Recalling a time before The Hammonton Gazette
Prologue: Late June 1997
If you happened to look up while driving down Bellevue Avenue (Route 54) near the corner of that main street and Horton Street at night in the weeks leading up to July in 1997, you would have seen the lights blazing on the second floor of the building.
One era was ending, and another was preparing to begin. Few people knew it at the time.
Upstairs in those offices a group comprised of young people, mostly in their teens and 20s were working on starting a new business in the town: a newspaper called The Hammonton Gazette.
It’s hard to visualize the Hammonton that existed in June of 1997. The pharmaceutical factory owned by American Home Products known locally by the shorthand name “Whitehall” had closed recently, and the economic impact of the loss of 1,000 good-paying jobs was felt throughout the town. Downtown Hammonton was a vacant mess, and the White Horse Pike business district wasn’t far behind it. The Hammonton Business Park was largely empty as well. The hospital’s best days already seemed like they were behind it and the airport had stagnated.
The school buildings were old: The middle school’s buildings were built in 1905 and 1925. Hammonton High School was built in 1966. Warren E. Sooy Jr. Elementary School was the newest facility, having been built in 1975.
And yet, the people who lived here and their pride in Hammonton both remained strong.
Hammonton was at a crossroads in 1997. You could either make a plan to leave or see the opportunity.
I chose the second one. I believed in the town.
Now I had to convince others to believe in it too.
That part was easier than I thought. The second part was harder: creating a newspaper from nothing and selling it to people who had been buying other newspapers that had already been covering the town for decades.
It took years for us to gain people’s trust—although I will never forget the early adopters of The Gazette who started buying us the first week or purchased subscriptions when they started and have remained loyal customers to this day.
That wasn’t evident up in the offices on Bellevue Avenue back in 1997 (we’re located at 14 Tilton Street today, behind the 7-Eleven store at the corner of Bellevue and Tilton, about two blocks away from those original offices) but we all believed in ourselves enough to think that the newspaper would become a success.
In those days, I remember reading a quote from internationally famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, who once lived on Fairview Avenue in Hammonton with her parents.
“My first experience of fieldwork was through my mother’s work among the Italians living in Hammonton, New Jersey, where we moved in 1902 so she could study them,” Mead was once quoted as saying.
Of course, the other quote of Mead’s that was in my head was: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
We were a small group in 1997—less than 10 of us, all working to birth a new publication that the town had never seen before that moment. I wish I could quantify for you the amount of brainpower, courage and hard work that group expended in the weeks before the launch of The Gazette.
I remain in awe of them all—and proud of them all—to this moment. It was—and is—an amazing endeavor. Back then, we already felt that we were working on something important, something memorable.
How long it would last and how much of an impact it would have were unanswered questions. All we knew then was that we wanted to see the newspaper hit the streets for the first time in early July of 1997. It did. Then it did the next week, and the next week, right up to this moment, where it is in your hands in 2022.
Before that unbroken line of Gazettes, The Gazette did not exist. Then, thanks to a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, it did exist. It really is as simple as that.
Many years after that late June in 1997, the dividing line between an era without a Gazette and an era with one, I had the opportunity to interview Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn, who taught at nearby Stockton University for many years. It remains one of the hallmarks of my journalistic career.
I mention Dunn as I close this column on those early days, right before The Gazette began, because I was reminded as I wrote this of the final lines of a poem Dunn wrote titled, fittingly enough, “Beyond Hammonton.” I think you’ll agree the final lines of the poem that bears this town’s name are a perfect way to remember that group upstairs in The Gazette offices late June of 1997, right before the first edition of The Gazette appeared on the newsstands for the first time:
I’ve known only one man
who left the road,
followed an intriguing light
to its source.
He told me
that he knocked many times
before it became clear to him
he must break down the door.
Gabriel J. Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.