In the 1890s, when Jim was between 18-22, he began working for the Devine News. There he developed a love for the newspaper business and the written word. During this time Jim saved money and began calling on Miss Sara Emma O’Neal. By 1899 at the age of 27, he wanted a newspaper of his own.
When the Oakville County Leader came up for sale, Jim bought the paper and moved to Oakville, the county seat of Live Oak County.
His letters to Emma told how much he missed her and how energizing life as a newspaper editor in Oakville was for him. He spoke most admirably of his mentor and friend, Judge Frank Church, from whom he purchased the newspaper. By July 4, 1900, Jim returned to Devine to marry Emma.
In Oakville, Jim and Emma worked together to print the newspaper. He taught Emma the tedious job of placing letters into a type form one at a time. He placed the form on a George Washington Hand Press and inked the letters with a hand roller. Placing a large sheet of paper over the forms, Jim pulled a lever, and the newspaper was printed. On a good day, Jim printed about 200 papers in an hour.
Jim and Emma began a family in Oakville with the birth of Cecil Floyd born Feb. 25, 1902. Then Mary Eunice, called “Maggie” by the family, was born Oct. 22, 1903 in Devine, followed by Susie Pauline, born in Oakville on Oct. 27, 1905.
Expanding his horizons, Jim put his brother, Elliott, in charge of The Oakville County Leader in 1910 and purchased half-interest in the Kenedy Advance with Dan Chestnut. Jim moved his family to Kenedy where Gladys Idell was born On Jan. 10, 1911, followed by James Marvin on March 3, 1913. When Chestnut married and offered Jim the chance to buy him out or sell his part to Chestnut, Jim sold.
In that same year when the railroad bypassed Oakville creating the new town of Hamiltonburg seven miles west, Jim predicted Oakville would die. He contacted Charles Tips, founder of the new town, who offered Jim $50 a month for five years to move his paper to Hamiltonburg, later renamed Three Rivers.
Jim first built a newspaper plant and moved his family into the back of the building. Meals were cooked out back on an open campfire. For bad weather, Jim built a lean-to attached to the back of the building where they cooked their meals.
One night Emma awoke to loud claps of thunder and a downpour. She peeked out the side window. Alarmed, she quickly awoke everyone saying they must leave because the water was already up to the clothesline. Jim checked and teasingly suggested they stay put because the clothesline was actually “down to the water.” The family lived in the newspaper plant until George Smith, with whom Jim contracted, finished building their permanent home, the town’s first.
On July 4, 1913, Tips grand opening sale was also Jim and Emma’s 13th anniversary. Horse races began that day on Thornton Street in front of their unfinished house. The horses raced almost to Harborth where Jim and Willie McMurray held the finish line taut. As a notary public, Jim carried a small white table into the rough scrabbled fields freshly divided into lots. There he legalized contracts for families purchasing them.
Cecil, now 12, began working with his father in the newspaper office. When not working at the newspaper, he rode his donkey into the fields being cleared by huge smoking steam tractors pulling moldboard plows. The scurrying field rats and rattlesnakes did not stand a chance when Cecil raised his trusty .22 and took aim.
At home, the girls helped Emma make Irish teacakes, embroidered linens, and sang their favorite songs. After supper, the family gathered around the piano and sang together as Jim or Emma played.
Today, Cecil’s daughters, Nora Mae Bryant, called “Sister,” and Margaret Custer recall fondly that the Cunningham house “was simple and sturdy. It was a house full of love that fostered pleasant family memories.”
“If someone asked me to describe the Jim and Emma Cunningham family in just a few words,” granddaughter Betty (Reynolds) Dickinson said, “I would say they were a family who lived by the ‘good book’ and put ‘God, country, and family’ first.”
“Jim and Emma Cunningham were involved in this newly created town,” Margaret and Nora Mae said. “Grandpa and Granny set an example we all sought to follow.”