Answer Man: What's the story with letters to the editor?

News-DemocratNovember 4, 2013 

Q. Could you give me a brief history of letters to the editor? How did they start and what was their original use? It seems to me that over the years they've changed from a letter to the editor to just a mini-soapbox. -- V.F., of Belleville

A. I'm sure you're familiar with the old saying "The more things change, the more they stay the same." So it is with letters to the editor. Although some tire of the almost daily appearance of certain readers on our editorial page, they are merely continuing a proud tradition in American journalism.

In fact, that's how news largely was disseminated 300 years ago. You have to remember that in colonial America, they didn't have newsrooms filled with dozens of reporters eager to rush out to the next big story.

Instead, much of the news that newspapers printed was delivered in the form of letters from whatever source that felt compelled to write them. They may have had no journalistic training, but in this case some news was better than no news, I suppose.

In 1730, Benjamin Franklin bought the Philadelphia Instructor and renamed it the Gazette. Much of its material was opinions from businessmen, politicians and community leaders as well as Franklin himself under various aliases.

Some writers who took to the early soapboxes are now renowned in spurring the American Revolution. In London, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon wrote nearly 150 essays in the London Journal under the pseudonym of Cato, a noted foe of Julius Caesar. In "Cato's Letters," they condemned tyranny while extolling the principles of freedom of speech and conscience.

Across the pond, Pennsylvania lawyer and legislator John Dickinson, calling himself "A Farmer, " wrote a dozen letters that helped unite colonists against the hated Townshend Acts. He argued that the British Parliament had no right to tax the colonists for revenue and that revolution, while repugnant, might be inevitable.

By the 1800s, editorial pages became perhaps the most common source of public input to support business and sway opinion -- often anonymously until the mid-20th century, when papers started to reject such no-name epistles.

So while these "mini-soapboxes" may have you turning the page, some argue they show a newspaper's health.

"Consider letters as a barometer of how well (you are) engaging readers or viewers," wrote Ronald D. Clark, of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. "The more you receive, the more you're connecting. The fewer you receive, the stronger the sign that you're putting the masses to sleep."

Q. After reading your Oct. 26 column on mushroom fairy rings, I felt compelled to ask your thoughts on what appears to be a related issue. The past couple of months I've been digging up mushrooms and clumps of cauliflower-like things from my front lawn. The one in the photo I send you is about golf-ball size, but some are the size of softballs. What are they and how do I get rid of them? A few years ago, I had two huge silver maples removed because of the damage their roots were doing to the yard. -- Alan Colvin, of O'Fallon

A. Like the five-alarm chili that comes back to haunt you at 3 a.m., those tree roots unfortunately are a gift from Mother Nature that is going to keep on giving.

That's the bad news from News-Democrat gardening expert Charles Giedeman. As I mentioned in my previous column, tree roots can help spawn dozens of different kinds of those annoying 'shrooms. You merely have the variety known as "puffballs," which can grow as big as soccer balls.

"They may become somewhat deformed coming up through the soil due to dry periods or if there are stones and rocks in the soil or pieces of old tree roots interfering with their growth coming upwards in the soil," Giedeman said.

Worse, you're probably not going to be done with the ugly things for a while.

"They will form these fruiting bodies in late summer or fall and will do this until all the old silver maple tree roots have finally decayed," Giedeman said. "You will never be rid of them as long as the mushroom plant (the underground mycelia) is growing."

So what can you do short of ripping out your yard? Not much besides simply cutting them off as you have done.

"You could inject water from a pointed tree-watering probe at the first sight of finding them to prevent future mushroom fruiting bodies from appearing, but they will try harder next year to produce more fruiting bodies.

"This is nature's way of recycling materials. I have always found when a person goes overboard in hating something, the more that form and the longer the time they reproduce. I guess it is nature's way of teaching us patience and acceptance of things we cannot control."

Today's trivia:

What NCAA Division I basketball team was the first to start five black players?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Chief John Big Tree, who sent Claudette Colbert into hysterics in the 1939 movie "Drums Along the Mohawk" with Henry Fonda, was one of three men who posed for the profile on the "Indian head" or "buffalo" nickel. A member of the Seneca Nation, Big Tree appeared in dozens of films from 1917 to 1950, including "Stagecoach" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." He died in 1967 at age 90. The other two models for the coin minted from 1913 to 1938 were Chief Two Moons (Cheyenne) and Chief Iron Tail (Lakota Sioux), according to designer James Earle Fraser.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-236-2465.

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