By Ed Wendell
Originally published in the Leader-Observer in print.
If you look at the front page of this newspaper, you’ll see that it has been the newspaper of record for Woodhaven and Richmond Hill since 1909. That makes 2024 the Leader-Observer’s 115th anniversary, quite a feat for a small-town newspaper in a big city.
The story of the Leader-Observer starts in England where Alfred J. Ball was born. When he was 6 years old, Alfred came with his family to the United States. His father was a printer and settled in Brooklyn where young Alfred would follow in his footsteps, working as a salesman for a printing company.
Alfred would learn the newspaper business and begin publishing The Leader, as it was originally called, in 1909. The Leader was published in an office on the northside of Jamaica Avenue near Forest Parkway and covered Woodhaven and the surrounding areas of Queens and Brooklyn.
By 1912, The Leader had built a solid readership, but to grow larger Ball merged his paper with the Richmond Hill Observer. A front-page announcement greeted readers in January 1912:
“The public will be pleased to receive with this issue two papers in one – The Leader and the Observer. The rapidity with which The Leader has forged to the front is the wonder of the business community. The dignified position of the Observer in Queens County is the result of a long record of accomplishment.”
“By combining the two papers the strongest weekly on Long Island outside of Brooklyn is created with a circulation many times that of any similar publication, its usefulness to advertisers is doubled and its power for public good increased.”
And with that, the Leader-Observer was launched and as it boasted on the front page, it was “Circulating in East New York, Cypress Hills, Union Course, Woodhaven, Brooklyn Manor, Ozone Park and Vicinity.” That’s quite a footprint and contains a pair of names a few of you may be unfamiliar with – Union Course and Brooklyn Manor.
Union Course was a section of Woodhaven, on the west end of their neighborhood (bordering Cypress Hills) and shared its name with the famed racetrack that sat between 78th and 84th Street and Jamaica and Rockaway Boulevard.
Brooklyn Manor was on the east end of town and shared a name with an LIRR station at the border of Richmond Hill. The name hung around for many years but once the LIRR line was closed in 1962 the name began to fade away. It still pops up on maps from time to time but is rarely used.
Longtime residents of Woodhaven will be familiar with the name from longtime businesses Manor Sporting Goods (which closed years ago), and Manor Delicatessen (which sat near Manor Avenue and Jamaica Avenue). More recently, the Woodhaven Manor (formerly Le Cordon Bleu) took its name, honoring this section of the neighborhood.
The Leader-Observer hit the ground running, immediately taking up the issue for the need for sewers throughout the growing neighborhood. At the time of the Leader-Observer’s birth, the sidewalks of Woodhaven and Richmond Hill were dirt and sewers non-existent.
As a result, typhoid fever was common in this area where one out of every seven people who contracted it passed away. But thanks to the Leader-Observer, the residents of Woodhaven and Richmond Hill were able to better organize and with the pressure being applied by a popular paper, sewers were soon being dug.
Working alongside the community, the Leader-Observer became a powerhouse and the place that any local business wanted to advertise. The Leader-Observer’s relationship with our community was never as strong as it was during both World Wars. Readers would turn to this paper for the latest draft announcements and casualty notices.
And for decades the Leader-Observer ran “The Christmas Cheer Fund,” an organized effort to ensure that no family from Woodhaven went without a Christmas dinner and that no child went without getting Christmas gifts.
While the Leader-Observer is no longer published in Woodhaven, it’s still published weekly and circulated here. You can still see their name atop the building at 80-30 Jamaica Avenue, a reminder that one of the most important players in Woodhaven’s history is the newspaper you are holding in your hands right now.