‘Our newspaper is the eyes and ears of our community’
June 6, 2014
Gumshoe reporting puts MO town on the map
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
We’ve all heard the cliché “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” at some point in our lives. But how many of us know what that phrase means or where it came from?
After all, it is easy to take sliced bread for granted. We simply go into our pantry and grab a package. But making a sandwich has not always been so easy.
This is the story of how an enterprising editor, using old-fashioned sleuthing and shoe-leather reporting put her town on the map, sliced bread in the record books, and prove that newspapers are, indeed, the first rough draft of history.
At the turn of the 20th century, sliced bread was unheard of, until an inventor in Davenport, IA, created a revolutionary contraption that would slice an entire loaf of bread in one chop.
Bakers hated the idea. They thought pre-sliced bread would dry out and go stale quickly. But when Otto Frederick Rhowedder unveiled his slicing machine in 1928, it didn’t take long to catch on with consumers.
The Chillicothe Baking Co. of Chillicothe MO, was on the verge of bankruptcy when it took a chance on technology, and used the machine to produce the first-ever commercially sliced bread July 7, 1928.
Kleen Maid Sliced Bread went straight to grocery shelves and into the history books.
Ten years ago, Livingston County, MO, and its county seat, Chillicothe, were doing just fine, and didn’t necessarily need to get on the map, but that is just where the small town, population 10,000, has ended up.
Cathy Stortz Ripley had been editor of the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune about 10 years when she started working on a book detailing the county’s history, derived from the pages of the daily newspaper, going all the way back to 1860.
Going through microfilm, she read every single page of every available issue. In the old days, the pages were huge broadsheets, with stories printed in a tiny typeface and topped with small tombstone headlines. She devoted nights and weekends to research.
“It was grueling,” she said. “I had no life.”
She recorded the highlights of each year, and she went in chronological order, reading page after page.
“There were times when I was tempted to skip a page, and I thought ‘who would even notice,’” she admitted. “But I am a perfectionist and my conscience wouldn’t let me.”
One small front-page item, published in July 1928, caught her attention, and she couldn’t get it out of her mind.
The article reported that sliced bread had been invented, and the first loaves were about to appear on store shelves in Chillicothe.
“I included that item in the history book, and I wondered about it,” she said. “I had lived in Chillicothe since 1992, and I had never heard that story about sliced bread. I wondered if it was even true.”
As a promotion, the Constitution-Tribune began running articles from the book, and the story about sliced bread was published.
Then the stars began to align.
First, a librarian contacted Ripley and revealed that years before, the Guinness Book of World Records had contacted her about the origins of sliced bread in Chillicothe, but she had never heard of it, even though she was born and raised there.
In 2003, a reporter from the nearby Kansas City Star called Ripley for information to include in a history project he was working on, and she sent him the history book she had compiled.
The reporter realized 2003 was the 75th Anniversary of sliced bread, and put the story on the Kansas City Star’s front page.
The city of Battlecreek, MI, protested, claiming sliced bread was first unveiled there.
The dispute hit the wire services, and Ripley started getting phone calls from people all over the world, asking if Chillicothe really was the home of sliced bread.
So Ripley tracked down Otto Rhowedder’s son, Richard, who was still alive at 88 years old and living in Arkansas.
“I got his name, address and phone number and thought ‘heck yeah, I’m going to call this man,’” she said.
Richard Rhowedder confirmed the story by phone.
Furthermore he was present when history was made.
He told Ripley he was 13 in 1928 when he traveled from Iowa to Chillicothe with his parents, hauling the massive bread slicer, which measured approximately 5 feet long and 3 feet tall.
Rhowedder’s father and Chillicothe Baking Co. owner, Frank Bench, were friends. Bench offered the elder Rhowedder an opportunity to test the new fangled slicer on his bread, when no other baker would.
“Frank Bench’s bakery increased its bread sales by 2,000 percent in two weeks,” the younger Rhowedder told Ripley.
As proof his story was true, Rhowedder told Ripley his father had kept a scrapbook, which still existed. He refused to put it in the mail, so he flew from his Arkansas home to Chillicothe to deliver it in person.
Ripley met Rhowedder and his scrapbook at the airport in a stretch limousine and transported them to the newspaper where she verified the story and made copies of the book.
In the decade since the story broke, Chillicothe has become known the official Home of Sliced Bread.
Located in North Missouri, Chillicothe is about 90 miles from Kansas City and 70 miles from St. Joseph, MO.
“Chillicothe is very progressive,” Ripley said. “The town recently installed a $4.2 million football field that is top notch.”
Last year, the town also completed a $4.2 million water park and last January, cut the ribbon on a $41 million hospital.
“Our community is not necessarily wealthy, but we do have a generous population, and generous foundations,” Ripley said.
A lifelong Missourian, Ripley was born and raised in St. Louis. She started her journalism career at a weekly newspaper in Marceline, MO, and worked for the Daily Guide of Waynesville, a Gatehouse Media newspaper. In 1992, she joined the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, also owned by Gatehouse.
The Constitution-Tribune’s 13-person staff puts out 12 to 16 pages each day, manages a website, and has a social media presence on Facebook with 3,460 users.
“Our newspaper is the eyes and ears of our community,” Ripley said. “We depend on our readers to keep us informed, and our readers depend on us to keep them informed.”
The Constitution-Tribune is doing fine financially, but there is always room for improvement, said Ripley. Like other newspapers, they are looking for strategies for online advertising, and trying to solve the conundrum of website paywalls.
“We are always striving to exceed expectations, and we are constantly evolving,” Ripley said. “We focus on local news our readers can’t get anywhere else.”
And one time in 2003, their local news caused worldwide headlines, and made the Constitution-Tribune the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Name of Paper: Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune.
News Editor: Cathy Stortz Ripley.
What is your newspaper’s circulation? 2,770.
Frequency of publication: Daily (Monday-Friday).
Mission statement: Customer satisfaction is our No. 1 priority. Our customers define what’s right for them. We listen, think and respond with care. What we do makes the difference.
How many people are on your staff? Newsroom has three. Because we are a small staff, the newsroom also does the photography, page layout, community news, obituaries, social media, website content. We have one sports editor. Overall: 13 full-time employees.
What are your top goals for 2014? Ensuring that the newspaper continues to be the first place people turn for news, sports and local features by responding quickly to events, searching out news stories, and taking a leadership role in our community.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? Our dedication to the community. Most of us have made Chillicothe our home and are committed to giving our readers a balanced mix of local news, sports and features. We have a strong presence in the community and many employees of the Constitution-Tribune are involved in local causes. Several have leadership roles outside of the newspaper.
What are your newspapers’ biggest challenges? Covering all that needs coverage with limited resources and meeting deadlines. It is also a struggle to determine what content to publish online for free.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? People rely on us to keep them informed about everything from local government and courts to school plays and the senior center activities. We take a stand when we feel changes need to be made, yet advocate for special causes.
What you love to hear from readers? The good, the bad and the ugly. We enjoy positive comments about our coverage, and try to view criticism as an opportunity to reflect, learn and improve.
One thing you’d never change? Our passion for being a part of people’s lives and doing that which is good for the community.