The following historical retrospective was delivered by publisher Dane Hicks to the annual meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society in 2015, on the occasion of the Review’s 150th anniversary celebration.
John Wilkes Booth’s last day was our first day.
Hours after one of American history’s most infamous assassins breathed his last breath on a farm porch in Port Royal Virgina on April 26, 1865, Isaac Olney was putting the finishing touches on the first edition of The Garnett Plaindealer in the upstairs of a frame building at the corner of Fourth and Walnut where The Kirk House now stands. One hundred fifty years later, The Anderson County Review continues to chronicle our town and county’s news in the context of a world that has become increasingly intertwined and whose speed-of-light information connections would have been unfathomable to our first publisher.
As we consider those early days of Anderson County’s first newspaper, we have to do so in the context of what were then current events. Anderson County and the counties of Bleeding Kansas were still the Frontier of Freedom which gave birth to the Civil War, and though the major battles costing thousands of lives gave the conflict in the East and South top billing, the tension and conflict at the border of Kansas and Missouri was ever present in our region throughout the war. Although the Civil War had officially ended a few weeks earlier on April 9 when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomatox, the rage of the war was still coursing in the veins of Eastern Kansas where the whole thing had really begun about a decade earlier.
Indeed, word had probably only reached Garnett of President Lincoln’s April 14 assassination not much more than a few days previous – and though we don’t know for sure, any enterprising newspaper man would have seen that event as the optimum time to launch his newspaper – it was the story of the decade, and at that time the story of the day lived for weeks as opposed to the less than 24 hour news cycle we see today. Booth’s apprehension and killing by federal troops, while it happened the same day as the Plaindealer’s first edition, probably wasn’t known by the editor for more than a week. Olney’s decision to launch the Plaindealer was probably affected by a lot of factors, but the prospects for peace and prosperity and the relief that the bloody conflict was coming to an end had to have made the overall picture in the spring of 1865 seem brighter.
We can imagine that Mr. Olney must have possessed the same frontier spirit as his contemporaries, anxious to cast his lot on the bet of finding the right town in which his newspaper could thrive and prosper and willing to accept the risks that came with it. It would have made perfect sense for the adventurer of that day; the filth and congestion of America’s urban centers during the mid 1800s no doubt made able men and women yearn for fresher air, an unobstructed sunset, the cushion of prairie grass and the promise of a solid and rewarding life’s work ahead.
Olney was born in New York in 1825 and had previously spent time in Michigan and edited The Clinton Journal in Henry County, Missouri, before moving to a now-forgotten town called Hampden in Coffey County, Kansas, to found the Hampden Expositor. Olney was elected county clerk of Coffey County and served the office during the bitter political contests between Hampden, Burlington and LeRoy over the designation of county seat.
When repeated elections in Coffey County cast little hope of Hampden receiving the county seat designation, Olney knew the prospects of county political printing, population growth for the town, commercial advertising growth in its business sector and the golden chalice – becoming a railroad stop- were gone. He was in his mid 30s at the time, well into middle age in those days, and he must have been concerned that his time for realizing his fortune was drawing short.
But, there was another new little town nearby that already had a county seat designation and which didn’t have a newspaper yet – Garnett. Sometime, most likely during the fall of 1864 or late winter of 1865, Olney packed up his type cases and his press and landed here. He passed away at the age of 40 in 1866 shortly after launching the Plaindealer, and his wife Delia continued as proprietor hiring, different editors until she sold the concern to L.J. Perry in April 1870.
The rest of the Review’s history and lineage is a complicated array of mergers, buyouts, expansions and contractions, with literally dozens of owners, publishers and editors over the decades. Most all of the papers with which we were merged or acquired or acquired us over the years were founded on the basis of politics, supporting one or the other platform of political endeavor as Kansas made itself into a state through strife and might and political contrivance. Every political faction in every locality wanted an official organ to espouse its views and sell its ideals to the public. Politicians and special interests recognized early the value of making their arguments to the public, because when it came down to election time, one vote might be all that it took to win the road to prosperity in Kansas’ young and burgeoning communities.
And that’s how it went through Garnett’s history in controversies over everything from railroad bonds, city utility development, the lynching of a black man from the construction scaffolding of a former jail building, ever present fights over taxation and in skirmishes that led to the elections of county commissioners, clerks, sheriff’s and other county officers. Political intrigue and public consternation have been rooted in Anderson County’s history ever since the Pottawatomie Rifles militia was formed to protect us from Missouri pro-slave raiders – it’s in our blood, I think, and I’ve seen it play out in my tenure here in the last 30 or so years over topics like construction of the Cedar Valley Reservoir, school bond issues, fights over the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail to name only a few. Though financial success was always hard to come by for our predecessor newspapers, there has rarely been a shortage of news.
Along with that vibrant public forum was, throughout the Review history, the constant competition between sometimes as many as five newspapers in Garnett at one time. Amid that tradition of competition there is one anecdote that I think bears mentioning. Many of you knew Leonard McCalla, Jr., who was heir to the throne of The Anderson Countian, one of our predecessors. The Countian competed vigorously with The Garnett Review from the 1920s until the papers merged in 1956. It so happens that Leonard Jr., became smitten with a lass by the name of Margaret Champe, whose family had a long history with the Review and, at the time of their meeting, was still partnered with Earl and Harley Knaus as a competitor to the Countian. While each of their own family papers contest each other for advertising, subscribers and political clout on the streets of Garnett, Leonard and Margaret eloped in 1933 while on a trip with friends to the World’s Fair. I know well the passions that run among competing newspapers in small towns, and I have to wonder how the dinner table conversations went at the Champe and McCalla households that year.
If you’re interested in more, we’ve produced accompanying displays for our 150th anniversary of some of the front pages of many of our predecessor newspapers with a few notes about each including the founders, editors and associated transitions that led to me standing before you here today. You’ll be seeing those displayed in various public locations throughout the area over the course of this year and in the Garnett library’s art hallway in June and July. There is more, of course, in the history books published by The Anderson County Historical Society, based from the voluminous content saved from our pages over the years.. Our history, most literally, belongs to you.
In closing I want to offer my deepest thanks to The Anderson County Historical Society for the immensity of the work the organization has accomplished and the various endeavors it undertakes. Without the aid of published volumes and our local society’s stewardship of the myriad newspapers, photos, journals and various documents and memorabilia of Anderson County’s past, so much of my research into Garnett’s newspaper story would have been impossible. Thanks again for having me as your guest tonight and please – keep reading.