A (Brief) History of Yankee Magazine
It all beganin a hexagonal shack with one man, one typewriter, a Franklin stove, and a dream. In later years Robb Sagendorph would shrug and say, “The publisher still doesn’t know of any particular reason why Yankee was begun or is still around. To get any sort of editorial policy out of him would be as difficult as it would have been to persuade Calvin Coolidge to sing tenor to ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.’”
But inside the cover of Yankee Magazine’s September 1935 issue, Robb Sagendorph wrote of his magazine as if it were flesh and blood.
“Yankee is born today. His destiny is the expression and perhaps indirectly the preservation of that great culture in which every Yankee was born and by which every Yank must live. Give him your care, your interest, your heart . . . .”
There was little reason to be optimistic. By actual hand count there were 613 subscribers — of which 600 turned out to be bogus names provided by a slippery subscription service.
The printing press had been salvaged from the bed of the Connecticut River near Brattleboro, Vermont. At each revolution the whole machine could be seen to sway some. The only way the pressman could hold register was to oil himself with gin, equalizing the sway of the machine with the sway of his body. A short time later, the press was riverbound again, toppling through the overburdened floor of the print shop in nearby Marlborough into the Minnewawa River.
Yet slowly but surely subscriptions came in — 5,000 by November — and with them letters that told Robb Sagendorph that his “amateurish, uninteresting little magazine” had struck a nerve.
The Old Farmer’s Blessings
If ever there was a perfect “fit” between an editor and a publication, it was between Robb Sagendorph and The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which had been founded in 1792 and was (and is today) the oldest continuously published periodical in the country. The first issue he edited was the 1941 edition, and some old friends helped him out. Robert Frost wrote original poetry; Ben Rice wrote the “Farmer’s Calendar.” Robb either wrote the rest himself or reprinted sage advice from the past. He did the weather forecasts as well, using a still-secret formula.
The Almanac became famous for its uncanny forecasts. To some people, the editor of the “little yellow book” became something of a visionary. A farmer from southern India wrote Robb, “It has become usual to us to write to you for your blessings whenever we require rain. Your blessings have so far not failed to bring the much-wanted rain for us.”
For Yankee Magazine, the Old Farmer bestowed another kind of blessing. In those early years the magazine surely could not have survived had it not been for the financial success of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Ties That Bind
The plan, Jud Hale remembers, was to work for his uncle Robb Sagendorph for one year, pick up some magazine experience, then head to Boston or New York for a “real job.” That was in 1958. The staff was too small to coddle a neophyte. Young Hale was immediately assigned to edit, write copy, sell ads, take photos, and — when he was finished — to unload trucks of paper and haul trash to the dump. For this he received $50 a week.
Wanting to improve Yankee’s design — but not knowing how — he contracted with art students to give him mock layouts. Secretly, at night, he incorporated them into the magazine. He’d lay the issue out, go home around midnight, then arrive the next morning to find that Robb Sagendorph had come in at 6 a.m. and “everything was in a shambles. Robb would have put everything the way he liked it. So I began arriving at 5:30 to protect my layouts, until we realized we either had to reach a truce or both die from lack of sleep.”
Robb taught him that, “if you pay a writer $100, he might squawk, but if it’s $87.50 it will seem like we figured it out.” He also taught him to “get things right. In my first caption I called a barkentine a schooner. Yankee readers never let something like that slip by.”
In the early 1960s Yankee was entering the modern magazine age with hopelessly outmoded methods. What Yankee needed, Robb would say, was someone to “straighten things out.” He looked no further than his son-in-law, C. Robertson Trowbridge, a lawyer who knew little about publishing but had a knack for business and order. Robb would complain that a weekend’s “relaxation” with his son-in-law left him too fatigued to face the week: tennis, golf, sailing, more tennis, more golf, all punctuated with fevered plans to improve Yankee.
In 1970, shortly before his death, Robb Sagendorph called Jud Hale and Rob Trowbridge into his hospital room. He knew Yankee was now in their hands. Always a man of practical sensibilities, he gave them the best advice he had. “Don’t grow anymore, boys” he cautioned. “The plumbing won’t take it.”
Over the next 30 years Jud (now editor-in-chief) and Rob (now chairman of the board of directors) grew Yankee magazine considerably, despite the limitations of its offices — and Robb’s fears about the pipes. Today, as the magazine approaches its 70th anniversary, Yankee has a paid circulation of more than 500,000 and a readership of almost two million people. At the same time, it has grown in quality. Yankee has been named a finalist for a National Magazine Award four times, and has won countless City and Regional Magazine Association Awards.
Yankee Publishing Inc. remains a family-owned business, one of the few independent publishing companies of its size. The company’s employees and shareholders are determined to keep Robb Sagendorph’s dream alive by publishing a magazine that “expresses our great New England culture” and reflects the New England way of life today.