Brezina tells story of Minden Times and Minden Progress
Published Feb. 14, 2019
When Jack Brezina was asked to talk about the history of the Minden Times for members of the Haliburton County Historical Society on Jan. 24, he was more than happy to do so, after a little research that brought out the skills honed during his time as a journalist.
Brezina owned the Minden Times for 22 years, but hadn’t delved into the history of the organization prior to his ownership, he told the crowd gathered at the Haliburton Highlands Museum.
Over the years, he had met people on the street or in the post office who had offered him what he said were snippets of information about the paper’s past, but he didn’t know much about the Times outside of the years from 1979 to 2001, when he was publisher of the paper, which turned 56 last month.
“I didn’t have an organized place to start and place to end, so I went looking for sources, as any good journalist would do,” he said.
Some help from a 2013 article celebrating the Times’ golden anniversary written by current reporter Chad Ingram, research at the Haliburton Highlands Museum, conversations with Minden residents and searching online helped him gather the information he needed for a look back that was very well-received by the crowd.
The Minden Progress, the forerunner of the Minden Times, was first published on Jan. 30, 1963, started by editor Alan Capon, printer Charles Stevens, ad manager Don Nye and business manager Ervin House. Bob Beeney, Bill Payne and Jim Elder were other early staff members.
Initially the paper had no headquarters, just a Minden post office box.
“The preparation was done at the homes of these individuals that I’ve mentioned,” said Brezina. “They would gather the news, get the contributions from the community, put it together, type it all up, and then it was sent down to Stevens’ print shop which was in Fenelon Falls where it was laid out and finally printed.”
Warren Payne, son of Bill, remembered that it would come back to Minden on the late bus on Friday night, and his parents would set about folding the papers and addressing them.
“Addressing was originally a cut-and-paste job with hand-typed labels, but later a labelling machine was obtained,” said Brezina, reading files from Stephen Hill at the Haliburton Highlands Museum. “This chore occasionally ran until 3 a.m. in the morning on the Saturday morning, but it was necessary because they needed to get the papers to the post office at 8 a.m.”
Though Warren couldn’t find any bits of newspaper memorabilia in the basement when Brezina asked him if he might have any old materials left from those days, he does remember that time and the yellow rubber finger coverings he wore while helping with the papers.
“For some odd reason, Warren remembers not only the smell of the ink – well, I think that’s normal, when I walk into a print shop I can smell the newspapers that used to be running through my veins – and as he labelled or was working with it ... his hands would be black and the ink would be up his sleeves. But he also wore little rubber finger tips to help him pick up the papers. So for whatever reason, it sticks in his mind.”
Initially, the Progress was printed twice monthly. In 1965, it was sold to Al Grier, who changed it to a weekly process.
For the first time, the newspaper had a home of its own when Grier built an office that some readers might remember as being the brightly-coloured later home of Sunny Variety on Bobcaygeon Road and housed there the printing press equipment that he purchased from Stevens.
In 1973, Grier sold the paper to Bill and Marni Foote of Chatham. Bill was a former Globe and Mail and Toronto Star reporter who leased the building from Grier until the newspaper office was moved, eventually settling into its 30-year-home over the bridge in the former liquor store on Bobcaygeon Road, where the Organic Times health food store is now located.
“Deborah moved in there and bought the building, then she said she had a surprise for me on opening day and there it was,” said Brezina of the health food store name that pays homage to the paper. “I really appreciated that. And if you look ... the word ‘Times’ is in our own old type style. It’s good to see.”
Under the Footes, the newspaper went bankrupt.
“It’s not an uncommon thing for small newspapers in small towns, for that to happen,” said Brezina.
West Guilford businessman Grenville Stamp and Minden entrepreneur and Lutterworth township reeve Ron Gambell, “recognizing an opportunity as well as not wanting the community to be without a local voice,” said Brezina, “saved the business.”
It was at that time, the Progress became the Times.
“I always told anyone that inquired that the Minden newspaper was somehow linked to the New York Times and the Times of London, but I don’t think anyone believed me,” said Brezina.
Gambell told the Times in 2013 he had liked the name because he was an Oshawa native and was familiar with the name of the local paper there, the Oshawa Times. Together the pair relied on community contributions in the form of press releases or news from service clubs and organizations, to fill the pages.
“Meanwhile, 600 kilometres to the north, I was working as the editor of the Northland Post in Cochrane,” said Brezina. He and his wife Pat wanted to move south, and through the Ontario Community Newspaper Association, he began making inquiries about what might be for sale.
“I came down and visited with a few of them, but they were a great deal out of my [price] range,” said Brezina, and to laughs: “Well, I didn’t have any money at all, so...”
In early May, 1979, Brezina drove to Minden following information the Minden Times might be available for sale.
“...[L]eaving behind 12-foot high snowbanks and ice-covered lakes, way up in the north, I arrived in Minden to see the grass was green,” said Brezina. “The horticultural society was planting the riverside flower beds and nary a drop of snow could be seen.”
Brezina was sold on the community, and with the help of his father who took out a second mortage on his Kitchener home, his offer of $30,000 for the business was accepted. He took ownership on June 4, 1979. The paper came with four staff: receptionist, typesetter, reporter/editor and a salesperson.
“The last edition before I took over was a thin 12 pages, and I knew I wouldn’t last long if the page count, which is predicated on the number of ads in the paper, did not increase,” said Brezina. “My experience was as a journalist. My knowledge of running the business side of a newspaper was as thin as that last edition.”
A summer paper would run 16 pages in length and would shrink to eight pages in February, with the businesses being as seasonal as the population of the time. Many cottagers at the time closed their cottages on Labour Day or Thanksgiving and returned for the May long weekend.
“However, I’d like to give credit here to the Dollo family, who owned and operated the IGA grocery store, now the Foodland store,” said Brezina. “They had a full-page ad on the back page when I bought the paper, and it was there when I sold it 22 years later. It is something you don’t see today, but having a grocery store ad in your paper back then was significant. Beyond the income it generated for the paper, in an era before grocery store flyers, its presence was a good reason for residents to subscribe or buy the paper from the stores. It provided an incentive for other businesses to advertise in the publication, knowing that people would be picking it up to scan the grocery specials for that week, and quite frankly, it was a feather in our caps to have a weekly ad of that size in our newspaper even when it was just 12 or eight pages.”
Brezina took on the reporting and editing responsibilities to keep the paper afloat, and covered county council, the local councils, and meetings of the pre-amalgamation lower tier townships in the area, including Lutterworth, Snowdon, Stanhope, Dorset, and Anson, Hindon and Minden.
“So that kept us fairly busy, and most of those municipalities used our paper to advertise zoning changes ... so our coverage of their efforts, I think was appreciated in most cases, unless we were uncovering something unsavoury going on.”
After five years or so, a reporter was hired and coverage was expanded to include Dysart council, the Haliburton County school board, and occasionally townships in the east, including Gooderham, Glamorgan and further east. Correspondence from Hyland Crest and the now-defunct Women’s Institute was included, as well as a Minden column by Jeanne Sears.
“She would be chronicling the social comings and goings of the village and the area, and like many of the corespondents of the day in small-town weeklies, she reported who was ill, who had visited the city or who had visitors up,” said Brezina. “Births, deaths and marriages were noted as well as her personal pet peeves: kids riding their bicycles on the sidewalks, messy yards, businesses that weren’t open when their sign said they should be. Her contributions and those of her fellow correspondents were a colourful addition to the paper and helped create a sense of community.”
In those days before computers, reporters wrote their stories on typewriters, which they handed to a typesetter, who had to retype it into a machine that created long strips of photographic paper.
Those strips were run through a processor, hung to dry after running through a developer and fix, and then run through a waxer, which coated the back of the strips before they were cut and paste onto layout pages, with copy being fit around ads.
Headlines and cutlines were added to photos – spotted typos were dreaded due to the process – and finished pages were rolled to ensure the pieces stayed in place. The newspaper was printed at a press in Bracebridge, alongside numerous other community papers.
“We had our slotted time,” said Brezina. “Miss the appointment, and they would move to other work and we would have to wait and hopefully try to fit us in so I could get it back.”
It was crucial, according to Brezina, to have the papers back in the office by 8 a.m. so that local subscribers could have their paper that morning.
“In the early days, I’d drive back and forth twice,” said Brezina, detailing how he had to drop off the bundle of pages and then return in the early morning hours to pick up the finished product. “Eventually things got better, but there were times, particularly in the winter, when I’d just stay at the printing plant, sleeping on the post office bags sitting there.”
The economy grew during that time, winter cottaging and snowmobiling became more popular and businesses were busier during the winter.
“Remember those 12 or 16 page papers when I bought the business,” asked Brezina. “Well in the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for the Times and its supplements to amount to 94 pages in the height of the summer.” At its peak, the Times employed 12 people during the summer months, with a core group of six or seven employees and summer students to help.
Brezina said the standout moment for him as publisher came in the summer of 1989, when he said local white supremacist John Beattie, former head of the Nazi Party of Canada, organized a rally that brought groups of skinheads to Minden.
“Minden was not a particularly radical community in my estimation,” said Brezina. “Oh sure, like any community if you turn over enough stumps you’re likely to discover a few radicals slithering out from underneath.”
A friend in Toronto faxed a poster found throughout the city that was advertising the rally on Canada Day weekend in a local Minden location.
“Needless to say, the event put the community in a very negative spotlight,” said Brezina. “It was a challenging time for the community as we were determined to demonstrate it did not condone such an event taking place in our midst. I felt the newspaper should respond on behalf of the community to the situation, not just report on what was taking place.”
The Times editorial staff reported on the event prior to it happening, and urged a community response.
In addition to coverage led by then-editor Russ Duhaime, Brezina designed a poster printed in the paper that read, “YES,” in bold letters, with copy underneath reading: As a citizen of Canada and a member of this community, I believe in equality for all individuals, regardless of race, colour, creed, religion or ethnic origin. Brezina mentioned in his talk that it wasn’t quite the era where sexual orientation was at the forefront otherwise it would have been noted as well.
“I wanted the paper to be a vehicle for expressing the community’s response to the invasion,” said Brezina. The community gathered to protest the event, while police and media trucks from the city were on hand as well.
“One of the responsibilities of a newspaper, particularly a community newspaper, is to reflect the community it serves,” said Brezina. “I believe it must also provide leadership when required, and I think we fulfilled that responsibility extremely well.”
Brezina said Warren’s memory of rubber fingertips caused him to remember his own son Kevin, who when he was old enough, would come to the Times office with his friend to perform similar tasks. Brezina’s daughter Kerry also helped out at the office, taking classified ads and working as a receptionist. He also gave a shout-out to his wife Pat, who he said was “our iron-sided proofreader.”
“I mention the involvement of my children in particular because I thought perhaps, one day, they would like to take over the operation,” said Brezina. “As they approached the end of their high school years I asked on more than one occasion, ‘are you interested? Do you want to take over?’ And perhaps, having seen how the sausage was made, as they say, or a desire to flee to the big city as most of the high school kids up here have, by the time they left for university they had confirmed to me they had no interest in running the newspaper. My dreams of a Thompson-like dynasty quickly faded and I knew some day I’d have to sell.”
In May 2001, Brezina sold the Minden Times to Haliburton County Echo publisher Len Pizzey.
“The day the deal was reached, I went over to the Echo office and we went for a walk on the boardwalk in Head Lake Park to talk it over,” said Brezina. “I heard afterwards, the entire staff of the Echo had their noses pressed against the windows of the Echo office watching us sort out the details.”
In 2004, Pizzey sold the papers to Osprey Media, and the Minden Times office was moved from its longtime home near the bridge to the Century 21 plaza on IGA Road in 2006, where it is today.
In 2008, Sun Media, a division of Quebecor Media Inc. bought out Osprey Media. The Times is part of a publishing group that also includes the Haliburton Echo, County Life and Bancroft This Week. That package was purchased by White Pine Media in 2014.
Before ending his talk, Brezina said that based on information he found online, the first newspaper printed in the county was in Minden.
“In his book, History of the Provisional County of Haliburton, printed in 1931, former Echo owner R.H. Baker states that on August 21, 1884, the first copy of the Minden Echo was printed. The business passed through a number of hands until 1952, when the newly named Haliburton County Echo was moved from Minden to Haliburton Village. Briefly in the mid-1960s, the Echo owners opened a sister paper called the Minden Recorder which had its focus on Minden. It appeared to be a good strategic business move, but it just didn’t pan out, and the name Minden Recorder was folded into the Haliburton County Echo name. Which, left a void in Minden, and allowed the Minden Progress to flourish and eventually grow to become the Times, which pretty much brings me back to where my story started.”
Brezina answered questions for audience members, who told him they had enjoyed his talk.
“Of course there’s a great deal that I’ve skipped over about the daily thrust and parry of newspaper publishing – doesn’t it sound dramatic?” he said to laughter. “The libel suit, the misspelled names, the botched Women’s Institute column, the late nights, putting the paper together in a steam bath, the transition to computer layout, but I’ll have to save those for another occasion.”
with files by Chad Ingram