Ocala’s newspaper history pre-dates the Civil War
The halcyon days of the newspaper industry seemed to fade upon the arrival of the new millennium, but even in 2021 the medium still exists in Ocala with print and online editions of several publications.
The long-standing Ocala Star-Banner has been the stalwart publication and can trace its roots back to 1866, but it was not the starting point for newspapers here. That honor would go to the Ocala Argus, which began publication in 1847, just two years after Florida gained statehood.
Just a quaint village mainly in the planning and clearing stages, Ocala was nonetheless ready for its own newspaper, and the void would be filled by George M. Grouard, who had recently moved to the area after publishing newspapers in Jacksonville and Palatka. The Ocala Argus was a four-page weekly of four columns and contained little to no coverage of events on a national or world scene. The newspaper recorded items of local interest, such as detailed accounts of public meetings.
In 1851, the Marion Star began and reflected the local political views of the times as was customary for newspapers in those days. According to a 1956 article by Eloise Robinson Ott, the masthead of the Marion Star, “foreshadows the coming conflict of the States… ‘In the Sovereignty of the States Lies the Safety of the South.’”
Also in 1851, The Conservator began weekly publication under Lewis C. Gaines. Unlike the Marion Star, The Conservator was “strictly a Union paper intended to aid in the organization of a National Union Party upon the basis of the Constitution and the late compromise as a settlement forever of the slavery agitation” as stated in one of its early editorials. In 1852, Gaines embarked on a new publication, The Tropical Farmer, a monthly likely to have taken the place of The Conservator.
Other publications that sprang up around this time include The Mirror (1853), The Southern Sun (1854) and The Ocala Home Companion (1857). Established by Charles S. Reynolds, The Ocala Home Companion continued publication for more than six years, making it at the time the longest record of any Ocala paper.
The East Florida Banner, later to become the Ocala Banner, was founded in 1866 by T.F. Smith and became one of the best-known papers in the state. Frank E. Harris, an associate of Smith’s, soon became owner and editor and would serve in such capacity for over 60 years.
Born in Tallahassee, Harris enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 16 and served until the close of the Civil War, then moved to Ocala where his uncle Ebenezer Jackson Harris had settled.
In establishing the paper, the first stories written were about the delay in the trial of captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
In 1943, the Ocala Morning Banner (as it was then called) was sold to John H. Perry, who had recently purchased the Ocala Evening Star, and this brought about a merger of the two publications to form what is now the Ocala Star-Banner. The Banner offices were located on the west side of Main Street near the Fort King intersection.
As for Harris, Ott notes in her 1956 article, “With the passing years, the Banner became one of the influential newspapers of the state… (Harris’) entire lifetime was devoted to his paper; his retirement from its editorship taking place only a short time before his death in 1928.”