Hidden History: Osage County exiles populist publisher back to plow pushing – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Osage County exiles populist publisher back to plow pushing

Gritty Kansas newspaper editor Sylvester Fowler made Osage County his temporary home in the late 1800s. His passion in politics and writing rubbed many the wrong way, causing his stays to be cut short, but he remained determined to return to this place he felt held his same ideals.

Fowler was born in 1853 in Ohio, and came to Kansas when he was three years old. He entered the newspaper business in Pottawatomie County in the mid-1870s, pledging that a paper under his supervision would not publish anything “unsound in morals, or unhealthy in religion … and parents need not be afraid of its bringing an evil influence into their homes.”

It didn’t take long however, for the young, ambitious and outspoken newspaper man to stir controversy. In 1879, he was accused of plagiarizing and stealing from another paper.

He continued to push the limits of what was considered acceptable in society when he published a book called Sex and other Poems in 1890, which included what was considered erotic poetry but also poems of a more general nature. While tame by today’s standards, the mere utterances of anything of a sexual nature were taboo during the Victorian period, and Fowler’s poetry caused breathless readings among its fans.

“In spite of creeds that mislead us
And doubts that vex and perplex
I hold that the highest religion
Is the proper worship of sex.”-Sex 1890

Despite some approval the poet gained, others were not so impressed. The Nortonville News stated that Fowler’s poem dedicated to recently deceased newspaperman Milton W. Reynolds was so terrible, “It seems a great pity … that Reynolds could not rise from his grave and drop the man who would write such trash and dedicate it to him.”

At the time Sex and other Poems was published, the People’s Party (or Populist Party) arose on the political scene and caught the eye of Fowler. The Populists sought to restore the government to the hands of “plain people”, distancing itself from corporate and financial interests, a concept appealing to both farmers and under-represented minorities. Fowler, who maintained a farm in addition to running a newspaper, took up the Populist cause and started papers that were considered “organs” for the Populist Party.

In 1893, Fowler made the move to Osage County, considering it a place with down-home values and anticipating a good reception for a Populist paper. He purchased the former Burlingame Herald and turned it into the Burlingame Blade, a Populist promoting periodical. His success and ambition encouraged him to purchase the Lyndon Herald, also. He would consolidate those papers under one title, The People’s Herald, and move the offices to Lyndon, reasoning that he often got turned around in Burlingame.

His People’s Herald went head-to-head with the Osage City Free Press, calling it and any others out on any anti-populism rhetoric. It did not take Fowler long in his reporting to stir up controversy.

In the previous election, in an attempt to revitalize the lackluster response to enforcement of prohibition around the state, the Populists promoted an all-temperance ticket in Osage County. Problems arose when the Populists’ winning choice for county attorney, Ellis Lewis, was found to be all but temperate, and would not enforce the laws. Rumors began that the Populists had agreed that there was to be no enforcement of the laws if their ticket was elected. Both of these were too much for the ardent Populist Fowler to bear and he lashed out at Lewis in his People’s Herald, calling him a “miserable ingrate, malicious, ungrateful, and wretchedly debauched and depraved. He is a traitor to the party that honored him and to the friends who furnished him money … He is the most hopelessly confirmed drunkard today in Osage County. He is without self-control and without hope. Let him be removed.”

Lewis was highly displeased with the venomous news item and confronted Fowler with a knife, threatening to cut his heart out. Lewis spent a night in jail over the matter, but the scenario prompted Fowler to seek protection. He enlisted the help of Lyndon’s ultimate bad guy, Jasper “Jap” Apple, a man who would later be brought up on charges for beating a man so badly he nearly died.

The conflict between the Populists who supported Lewis and those that believed as Fowler shook the party within Osage County. It was a critical time for the Populist movement as the state surged in development and industry.

To calm the waters in the county, Fowler was exiled from its boundaries, with insistence that he promise not to return for at least a year. Fowler reluctantly obliged, retreating to a farm near Dover, stating “My faith in the people’s party was never stronger than now. Its principles are sure to create a movement that will eventually have its influence in every part of the globe. In the local field it only requires harmony and combined effort to make Osage the banner county of the country. The only possibility of defeat lies through dissention and wrangling over the spoils.”

But Fowler again returned to Osage County, barely out waiting his year of exile. He purchased the Osage City Public Opinion, making it another Populist paper and running it with his same fervor in renouncing all but those proclaiming the Populist slant. He would not last but a year as editor of the Public Opinion before again returning to farming. At this time, the Populist Party was in severe decline and mostly merged with the Democratic Party after a failure in the 1896 presidential election.

Fowler moved away from Osage County, and became editor of the Manhattan Republic in 1898. He maintained his belief that Osage County was home to down-home folks that best represented the values that bolstered his staunch support of the Populist Party. He considered moving back to Lyndon again in 1910, and editing the Osage County Democrat, but it was not to be – much to the relief of those that did not appreciate his sensationalism and straightforward manner.

Fowler died in 1920 and is buried in Manhattan, where he lived during his last position as a newspaper editor.

Sex and other Poems, 1890, by Sylvester Fowler. Photo by Wendi Bevitt.

Sylvester Fowler image from Poets Of America, Thos. W. Herringshaw, 1890.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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