When Vinton Birney Imes became the owner and editor of The Commercial Dispatch back in 1922, he was already- at the age of 33- a dedicated newspaperman and an up-and-coming community leader in Columbus.
Birney Imes, Sr. was born in 1889 in Gloster, in Amite County, to Lemuel Jackson Imes and his wife, Millineum Whittington Imes. The family moved to Columbus when Birney was in grade school, and here he found the town he never wanted to leave. He graduated from Franklin Academy High School in Columbus and attended Mississippi College in Clinton.
His introduction to the newspaper business began in 1910 when he went to work for Percy W. Maer at The Columbus Dispatch. Imes showed a natural affinity for the business, and soon became a protege to Maer. In 1912, he married Eunice Tanner of Bunkie, La., who had come to Columbus as a teacher in a business school and from whom he had taken a course. The Imeses had one child, Birney, Jr., in 1914.
Before there was The Columbus Dispatch, two newspapers had begun operating in Columbus in 1833: The Southern Argus and The Democratic Press, both with political affiliations. The Argus supported the policies of the National Republicans and their leader Henry Clay, while The Democratic stood solidly behind the politics of Andrew Jackson.
The Columbus Democrat
As the political climate changed, so did the newspaper business. The Democratic Press was changed to The Columbus Democrat in 1836, and in 1840, The Argus became The Columbus Whig, for the Whig Party. Most of these sheets published once or twice a week and their arrival was eagerly anticipated.
Lacking the standardization of modern newspapers, those early front pages bore the stamp and personality of their publishers. A front page of an early edition of The Columbus Commercial bore the following headlines: “Baptists humble Methodist team,” “Let’s all go to the picture show,” “Rev. Ogden to preach tonight,” “Legion uncovers political plot” and “Bring a hoe to this meeting” (Notice of a clean-up day at Tabernacle Campground).
Columbus papers, as did others across the South, ceased publication during the Civil War, then began again in 1868 with W.H. and W.C. Worthington as editors. The Worthington brothers had operated a paper called The Columbus Index between 1865 and 1868. The Columbus Index then changed ownership several times.
In the meantime, The Columbus Democrat purchased The Columbus Dispatch in 1879. Apparently the war of the newspapers was in full swing.
J.T. Senter, who bought The Index and changed its name to The Columbus Commercial in 1894, published it under the old Opera House, where the Varsity Theater now stands. The building was destroyed by fire in 1900, though Senter continued to publish his Columbus paper and also The Vicksburg American. The Commercial was the precursor to today’s Commercial Dispatch.
Mr. Senter died at the age of 48 in 1908, and his wife took over the publishing of The Commercial. At her death in 1915, her son George Senter became publisher of The Commercial.
All this time, the old Columbus Dispatch was still going strong.
An English woman
Sometime in the 1840s Columbian Samuel Thomas Maer left town to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush. After California, Maer continued west to another gold rush in Australia where he met and married an English woman.
Whether he did well in gold is unclear. “He did well somewhere,” said Katherine S. Horton, a descendent of Maer who lives in Columbus. “Mother said he always had money.”
The newlyweds had a son in Australia before returning to Columbus. Back in Columbus, Maer in 1881 bought The Columbus Dispatch from Newton Berryhill, and published in a small frame building on Fifth Street.
At Maer’s death, his wife Susan built herself an apartment near the paper (presently the law offices of Bill Threadgill), and shocked the town when she assumed the duties of publisher. Until her ascension, no proper lady ever had her name in print. At her retirement, her youngest son Percy Maer bought his brothers’ interest in the newspaper.
Following Percy Maer’s death, Imes left The Columbus Dispatch and bought The Columbus Commercial. About a year later, Imes, local attorney John Frierson and Dr. D.D. Griffin, a local dentist, formed a partnership and purchased The Columbus Dispatch from Maer’s widow.
Boy with pony
A help-wanted ad in one of those early papers read, “Boy with pony wanted to deliver papers on northside.” Dispatch carriers came to be known as “Little Merchants,” and generations of local youths got their first taste of business as a Dispatch carrier.
Imes merged the two newspapers into the biweekly Commercial Dispatch, which published its first edition on March 12, 1922. Subscription was $3 a year by carrier, $2 by mail. Imes moved the newspaper from its Fifth Street location to its present home on Main Street in 1925. The Commercial Dispatch became a daily newspaper on Easter Sunday morning of 1926.
Birney Imes, Sr. was a strong proponent of economic development for the community. Front-page editorials supporting industry and development were common.
Imes was instrumental in bringing Seminole Manufacturing to Columbus in 1933. He was one of the local business leaders appointed by the community to visit McAlester, Okla., to try to secure the garment plant.
In 1940, Imes served as chairman of the Columbus Airbase Commission, a local group that helped secure the Army Air Field for Columbus in 1941, and later, in 1945, when the base was winding down along with the war, he served again as president of the local committee charged with finding an enticement to keep the base here.
Imes Sr. was not above injecting humor into his columns. After a wire service printed one of his columns bemoaning the disappearance of the cigar store wooden Indian, he received numerous offers from owners of the Indians.
Once such proposal was tendered by a collector in California who wanted to sell the publisher a wooden Indian.
“If you will donate him to us,” Imes wrote, “we’ll run him for the Legislature. He couldn’t do worse than some of folks we have down there now.”
Vinton Birney Imes, Sr. died June 18, 1947, at the age of 58. At his death, his son, Birney Imes, Jr. carried on as editor and publisher.
Like his father before him, Birney Imes, Jr. with the help of talented staff, maintained a strong local focus.
Legendary society editor
During the reign of legendary society editor Dot Clark during the 1950s and ’60s, it was not uncommon for the newspaper to use a full page to describe a wedding. Rachel Shute, also known to readers as Iva Tattler, wrote an eagerly awaited gossip column detailing the comings and goings of local society. The newspaper also featured broad sports coverage, notably high school football in east Mississippi and west Alabama.
Imes Jr. was a strong supporter of Columbus Air Force Base, and like his father, a proponent of industrial development.
In 1996, after a career as a photographer, Birney Imes III assumed leadership of the newspaper.
Birney’s oldest son, Peter, joined the paper in 2008. In January 2018 he was named publisher, the fourth generation of his family to hold that title.