Horse doctor up in smoke: The curious account of the founder of Shelley’s first newspaper

The Shelley Pioneer, Shelley’s newspaper for over 100 years, first graced our avenues and streets back in 1906. But the scarcity of records from those days means that the paper’s origins are still uncertain. The earliest reference I have found to The Shelley Pioneer was in Blackfoot’s The Idaho Republican on January 25, 1907, mentioning that David Bybee was then the editor. But earlier references in The Idaho Republican indicate that the first newspaper in Shelley may have been founded by a mysterious drifter and occasional horse doctor named W. B. Githens.

The earliest copy of the Pioneer still available is from May 15, 1909, which, according to the heading, was the tenth weekly issue of its fourth year. In my research, I have searched both the online archives of the Library of Congress and the physical microfilm records at Idaho State University and the Idaho Falls Public Library. I am still looking for earlier references of The Shelley Pioneer and welcome anyone with additional information. But this tedious search has revealed that while there are no references to The Shelley Pioneer before 1907, there are many references in 1906 to The Shelley Independent and its editor, W. B. Githens.

Githens is a curious character, bouncing from one Idaho town to the next many times from 1902 to 1907, sometimes as a horse doctor and dentist and sometimes as a newspaperman. “Doc Githens,” as he was sometimes called, first appeared in an ad in The Shoshone Journal, on March 28, 1902, as a “veterinary, surgeon and dentist.” On August 28, 1903, it was reported that he “died suddenly at Hailey Monday night” with no further details. But just three months later, his name appeared in The Elmore Bulletin in Rocky Bar, Idaho, stating, “Githens of The Shoshone Independent stopped over in Mountain Home Tuesday, paying The Bulletin a very pleasant visit and that he had severed all connection with The Independent and was now on his way west to investigate and choose a new field for a weekly paper.”

He then popped up in Parma, Idaho as a newspaperman with The Nyssa Progress, finally appearing as a horse doctor, D.V.S., once more, in Blackfoot in June 1905. Big bold adds began his time in Blackfoot, which soon began shrinking in size, and concluded at the beginning of 1906 in the want ads selling a team of horses.

His veterinary business having waned, Doc Githens prepared to get back into the newspaper business. On January 26, 1906, it was reported in The Idaho Republican, “Preparations are being made to launch a newspaper at Shelley, W. B. Githens of Blackfoot being the man-of-the-quill and the man-behind. Some of the enterprising citizens of that place have promised substantial aid for the paper in the way of business, and Mr. Githens is planning to have some of it on his bread and butter.” In February, the same newspaper let readers know Githens would launch his first edition of The Shelley Independent on the first of March. It became official on March 2, 1906, as reported in both The Idaho Republican in Blackfoot and The Idaho Register in Idaho Falls.

W. B. Githens ad in the Idaho Republican Sept, 21, 1905

A rosy relationship between The Shelley Independent and The Idaho Republican soon soured. Scathing editorials were written by Githens about the editor of the bigger Blackfoot newspaper. Byrd Trego, editor of The Idaho Republican, sharpened his quill in the fight, and a feud began between the two newspapers and their editors. The feud ended as quickly as it began when a fire destroyed The Shelley Independent on August 17, 1906, after only five months of publication. The loss put Githens out of business.

After the fire, Doc Githens dealt with financial and legal issues and left the area, reappearing later in American Falls. The Idaho Republican summed up his business past when it reported his arrest in American Falls in July 1907: “W. B. Githens, former editor of a paper at Shoshone, and later at Nyssa, Oregon, later posing as a horse doctor at Blackfoot until men learned something of his work, later editor of The Shelley Independent for a few months and then editor of The Iconoclast at Blackfoot, which started, sputtered and ceased, is now connected with The American Falls American, and was arrested a few days ago for malicious destruction of property…” To escape his new troubles in American Falls he packed up his things and left for the Panama Canal Work Zone. From that point forward the fate of the founder of Shelley’s first newspaper may be lost to history, as he seemingly was never heard from again.

So how does Doc Githens’s paper relate to The Shelley Pioneer? We can use the numbering of the Pioneer issues we do have as a starting point to figure out when the paper began. The March 25, 1910, Pioneer says that it is issue number one of year five, meaning that the first year of publication began in March 1906. Were The Shelley Pioneer and The Shelley Independent founded separately less than a month apart? Or was The Shelley Independent of March 2, 1906, the first issue of The Shelley Pioneer?

Further evidence is needed to answer this question. If the Pioneer and the Independent are the same paper, then between the fire in August 1906, and January 1907, The Shelley Independent was continued with new ownership and a new name. The Shelley Pioneer retained the same numbering sequence as its predecessor and therefore probably had some continuity in its employees and publishing relationships, and possibly the same printing press that survived the fire. So in the end, Shelley may need to thank W. B. Githens, horse doctor, dentist, or newspaperman, as the original founder of The Shelley Pioneer.

Darren K. Durbin

Darren Durbin has lived in Shelley most of his life.  He has worked as a senior internal auditor and accountant with an INL contractor for fifteen years and has been an online professor of accounting at BYU-Idaho for six years.  His hobbies include golfing, family history and hiking.  He and his wife, Ginger, have five children.

3 thoughts on “Horse doctor up in smoke: The curious account of the founder of Shelley’s first newspaper

  • May 22, 2021 at 11:01 am

    Great article always like to read about early times in Shelley

  • May 22, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    Interesting article – kudos on the research!

    I no longer live in the Shelley area but had heard The Shelley Pioneer had returned to publishing a weekly. I wish those involved with the newspaper success as they follow in the footsteps of W. B. Githens and the other editors of the Shelley newspaper.

  • May 28, 2021 at 9:24 am

    Wow, I had no idea that the Shelley weekly newspaper in 1906 was, perhaps, not the Shelley Pioneer that continued after the fire. Great research and interesting premise!

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