Mountain Messenger

History Lives on Pulp: The Mountain Messenger

There are some readers of the Prospect who’ve never seen a copy of The Mountain Messenger Newspaper. At 158 years old, the Messenger is locked in time and geography. It is the kind of experience one simply can’t achieve over the internet, like, perhaps, STDs.

The Mountain Messenger reeks of age, as does the building it is housed in, and indeed, as does Don Russell, editor of the Messenger. It’s the smell of history, and working people; the dust of the mines, and whisky, and cigarettes, and the plumbing, but most of all, it is the stench of truth.

Don Russell, at home with the Mountain Messenger

Russell came to the Messenger nigh on to twenny yar ago, but to see him in the Messenger office, or in the crumbling court house in the county seat of Downieville, or indeed, seated among cronies at Los Dos Hermanos in Sierraville, one would believe he had been at the helm of the paper for the full 158 years. His writing style is perfect for the hoary, cantankerous newspaper, and reflects the quartz and rust and rushing Sierra streams of the Messenger’s history. Downieville is, itself, a pure gold nugget, not an "old town" or a reconstruction, Downieville is what it is, and what it has been for the last 160 years. The Mountain Messenger has been witness and chronicler of that history, and only an anachronism like Russell could adequately fill that task.

Russell is often bothered by beautiful women.  He says, "it comes with the territory."

Russell spent time before the mast, smeared in scales and fish guts in Alaska, before coming south to the Sierras. He understands mining and timber and is a fan of resource extraction in general. It isn’t hard to get him to spout on the virtue of turning sweat and dirt into money. Yet, Russell was a communist as a youngster, and there is still a strain of Marx mixed with the Mark Twain. Indeed, Don himself is a fair compromise between the author of historical materialism and that of The Mysterious Stranger, and might be called the Marx Twain of this day.

Russell loves the poor, and makes certiain his employees are among them. As an editor, Russell is demanding. Both editors of the Prospect have worked for Don, and can attest to tension in the production room on Wednesdays when the paper is put up. The Messenger office fills with tobacco smoke; if you can’t take it, breathe outside. The smoke mixes with the sweet smell of the wax machine in the corner (the Messenger is still put up on paper) and the static ozone of angst. Russell fights with his computer, wrestling the words from it, partly because the keyboard is among the first made for a Mac, and the keys that don’t stick jiggle loose. Russell has managed to make the modern computer function like an old Underwood typewriter. People know he’s trapped at his computer on Wednesday, so that’s when they call, with complaints about this and that, with favors, and most of all, with bits of news. For a community newspaper, the local news network is pure gold, and the nuggets drop into Russell’s pan. The high call him, and so do the lowly; his agents are everywhere in the county, eager to bring him everything from gossip to a heads up on a local crime. Without that kind of connectedness to the community, a newspaper has to make up news.

An uneasy truce: Russell and his computer.

The reason so many people call is that they trust him. For a newsman, Russell can be very tight lipped. His sources are sacred, and vision is clear. Over the years he’s developed a very keen sense for what is appropriate news, and what is damaging to the community. The "sheriff’s blotter", rightly famous among the folks of the little Sierra communities, is a perfect example, giving the news, and commentary, but protecting the privacy of citizens (we all know who they are, anyway).

Russell is famous for other things in the county, including the annual Yuba Pass Chili Cook-off, which has no rules, and for which bribing the judges is a must. He’s rightly famous for his "sticks to your gums" chili, and for entering a banana cream pie as chili and winning fourth place (there are no rules).

Don Russell scoffs at the internet as obviously just a passing fad, and has so far refused to put up an online version of the paper, for which we at the Prospect are glad. The Messenger is sold to everyone, through the U.S. mail. Knowing his work is in the hands of the government should probably worry him more than it does.

Mountain Messenger Newspaper California’s Oldest Weekly Newspaper
PO Drawer A
Downieville CA 95936
(530) 289 3262


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