The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Meredith, Edwin Thomas
(December 23, 1876–June 17, 1928)

–journalist, publisher, political activist, and U.S. secretary of agriculture—was born on a farm near the small town of Avoca, Iowa, the son of Thomas O. and Minerva (Marsh) Meredith. He also was the grandson of Thomas ("Uncle Tommy") Meredith, a prosperous farmer, Populist, and founding publisher of the farmer's Tribune.

    Edwin was educated in a country school and later attended high school in Marne, where he was one of only two students to graduate in 1892. Later that year he moved to Des Moines and entered Highland Park College to study business. His college career lasted only a few months, however, as he shifted his time and interest to his grandfather's newspaper. Edwin excelled in that work, and by the end of 1894 he was general manager and company treasurer. He married Edna C. Elliott on January 8, 1896, and received ownership of the Tribune as a wedding gift from his grandfather.

    Edwin transformed the Tribune from a partisan, political organ into a general circulation newspaper. He was aggressive not only in his efforts to increase circulation and advertising but also in his pledge not to accept advertising from alcohol, tobacco, or patent medicine companies. Always ambitious, Edwin established a new magazine, Successful Farming, in 1902; two years later he sold the Tribune to concentrate on the magazine.

    Meredith established a reputation as a man of impeccable integrity. As a publisher, he was an ardent advocate for "truth in advertising" and offered to make good on any loss suffered by a subscriber as the result of an advertisement in a Meredith publication. He also established strong ties to his workforce and was hailed for the conditions and terms of employment in his company.

    Meredith was a political progressive with a passionate commitment to agriculture, and he used his publications to advance the cause of the family farmer He also believed that politics offered farmer generally and him personally the opportunity to promote the cause of American agriculture. Although he began his political career as a Roosevelt Republican, Meredith soon shifted his allegiance to the Democratic Party. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1914 and for governor two years later, but lost both races. Meredith never again sought elective office.

    Meredith devoted substantial time to politics but had many other interests. He was widely acknowledged by his peers in the printing and advertising industries and served terms as president of the Agricultural Publishers Association and the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World. He also was active in a number of social causes and business organizations. He was a trustee of Drake University, Des Moines University, and Simpson College. He also was a director of the Iowa National Bank and, from 1915 to 1925, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He achieved the 33rd degree of the Masonic Order and served as Sovereign Grand Inspector General of the Scottish Rite Masons in Iowa.

    Although he never won elective office, Meredith never lost his interest in politics. He served on several advisory boards and commissions in the Woodrow Wilson administration and came to know and admire William Gibbs McAdoo, President Wilson's son-in-law and secretary of the treasury. As a reward for his hard work in support of Wilson and McAdoo, the president selected Meredith in 1920 as his secretary of agriculture. Although the rural press hailed the appointment, Meredith faced the insurmountable challenge of addressing the growing disaffection for Wilson's wartime agricultural policies. His term ended with the inauguration of Warren Harding as president and the appointment of Henry C. Wallace, also of Iowa, as the new secretary of agriculture.

    Meredith remained an important political voice within the Democratic Party until his death in 1928. In 1920, for example, he was linked with McAdoo as a possible ticket for the Democratic presidential and vice presidential nomination. Meredith had no ambition to be vice president, but he did not stop the speculation. And when McAdoo withdrew as a candidate for health reasons, some touted Meredith as an ideal candidate for either president or vice president. When James Cox of Ohio became the nominee, the party gave the vice presidential nod to Franklin Roosevelt of New York.

    Back in Des Moines by mid March 1921, Meredith published analytical essays in Successful Farming and other publications, but lacked a way to incorporate his ideas into public policy. Frustrated, he temporarily turned his attention away from politics to agricultural and consumer publishing. In 1922 Meredith acquired the Dairy farmer and two years later established Fruit, Garden, and Home, which was later renamed Better Homes and Gardens.

    As the 1924 election season neared, Mere dith could not resist the lure of politics. Once again, he supported McAdoo, until McAdoo's association with the Teapot Dome Scandal forced him to quit the race. Meredith then replaced McAdoo as a potential nominee, but never found enough votes to match the campaign of Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York. In an effort to block Smith, an opponent of Prohibition, Meredith supported John W. Davis. Once again, rumors spread that Meredith would be the vice presidential nominee, but the nod went to Charles Bryan, the brother of William Jennings Bryan.

    At the end of 1924 Meredith turned his attention back to publishing, but his health began to deteriorate. Heart trouble required him to spend substantial time away from politics. Although there were rumors that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1928, he never mounted much of a campaign. He died on June 17, 1928, of complications of a heart ailment.

    More than 2,000 people gathered in the Shrine Temple auditorium in Des Moines on March 24, 1929, for a memorial service to commemorate Meredith's life and legacy. The principal speaker, his friend and former cabinet colleague, Josephus Daniel, judged Meredith to be "a solid man, a forthright, downright, straightforward man, direct, candid, genuine to the core,... a man who would stand the test of time."Although his political views are long forgotten, Meredith is still remembered for the publishing company that bears his name.
Sources Meredith's papers are in Specia l Collections, University of Iowa, Iowa City. Se e also Peter Lewis Petersen, "A Publisher in Politics: Edwin T. Meredith, Progressive Reform, and the Democratic Party, 1912–1928" (Ph.D . diss., University of Iowa, 1971); and Edwin T . Meredith, 1876–1928: A Memorial Volum e (1931) .
Contributor: Timothy Walch