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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: How Marion has sailed the 'tempestuous sea of journalism' years ago

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 recalled the paper’s early days in an 1886 column:

“A.W. Robinson removed a little dab of printing material from Dickinson County to Marion and issued a small paper called the Western News — the first paper printed in Marion County — and continued to send it out to a little list of readers, freighted weekly with frontier news and appeals for wood on subscription, till the spring of ’71, when he gave it up as a bad job and was succeeded by a wild Irishman named John Murphy, who changed the name of the paper to the Western Giant.

“The concern struggled along under the weight of adverse circumstances and this awful name till Charley Triplett came to the rescue in the fall of ’71.

“Charley was a good printer and a sensible fellow, and the first thing he did was to change the name again to the Marion County Record, which he continued to publish till the grasshoppers and this writer gave him a chance to quit in the fall of ’74.”

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” though 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. “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 did have 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 Headline 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 94 today continues to compile the paper’s Memories column every week, were joined by their son, Eric in purchasing the paper from Hoch heirs.

Eric, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois and a former Milwaukee Journal news, photo, and graphics editor, American Journalism Review online publisher and consultant, now telecommutes between Illinois and Kansas to serve as editor and publisher.

The Record remains as Marion’s second oldest business and the oldest business still engaged in its original function. Only Case & Son Insurance, which originally was a land speculation business run by one of the six people, A.E. Case, who bribed the Record to come here, has served the community longer.

Last modified Sept. 26, 2019

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