Sailing a tempestuous sea of journalism
Having moshed through Hillsboro’s sidewalks and dared a drive down one-lane Elm St. hill in Marion for last weekend’s arts and crafts fairs, it’s time to prepare once again for a “best ever” Old Settlers Day and another chorus of “Happy Birthday” to the Ol’ Thing you hold in your hands.
Naysayers contend newspapers’ days are numbered. They forget projects that papers like this one were instrumental in — a reservoir, a hospital, a hill school, a dike, a stadium, a fountain, even a modern Old Settlers itself.
Truth is, journalism still matters, and this paper — now with the largest news staff of any weekly or daily in surrounding counties and the largest circulation of any save for the Salina Journal — has no intention of permanently blowing out any of the candles on its annual birthday cake.
That’s not to say its path to becoming — we modestly admit — somewhat of a star among newspapers has not followed the state motto of “Ad Astra Per Aspera” — “To the Stars Through Difficulty.”
At points in its history, it clearly was inferior, teetering on bankruptcy, barely going through the motions.
Its beginnings were modest indeed.
Indian raids had subsided. Occupying troops from the Civil War had mustered out. General Ulysses S. Grant had just taken office as U.S. president. And a 37th star — Nebraska’s — had just been added to the American flag.
For the few dozen people living in largely primitive conditions in Marion — not even the largest town in a county of just 375 adults — 1869 was a crucial year.
Would their settlement survive challenges to its status as county seat and grow into a vibrant community? Or would it go the way of so many other frontier settlements and vanish as a historical footnote?
Marion Centre, as it was known, had very few buildings — a scattering of homes and stores, no churches, a single structure that served both as school and courthouse, none of them surviving to this day.
To put the community on a path to success, six local businessmen formed an ersatz economic development council, the first task of which was to ride off 57 miles to the north to Detroit, Kansas.
Detroit, now little more than an unincorporated wide spot in the road, was at the time the primary rival to Abilene for county seat of Dickinson County.
There this group, including original Marion settler Levi Billings, by then 33, met a printer by the name of A.W. Robinson and offered him what essentially was a bribe — a cash incentive — to move his less-than-year-old newspaper, the Western News, a half-sized single sheet, to Marion.
Within a year, Robinson had moved the News to Marion, where he promptly editorialized for improved sidewalks before selling the paper to another printer, John Murphy, who changed its name to the Western Giant.
Murphy lasted only a few months before selling it to yet another printer, C.S. Triplett. A fourth, E.W. Hoch, took the paper over three years later and began a 30-year run as its editor — a run that ended in 1904 with his election to the first of two terms as Kansas governor.
Hoch, a Kentuckian who had homesteaded near Florence and apprenticed as a printer there, “embarked upon the tempestuous sea of journalism at that time with nothing but a boy’s enthusiasm and a big fat mortgage on the office, while the grasshoppers filled the air thicker than lies in a campaign.”
His first years as editor were, in his words, “an experience we don’t care to repeat,” but he remained enthusiastic about the job, saying he tackled it each week “as gay as an old bachelor at a picnic.”
Readers “haven’t always agreed with the position of the paper,” Hoch wrote in 1887. “Sometimes, in fact, they have grown angry and slammed the old thing down, and probably jumped on it and stamped it with their feet.”
But they remained committed, renewing their subscriptions each year with a familiar remark: “Send it right along. We can’t keep house without it.”
Hoch had competition in those days. Papers often were considered mouthpieces of political parties. There were Republican papers, like Hoch’s, as well as Democrat papers, Populist papers, and papers of various religious and cultural persuasions.
The most successful among them was the Cottonwood Valley Times, a slightly less stridently Republican newspaper, which underwent several name changes before becoming the Marion Headlight and merging into the Record in 1909, not long after Hoch’s second term as governor ended and at the same time as the Record moved into its current building at 117 S. 3rd St.
Just a year earlier, a Democrat paper, the Marion Review, had relocated to Marion from Lincolnville. It and the Record continued as rivals until 1944, when they merged.
In 1957, the combined paper reverted to a much earlier name — the Marion County Record — at the urging of a relatively new staffer who nine years earlier had joined a succession of Hoch family members — Homer, Wallis, and Wharton — working at the paper.
After 19 years at the paper, Bill Meyer succeeded Wharton Hoch as editor in 1967 and continued in that role for 37 more years, making him the longest-tenured editor in the newspaper’s history.
In 1998, he and his wife, Joan, who at age 97 today continues to gather the paper’s Memories column every week, were joined by their son, Eric in purchasing the paper from Hoch heirs.
Eric, at the time a journalism professor at the University of Illinois and former Milwaukee Journal news, photo, and graphics editor and American Journalism Review online publisher, now serves in retirement from the university as editor and publisher.
The Record remains Marion’s second oldest business and the oldest business still engaged in its original function. Only Case & Son Insurance, originally a land speculation business run by one of the six people who bribed the Record to come here, has served the community longer.
— ERIC MEYER