First Newspapers: A State & Local History

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener

Bicentennially speaking over 200 years ago, when Vincennes, Indiana was a small prairie borough just beginning to blossom, a man named Elihu Stout came to town and made history. That year, in 1804, the fledgling frontier settlement of the Indiana Territory governed by William Henry Harrison was in dire need of a printer who could publish the territorial and federal laws as well as legal advertisements. Harrison had to send the first batch of laws down to Kentucky to be printed, Vincennes historian Richard Day said, and the governor was offering $500 a year to any printer who would establish a shop in Vincennes and get a newspaper up and running.

Despite his young age, Stout, a 22-year-old New Jersey native and journeyman printer, was proficient with a press and managed to convince Harrison that he was the right man for the job. Once the wooden Ramage printing press and other tools of the trade that he’d purchased in Kentucky had been shipped to Vincennes by various river channels, Stout got settled in a room in the blockhouse on what is now called First Street.

On the Fourth of July in 1804, the Indiana Gazette was published, kick-starting a 212-year tradition of having a free press in the Hoosier State. “Gazette was the popular name for newspapers back then. Nowadays it would be dot com,” Day quipped.

Stout told his readers he was committed to collecting and publishing “such information as will give a correct account of the productions and natural advantages of the Territory, to give the latest foreign and domestic intelligence — Original Essays, Political, Moral, Literary, Agricultural, and on Domestic Economics — to select such fugitive literary productions as to raise ‘The genius or to mend the heart’.”

The Indiana Gazette came out every Thursday and readers had to pick up the paper at the print shop — with just 300 or so subscribers, there were no newsboys selling copies on street corners yet. In the early days of the four-page paper, it carried mostly legal notices and advertisements, the publisher’s main sources of revenue. Subscriptions were $2.50, payable half a year in advance. Stout also published the occasional obituaries and letters to the editor, though both required a payment to be included in the paper as he had to painstakingly set the type by hand.

In 1806, Stout’s print shop burned down, destroying his press. After getting the funding necessary to start all over, in July 1807 he started publishing a new paper that he named the Western Sun. Other than the image of a rising sun emblazoned on the top of each front page, the Western Sun was practically identical to its predecessor.

Ten years after that fire, in 1817, the name was changed to the Western Sun and General Advertiser for practical reasons.

A second fire in 1819 burned down Stout’s print shop. Again, he had to start all over and through sheer force of will, he was able to get his newspaper back up and running.

For the next four decades, with the help of apprentices and, legend has it, at least for one edition a young Abraham Lincoln, Stout laboriously put together his newspaper. During his tenure, it didn’t change much, Day said, though the number of subscribers may have gone up.

In 1845, the paper was sold to John Jones, a man with political ambitions who used it as a means of supporting his political goals. The newspaper changed hands and names several more times. By the late 1870s, the Sun’s primary competition, The Commercial, had started up which came out in the morning while the Western Sun came out in the evening.

Over the years, the newspaper continued to change hands and names several times and the industry evolved.

It wasn’t until the Great Depression and newspaper magnate Eugene C. Pulliam came along that the paper known today as the Sun-Commercial formed. Pulliam purchased both the Vincennes Sun and the Vincennes Commercial in 1930. He published a combined edition on Sundays, but he continued to publish the Sun as an evening paper and the Commercial as a morning paper until 1931, when they were merged to become today’s Vincennes Sun-Commercial.

Over the years, many newspapers have come and gone. The various small-town newspapers that once dotted the counties have halted their presses and the industry in Indiana has shrunk. Two-hundred-and-twelve years, though, the paper Stout started — albeit renamed — remains dedicated to keeping his legacy alive.

There is a local newspaper legacy for Crothersville though without as much documentation and the consistent consecutive string of publishing history.

In the late 1890’s The Crothersville Herald began publishing local news. The 4-page broadsheet published local and area news on the front and back pages with the two inside pages contained national, international news and ads from now defunct products and companies.

The newspaper lasted until the turn of the 20th century before going out of business. Then in the early 1910’s a new local publication, The Crothersville Index, began publishing local news. That publication, as were many businesses, became a victim of the Great Depression and ceased publication in the early 1930’s.

Crothersville was without a local newspaper until 1974 when The Austin-Crothersville News began publication. The News was a sister publication for the then Brownstown Banner. The News ceased publication in 1983.

Today’s Crothersville Times is the longest published newspaper in Crothersville. The Times was started in December 1980 by David Bartle then owner of the Scott County Journal. Curt Kovener, who worked as a reporter for the Journal, was named the new paper’s editor. In 1983 Bartle sold the Times to Kovener who has continued to publish the local newspaper every Wednesday (so far) for the past 33 years.

In 1984 Kovener began penning this weekly column ‘Curt Comments’.

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Our thanks to Jess Cohen of the Vincennes Sun-Commercial for helping compile the first Hoosier newspaper history.