our first computers) that used a high-speed wheel with a strip of celluloid containing letters and numerals that were typed out on a keyboard. It was then transferred to paper and pasted on a sheet of paper for each page by Anna, our son, David and myself. After all the news was pasted on the paper and placed on masonite boards, it was taken to Lehighton and printed. While the workload was lighter, it took many hours and we often worked late into the night, seeing the sun rise. Our other son, Kevin, was a natural at soliciting advertisements. Anna and the girls we employed all worked together to make the business a success.
We had part-time reporters, but your editor covered most of the major stories and went to all the municipal meetings; something that has continued to this day.

Covered Major News

Not all the news was good news. Even in a small town, there are things that are bad … like the robbery of the First National Bank of Bath when the cashier’s wife was held hostage. A few years later, on June 6, 1986, a branch of the bank in East Allen Township was held up and three people were killed; we published an extra edition that week. I parked my Suburban on the bank lot, and when word came that the robbers were along Indian Trail Road in Allen Township, I and other reporters went to a field and saw them captured by state police. I covered the entire trial of Martin Appel in Northampton County Court, in which he was sentenced to death. His execution was to be at the Bellefonte Penitentiary in Centre County and I was invited to observe it. However, Appel appealed before that happened and still remains a prisoner.

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Major fires we covered included a plastics factory that was a former creamery, a garment factory, a string of arson fires, and a Bath hardware store. There was a murder-suicide in Crossroads and many fatal accidents. Those were some tragedies that were covered along with local news of people and happenings. One of the good things I covered was the crowning of Miss Pennsylvania, with local resident Liz Stehly, Miss Lehigh Valley, a contestant.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed President Gerald Ford, four Pennsylvania Governors and met nationally famous personalities, something that would never have happened if I weren’t in the news business. I enjoyed meeting these people very much.

One other story that was interesting for me was when I was invited by the Marine Corps to cover recruits coming to Parris Island, South Carolina. We flew out of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, stayed overnight in a motel, and in the early morning hours saw the new Marines get their heads shaved. Later, we fired M-1 rifles on the range and had a chance to interview the new Marines for a story.

Broken Back

We’ve been a family that sticks together in good times and bad. One summer during the cherry-picking season, I fell to the ground when a ladder broke, and sustained a fractured vertebra. As I lied in bed at Gnaden Heutten Hospital in Lehighton, I wrote a story about the symbols used to record products and prices at Ahart’s Market in Bath. Even during my six months of therapy that followed, the rest of the duties at The Home News carried on with my family and our employees.

2001 Tragedies

Shortly after my 70th birthday, I fell down steps at home and, after a physical examination, it was discovered I had cancer of the bladder. Subsequently, cancer was also found in my prostate and I had both organs surgically removed on May 17, 2001 in Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

The family carried on as I convalesced for a short time. Anna, who had always been so faithful and caring for me, worried for my health. Little did she know, she had developed cancer herself. Doctors had no clue about it. On July 28, 2001, she passed away.

With Anna’s passing, the backbone of our business was gone. She was the love of our lives and now the missing link.

There was one complication to my earlier surgery, a blockage to my left kidney, necessitating its removal. On September 11, 2001, as I lay in a bed at Jefferson Hospital awaiting that surgery, I saw the national tragedy when terrorists flew two passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and 3,000 people died. Then quickly followed similar hijacking plane tragedies in Washington, D.C. and central Pennsylvania, where additional deaths were recorded.

Sold Business

bill-12-bwOur boys and I decided to sell the business, as their interest waned because of the hard work and long hours involved, and the death of Anna. First, the business was sold to Robert Carter of Connecticut and then to Innovative Designs & Publishing of Palmer Township. It remains in IDP’s ownership to this day. I carried on as editor and reporter, for I wanted to see this newspaper remain as a means of communication for the people of this area.

We’ve consistently covered local news and it was our son, David, who came up with the slogan, “Your Local News.” Now, as it has been since 1942, may The Home News continue to serve the people of the Bath, Nazareth, and Northampton areas with their boroughs and townships, even as we are in the electronic age. Print media needs to remain intact. I sincerely believe that and hope that the young people will too.

Final Step

Now that I’ve been named to the honorary position of Editor Emeritus, my workload will be lighter, but I will continue to be interested in the people and events of our area and will report local news, my health permitting. I’ve always considered our paper as a daily printed once a week, and so I’ve accepted the challenges and did the best I could, getting the facts and putting it all together for our readers.

Others will take on the reigns of leadership and the reporting of news from the same widespread area that will be of interest to our readers. Life goes on and so will The Home News. Although originally from New Jersey, I’m a Bathite and a Konkrete Kid! God bless you all.

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