Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday, March 27, 2004 

Postcard 237: “Drunk or Rich” in Iowa City


The 1894 Iowa State Press, a forerunner of today’s Press-Citizen, was located on what is now part of the
Plaza Center One site downtown. The $2 receipt from the author’s collection for a year’s subscription is signed
by colorful early publisher John Irish in 1877, the year he was an unsuccessful Iowa gubernatorial candidate.


By Bob Hibbs


“Almost everyone who isn’t drunk is getting rich” in 1857 Iowa City, wrote noted publisher Horace Greeley in his New York Tribune.

The remark came after nearly two decades of growth as Iowa’s capital city, first of the territory from the city’s founding in 1839 until the State of Iowa came into being in 1846, then as state capital until that title was assumed by Des Moines in December of the year in which Greeley issued his colorful characterization of the frontier town.

Greeley contributed toward construction of a local church, so perhaps he wanted to help save all those sinners.

His comment offers insight into typical newspaper style of the era – gross generalizations, exuberant advocacy on partisan issues, and sharply-worded attacks on perceived enemies. As papers perished, survivors evolved into more impartial news reports for the entire community, with opinions presented on specified pages, as exist today.

Modern TV news attempts the same factual presentation, except for Fox cable channel’s adoption of Europe’s advocacy style which its Australian owner Ruppert Murdock adapted from home and England.

Iowa City pioneers briefly had the choice of three newspapers. The Iowa City Argus was first published in August 1841, but died a few months later.

Existing much longer were the Iowa City Standard – Whig in politics, first printed June 10, 1841 – and the Iowa Capital Reporter, a Democrat Party paper first printed Dec. 4, 1841. The Standard evolved into the Iowa City Republican after the birth of the Iowa GOP in Old Capitol in 1856 and survived into the early 20th century.

The Reporter grasp economic survival in the state’s early printing contract. The paper was a partnership between Thomas Hughes and Gen. Verplanck Van Antwerp, who was appointed in 1838 to the U.S. Land Office in Burlington.

Hughes, who had worked in newspaper offices in Davenport, Burlington and Dubuque, began publication of the Bloomington Herald in Muscatine in 1840. He and Van Antwerp looked to the new territorial capital for their joint venture, first printing just days before the initial legislative session was convened in Iowa City Dec. 6, 1841.

Ten months later, Jesse Williams bought out Van Antwerp, and in 1844 purchased the Hughes interest, too. Hughes later was elected a state legislator, served as Iowa City clerk and as Johnson County treasurer, a position he held at the time of his death in 1881.

The Reporter, housed on a site now serving Newman Catholic Student Center, was allowed to die in 1860 as the community abandoned the old Democratic Party in droves over its perceived pro-slavery stance during a national brouhaha over Kansas and Nebraska statehood.

It was remade as the Press, which evolved into the Iowa State Press, and in 1904 became the Iowa City Daily Press. In 1920 it was merged with the Iowa City Citizen to form today’s only surviving non-student paper.

The youngest son of prominent Iowa City pioneer Frederick Irish (1801-1875), John Irish (1843-1923) became editor of the Press in 1864 at age 22, later purchasing it.

As a youngster, John had often accompanied his blind father, including on an 1858 lynch mob outing after which the senior Irish and 14 others were charged with murder. Irish was acquitted.

John became a legislator as a staunch Democrat, and during service as a trustee of the University of Iowa, he played an important role in establishment of the College of Medicine in which he later took great pride.

But, five years after he lost a bid to be Iowa governor in 1877, he sold his Iowa City interests and bought the daily paper at Oakland, Calif., which he converted from Republican to Democrat.

The medical school has progressed during the years since then; and, the Oakland paper is now non-partisan.

Next Saturday: County namesake Richard Mentor Johnson.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.

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