Do you know the Bradford family legacy? You’re reading it right now.
Imagine this — the year is 1958 and it’s a hot Wednesday morning in early July. A 15-year-old boy turns the corner of Main Street onto Confederate. He walks past the open back door of Rexall’s Pool Hall and hears the crack of the billiard balls.
He doesn’t go in because good kids his age know instinctively they’re not supposed to. He arrives at the two-story building that stands where a parking lot for Town Hall now sits and enters the thriving headquarters of the Fort Mill Times. Two men carry large and very heavy preset forms to the press and soon the massive iron beast roars to life rolling off issues of the week’s news. The boy will help fold the papers and deliver them to the racks where they’ll be snapped up by local readers who will have an opinion on every article.
He’s at home here, because when he was born in 1943, his father, William Bradford Jr. bought the paper from his grandfather, William Bradford Sr., and the boy and the paper grew side by side in the family business. The young man is also named Bill Bradford, though his friends call him Billy. He calls them by nicknames, too. One is his good friend Tommy Merritt, better known to this day by Billy as “Vitamin.”
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It’s a pleasant, small-town scene, despite the laborious task of literally cranking out the news week after week.
William Bradford Sr. was a longtime South Carolina state representative. In 1892, along with his brother Bennett, he started a newspaper they called the Fort Mill Times. It wasn’t the first paper to be started in the town, but it would be the only one to survive. William, Sr. juggled the paper and his duties in the legislature in Columbia for years while his son got a college education, toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer, and eventually went off to Columbia himself to work for the highway department.
But the journalism instinct ran deep in the younger Bradford, and after stints at papers in Forest City, N.C., and Lancaster, the prodigal returned to Fort Mill and arranged to buy the paper from his father. The sale took place on May 15, 1943, and the newly-minted publisher put out his first edition on May 20. He was not just the publisher though; he was also editor, writer, printer, and occasional mechanic for the temperamental press. He worked with few days off; he couldn’t afford to take the time.
His son says he can never remember a time when the paper didn’t come out on schedule.
Bradford Jr. used his influence and his “No Foolin’” column to crusade for local and state issues that needed attention. He wrote for years about the need for a new bridge on Doby’s Bridge Road. He got it, and it still bears his name today. He was, in many ways, the keeper of Fort Mill’s storied history. As print technology changed and the small-town businesses of Main Street saw their fortunes dip with the move to suburban shopping malls and big box stores, Bradford saw a future for the paper that was very different from its past. After 87 years of Bradford stewardship, the paper was sold to the Camden Company in 1979.
Bradford devoted his “retirement” to a new career as town magistrate, became the longtime voice of the Fort Mill High Yellow Jackets football team, and found success as an author. He poured his vast knowledge of Fort Mill’s story into a popular book, “Out of the Past.” It stands as the authoritative work on Fort Mill’s history.
Today, the Fort Mill Times is part of a larger company, Sacaremto-based McClatchy, encompassing sister newspapers and other media. It still comes out on Wednesday each week and new columnists put their thoughts and opinions on paper for a new generation of Fort Mill readers.
Sometimes we get lucky and we have a chance to tell the story of a great family with a great legacy. This was my week to do that. Many thanks to the Bradfords for setting the standard and for faithfully being the voice of an extraordinary town.
Want to go?
Make plans to attend Fort Mill History Days at Walter Elisha Park from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 24-25. Re-enactors, craft and food vendors, and a traveling replica of the H.L. Hunley will provide an educational and fun experience. This is a free event. For more, go to fmhm.org.