In 1844, Abraham H. Palmer came to Iowa City on a mission. Moving here from Defiance, Ohio (see map below) – his defiant character apparently matched the name of his Ohio connections – as Palmer became known around here as ‘The Old Growler’ – to both his friends and his political enemies.
You see, in those early days of Iowa City (1840’s), there were two newspapers in town – The Iowa Standard (representing the Whig/Republican view) and The Iowa Capitol Reporter (representing the Democrat view). And much like today, there was a big gulf between the two parties, and, in these pioneer times, the newspaper editor became the primary mouthpiece for the party’s political viewpoint. Read more here.
So, it was for A.H. Palmer. Back in northwest Ohio, as a newspaper editor working alongside his brother, Garrett (G.D.), A.H. had become an important voice in Democrat circles. And in 1844, both he and his brother ventured into America’s new West with the mission of building up the party cause in the new Territory of Iowa. And since Iowa City was the center for all political activity, it was here the Palmer brothers set up shop, buying out Col. Jesse Williams and taking control of The Iowa Capital Reporter in the spring of 1845.
FYI – In the beginning (1841) the newspaper was called The Iowa Capitol Reporter, but over its existence, the paper called itself The Iowa Capital Reporter as well. Note on the page above – both spellings appear!
A.H. Palmer served as owner/editor of The Capital Reporter for five years – from 1845 to 1850, while his brother G.D. helped edit the paper for several months before starting a corresponding printing business in Iowa City. And, if you know Iowa history, you’ll recognize this period as the transitional years when Iowa went from being a U.S. Territory to Statehood. And, as we said, the political tensions were certainly elevated during this time as both political parties wanted control over who became Iowa’s first state governor, and even more so, who would become Iowa’s first representatives to the U.S. Senate.
In 1905 and 1906, long-time Iowa Citian – Gilbert R. Irish – wrote an extensive series of articles for The Iowa Citizen that covered these early years of Iowa City history, and in several different stories, Irish gives us some juicy details about A.H. Palmer and some of his Iowa City exploits. Let me share three of them here…
Our first story from G.R. Irish truly identifies A.H. Palmer’s “Old Growler” personality. Apparently, Palmer – the eternal “grumbler” – was very vocal over the years in expressing his complaints on just about everything – including, in this case, the price he was charged by the Rock Island Railroad for shipping his trunk back and forth from Iowa City, the infernal, muddy town of Eddysville, and his old business partner – Col. Jesse Williams – for not returning four of his books…
Our second G.R. Irish story takes us back to 1848. The Iowa Standard – Iowa City’s Whig/Republican newspaper had just been purchased by a new owner – Dr. Samuel M. Ballard – and renamed The Iowa City Republican. Apparently, Ballard was as highly competitive and equally vocal as A.H. Palmer – “The Old Growler,” and from what we read here, the two men – one Republican and the other Democrat – were so much at odds with each other, Palmer would avoid Ballard when walking the streets of Iowa City!
One last story from G.R. Irish centers around A.H. Palmer and the boiling hot tempers that surrounded his political editorials. In 1846, just as Iowa was about to become the 29th State in the Union, the political tensions were spilling over in the Capitol Building in Iowa City. As the story goes, Representative Nelson King of Keokuk – an Independent who Palmer had taken to task in his editorials – decided that he had read enough. You can read the full story below, but suffice to say, when King came rushing at Palmer, knocking the editor down with his cane, “flourishing a knife,” a scuffle like none other erupted in the Iowa House Chamber!
Which brings us now to our rare postal cover from June 1845. Now, here, I must admit that this letter from A.H. Palmer has the saltiest language of all those in our collection. But now that you better know the personality of Palmer – Iowa City’s Old Growler – you’ll most certainly understand why…
Now, let’s take a look at his June 3, 1845 letter to his good friend and financial supporter – William Carter of Defiance, Ohio. Know that as the new editor of The Iowa Capital Reporter, Palmer and his brother – G. D. – also ran a successful printing business on the side. Other historical records indicate that the Palmers had a hefty contract with the Iowa Legislature for printing all the necessary reports and publications surrounding each legislative session held in Iowa City. Apparently, here at the very beginning of their long tenure in Iowa City, finances were really tight, and it appears that Carter – who was a major financial supporter of Palmer’s work for the Democrats here in Iowa – had been slow in responding with a letter – or money!
Iowa City June 3, 1845
I wrote you some seven weeks since, & instead of receiving what I should have done, have not even been gratified with a reply to my letter.
It took 23 days for this letter to get to Ohio – so yeah, seven weeks is a bit long, don’t you think?
What in hell and damnation are you all about? If I am obliged to come back to you, rest assured it will be in very wrath – and if I do not turn the muddy Maumee (River) upstream & set it on fire, it will be because sin & moral pollution do not favor combustion.
How’s that for some hot-tempered hell & damnation?
If you choose to write on the rect. (receipt) of this & give me a little insight with matters, well & good, & if not you may go to —.
You can fill in the blank!
No time to say any further of my business than that the Legislature adjourns one week from to-day, & with the pay of members & officers will absorb every cent of the appropriation not leaving the first red cent for printing. The democratic papers throughout the territory are pulling & howling for the printing like perfect hyenas & will partially succeed, but if my friends (?) in Ohio will chalk up at all, I will be enabled to set these fellows right & make them decent within a year.
The hyenas are howling, the till is nearly empty, and you friends (?) in Ohio better act quickly! Got it?
It took me longer to make the North West of Ohio half way decent – and as soon as I left them they deteriorated most damnably. But if I come back I’ll soon straighten them up – “in a grotesque & vehement manner.”
I straightened out Ohio once – now don’t make me come back there & do it again!
Having written so much more than I intended to do, I may as well add seriously, that unless you can do something for me pretty promptly, I shall be seriously & dangerously, if not ruinously embarrassed. The money left to pay expenses of this session is only $74.00 & as I said before not one cent of it will be left for me. My expenses have been from 60 to 90 dollars per week independent of materials.
It’s not a good thing to be seriously, dangerously, and ruinously embarrassed – so act now, my friend – or else!
Yours etc A.H. Palmer
The good news here is that this rather sharp letter apparently didn’t destroy the on-going friendship between A.H. Palmer and William Carter. Historical records indicate that A.H. sent other letters – with one eight-pager written on August 14, 1846, where A.H. discussed “his support for the new Iowa constitution, briefly describing politics in Iowa relating to its creation, his business concerns in Defiance, Ohio – referring to land litigation and debts owed to him, and giving Carter instructions for furthering his interests.” Our collector friend – Jim Petersen – has uncovered a second letter from The Old Growler to W. Carter – written in October of 1846. Click here to see its contentious contents – this time directed, not at Carter, but another poor soul back in Ohio.
From what records we have, A.H. sold The Iowa Capital Reporter in 1850 and focused, with his brother Garrett (G.D.) on the printing business in Iowa City. Still actively involved in politics, A.H. was appointed in 1856 by President Buchanan to head up the U.S. Land Office in Council Bluffs.
But when Abraham Lincoln took over the U.S. presidency in 1861, Palmer’s cushy government job was lost. We’re not sure how much longer A.H. stayed in Council Bluffs, but apparently, as his health declined, he returned to Iowa City, where his brother Garrett (G.D.) was now the Johnson County auditor.
As far as we know, Abraham H. (A.H.) Palmer never married, and passed away in late May of 1874 in Iowa City. While we’ve located his brother’s grave in Winterset, Iowa, we’ve been unable to find a gravesite for A.H. Palmer. Garrett Dox (G.D.) Palmer went on to marry Alice Hazard and had two children in Iowa City before moving to Madison County in 1875, where he became the editor and proprietor of The Winterset News until the time of his death in 1888.
So, for now, this is all we have on Iowa City’s Old Growler – but this we know – Mr. Palmer certainly made a strong impression on friend and foe alike. Godspeed, A.H. Rest well.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.