Blog post by Rod Spaw
Viewing events through a political or ideological lens did not start with the internet, Fox News or MSNBC. It was not uncommon, in fact, for newspapers throughout much of U.S. history to rely on political patronage for their success. Even when the advertising model of business took over in the 20th century, many editors still touted their politics in news and opinion columns.
One notable practitioner of this “old-school journalism” in Bloomington was Henry James Feltus, who published newspapers here for 51 years, beginning in 1875. Feltus came to Bloomington from Greencastle at the behest of local Democrats who had seen “their paper” taken over by Republican owners, leaving the party without a vehicle to promote its views. An invitation, however, did not guarantee profitability, as Feltus recounted 25 years later in an article commemorating his silver anniversary as a Bloomington newspaper publisher.
“It took a great deal of nerve to publish a Democratic paper in Bloomington, as all previous efforts in that way had failed,” Feltus wrote, citing four unsuccessful attempts by other publishers before the first issue of his newspaper, the Bloomington Courier, appeared on October 28, 1875. Indeed, the first years of the Courier were rocky financially, the editor recalled, in part because of the fickle faith of Monroe County Democrats, who had not enjoyed great electoral success since the Civil War.
“After the first issue of the Courier appeared, about a dozen Democrats concluded to raise a ‘bonus’ of $300, which they did by going on a note to the First National Bank for that amount. I signed the note also, and when it became due, the bank was told by my ‘bonus’ friends to make it out of me,” the editor recalled.
The bank sued for repayment, which Feltus said began a series of difficulties with the county sheriff, Republican L.E. McKenney, who did not care for the “roasting” the editor handed out regularly to Republicans in general, and Republican county elected officials in particular.
“This was something the latter, especially, were not used to, so about every issue of the Courier brought a visit from the sheriff who insisted on the payment of the (note),” Feltus wrote in 1900. “The income of the office then was barely enough to meet living expenses, as but a few Democrats were loyal enough to pay in advance for the paper for fear it would fail or sell out to the Republicans.”
Feltus wrote that he always managed to make a payment on the debt to thwart the sheriff until the entire amount was repaid. He said the newspaper’ fortunes improved in 1878 when a Democrat was elected County Auditor for the first time since 1863. “This gave the Courier considerable ‘official pap’; hence it had comparatively smooth sailing,” Feltus wrote. “Finally, a good many Republicans began to admire the ‘pluck’ of the Courier and recognized that they had not only a good local paper but a ‘foeman worthy of their steel’ politically.”
As if proof, Feltus’ recollections of his early days in Bloomington did not appear in the Courier, but in the Bloomington Telephone, a Republican newspaper begun in 1876 by Walter Bradfute. Bradfute and Feltus became friends, despite being opposites politically. The two men even partnered during the 1880s in operation of the town’s Opera House, located on the second floor of a building on the south side of the courthouse square.
Feltus’ Democratic credentials remained intact despite his friendship with Bradfute. He was appointed Bloomington postmaster during the second term of Democratic President Grover Cleveland (1893-1897), and Feltus was elected in 1880 to a seat on the Bloomington City Council
Feltus sold the Courier in 1894, but his absence from local newspapers was brief. In 1895, his son Harry started a weekly newspaper, the Bloomington Star. Henry subsequently joined the editorial staff, as did Henry’s only daughter, Gertrude. Later, son Paul also would become a partner in the business.
The Bloomington Star became the Star-Courier in 1942 and continued as a Feltus family enterprise until ending publication in 1965. Henry J. Feltus died in 1926 after a short illness at age 80. He still was writing for the newspaper at the time of his death.
Sources: “Early trials and triumphs in starting Democratic newspaper,” Bloomington Telephone, Nov. 30, 1900; History of Morgan, Monroe and Brown Counties, 1884; “Story of Feltus Newspapers or Yesterday and Today,” Bloomington Star Courier, March 11, 1952; “Last Rites for Veteran Newspaper Man,” Star Courier, Jan. 15, 1926.