Continuing the Eylar family legacy of printing local news –
By Patricia Beech –
Newspapers chronicle human experience. The history of any newspaper is really the history of the people, places, and events covered in its pages. That is especially true for small rural newspapers like The People’s Defender that receive the bulk of their news and information from members of the community. They give communities a place to read about themselves.
“One of the joys of being an editor of a small town newspaper is all the close associations that you make with people on a daily basis, earning their trust and vise-versa,” said current Defender editor Mark Carpenter, “We rely a lot on the people in the county to help us with news and stories and those relationships are what make our paper special.”
The Adams County Commissioners on Monday, Aug. 8 issued a proclamation recognizing the Defender’s 150 years of service to the county. “Since that first issue on January 16, 1866, The People’s Defender has worked to cover tens of thousands of local issues and events,” the document read. “The Board of Commissioners recognizes the many contributions to the people of Adams County from The People’s Defender. We encourage our fellow citizens to pause and reflect in the service of this newspaper to our community and send our best wishes for a bright future.”
From the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, through two World Wars, a Great Depression, 28 presidents, and the advent of technologies unimaginable 150 years ago, editors and reporters at the Defender have continued to narrate the story of Adams County and its people.
“It’s interesting to think that the role of our newspaper has not really changed much over 150 years, only the way that we deliver news,” said Carpenter. “It is still our responsibility to report on local events and be the best source of local news for the readers in the county. I am certain that is the same way the editor of the paper in 1866 felt.”
In 1866, the future founder and first editor of The People’s Defender, Joseph W. Eylar. was an ambitious young man with a plan for the future. In 1863, at the age of 15, he joined the Union Army and followed his father to war. He served as a dispatch carrier for General Ambrose Burnside in eastern Tennessee, a treacherous and often fatal duty, requiring stealth and courage to slip through enemy lines and evade Confederate soldiers. After serving a year, he returned home to West Union and began working between school terms at the Democratic Union, one of the most radically Democratic newspapers in Ohio. Satisfied he’d found his life’s work, he took a second job at the Southern Ohio Argus in Georgetown where he learned the printer’s trade.
Determined to start his own Democratic newspaper, in September 1865, he borrowed $1,000 to purchase a printing press, two cases of type, a composing table, a desk, and several chairs. He and his brother, Oliver, spent weeks walking across Adams County canvassing subscribers and trading subscriptions for meals and lodgings. On Jan. 16, 1866 he published his first edition, officially launching The People’s Defender.
Because many start-up county newspapers at that time were run by only one person who served as publisher, editor, and printer, there was little time left for original writing. Eylar, determined to get his political party’s message out to the people, hired two hand compositors to set the type, run the press, fold and mail the papers each week, while he, as editor and publisher, concentrated on content.
During the mid-19th century political discourse was the most common motive for launching a county newspaper. Most small towns had at least two newspapers, one for each political party, however the potential for subscriptions and advertising sales was meager at best. Very few newspapers were profitable, and most failed. Eylar’s Defender would be an exception to the rule. Under his management, the paper’s circulation and profits grew – as did his reputation.
In The History of Adams County, Nelson Evans and Emmons Stivers describe Eylar as “a Democrat in the intensest sense of the word”. They write: “While there may be, and doubtless are, Democrats whose faith in the tenets of their party is only sentimental, that is not the case with Mr. Eylar. His Democracy is eighteen carats fine. He not only believes it, but he thinks, acts, and lives it. Mr. Eylar is a good friend, a good neighbor, a bad enemy, and a good citizen. He believes in the broad religion of humanity and practices it everyday of his life. Many thought at times he was too pungent and sarcastic and sometimes too abusive, but his friends stood by him and he succeeded. With foundations he laid in his boyhood and youth, he has made a superstructure with which he and his personal and political friends can be well satisfied, and of which they can be proud.”
Eylar was elected to the Ohio Legislature in 1876 when he was 29 years old. He served two terms as the Democratic representative from Adams County and was considered “a most efficient legislator”.
Returning to West Union, he continued as the Defender’s editor and publisher until selling the paper in 1890 to Edward A. Crawford. During his 24-year tenure the newspaper had the largest circulation of any Adams County newspaper, a record it continues to hold today.
Before purchasing the Defender, Edward A. Crawford was a teacher, and like his predecessor at the paper, he was a staunch Democrat with political aspirations. During his tenure as editor he became a well-known figure in state politics, and served as a delegate to the National Democratic Convention at Chicago from the Tenth Ohio District in 1896, 1900, and 1901. He was elected Secretary of the Democratic State Executive Committee of Ohio in September, 1900 and in 1910 he was appointed State Printer by Governor Judson Harmon.
During Crawford’s 26 years at the helm, the Defender came to be known as one of Ohio’s best Democratic newspapers, and its editorials were widely quoted by the Democratic press throughout southern Ohio. He also markedly increased the paper’s circulation in 1897 by purchasing a second newspaper, the Democratic Index, from D.W.P. Eylar, and consolidating it with the Defender.
Ownership of the Defender returned to the Eylar family in 1916, when after a dispute with the county’s Democratic party, Crawford sold the paper to William Allen Eylar, son of the paper’s founder.
William formed the Defender Publishing Company, and as its publisher and manager successfully steered the company through the years encompassing World War I, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression. When he passed away in 1936, his son Thomas became the third generation of Eylars to sit at the editor’s desk.
Thomas Eylar epitomized the 20th century image of a small-town newspaper editor- Forward thinking, ambitious, and man of the community who had compassion and respect for the people he served. When he passed away in 1970, Defender columnist Joseph W. Fitcher aptly described his editor in his weekly “Lay of the Land” column: “To know Tom Eylar was to admire and respect him. There was a quality in his personality which caused a person to feel at ease in his presence. Although he was a busy man, he made people feel welcome when they approached him and he always took time to listen. This is the mark of a noble nature. He occupation called for the noblest of human qualities – integrity, sincerity, and an appreciation of the everyday, down-to-earth concerns of people. Thomas Eylar possessed these qualities to the highest degree.”
During his 34 years as editor, The People’s Defender experienced unprecedented growth. Eylar transformed the small weekly paper into a publishing business four times its original size that at its peak had nearly 100,000 press runs a week. Seeing the need for constant improvements and the advantages of a new printing method called “offset”, Eylar made the change from hot type to cold type in the fall of 1965, giving an extraordinary boost to the company’s printing capacity.
In addition to publishing the Defender and the Adams County News (which he purchased in 1954), the company printed six other newspapers and seven circulars for shopping centers and food marts.
In 1960 Eylar asked his son-in-law Herbert Lax to join the company. Lax accepted, and following his father-in-law’s death, became the last member of the Eylar family to hold the editor’s position at the Defender.
“When I accepted my father-in-law’s job offer, we were still using hot types and other antiquated equipment,” said Lax. “During the time I was with the paper we went from hand setting type to computers and a press that could accommodate a 16-page publication.”
During his 38 years at the editor’s desk, Lax continued to make further equipment updates, and adding over-the-counter sales, nearly doubled the paper’s circulation from 5,500 to 9,500 a week. The Defender was rated number five in the United States for the number of papers printed in proportion to the county population.
Like his predecessors, Lax kept the news local and offered opinions in his weekly column, “The Thought has Crossed My Mind”. He gained a reputation as a watchdog of public officials and didn’t pull any punches when it came to reporting local news.
“I didn’t cover anything up and there are people in Adams County who still don’t speak to me because of things I wrote in the paper,” he says. “I just told it like it was and some people didn’t always like that. Not having friends is the price of integrity when you’re the editor of a small weekly newspaper. You can have buddies and relationships, but you can’t have friends.”
Terry Rigdon, the Defender’s pressman during Lax’s tenure as editor said, “I couldn’t have asked for a better boss, Herb was fair with people, he was just a good person.”
Lax was also actively involved in community affairs and served in several civic organizations. At various times he was President of the Chamber of Commerce, President of the Adams Brown Substance Abuse Council, President of the Adams County Development Committee, President of the Tiffin PTA, President of the Little League and Football Associations, and he avidly worked to pass hospital and library levies in the county.
Lax began negotiations to sell The People’s Defender in the mid-1990’s. It was purchased by the Brown Publishing Company and Lax stayed on as a weekly columnist until 1998 when he was summarily dismissed. “I got a letter saying I was no longer employed at the paper,” said Lax. “And I was warned not to tell anyone what had happened or there would be consequences.”
Now 79 years old, Lax says he has moved on and only regrets the loss of a platform that allowed him to promote positive change. “I miss being involved in community work,” he says. “I see things that should be done, but I don’t have the say-so anymore to make it happen.”
The Defender continued publication under the ownership of Brown Publishing until 2010 when the paper was purchased by Civitas Media, which in turn sold the paper in 2016 to MCM Media.
The paper is again locally owned and current editor Mark Carpenter continues the legacy of keeping the news coverage focused on the people of Adams County who still turn to the Defender for their news.
It is somewhat ironic that even with the advent of technology offering multiple venues for dispensing news, newspapers remain the number one source for local news, and that dependence on local topics sets it apart from other news outlets.
“Though the major changes in technology that have taken place recently seem to have impacted the work of newspapers in city markets, there is still something to be said out here in a rural area for actually holding that newspaper in your hand and reading it,” said Carpenter. “Personally, I know that I can get my news with the click of a button, but there is something about the feel of the paper in your hands that doesn’t go away and a lot of our readers think the same way, which is part of the reason why we have lasted 150 years.”
Local newspapers, unlike their metropolitan counterparts, are expected to remain a vital and active force on the American landscape far into the future. As long as local papers like the Defender keep pace with the ideas and ingenuity that drive progress and effect the lives of their readers, they will remain both useful and necessary. The successes and setbacks of human endeavors are always more relatable when expressed through the daily lives of ordinary people, and local papers are ideally suited to that task.
“Who knows what the future holds for rural newspapers,” said Carpenter. “It’s nice to think though that somebody in 2166 will be talking about the work we did 150 years before.”