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

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Pierce, Dante Melville
(August 29, 1880–July 27, 1955)

and

Petersen, William John

(May 9, 1848–November 1, 1920)

–agricultural publishers—were father and son. James M. Pierce was born on a farm in Richland County, Ohio. As a boy, James was employed as a printer's apprentice in the Shield and Banner newspaper office in Mans-field, Ohio. His father died in the Civil War. James himself enlisted late in the war in the 48th Ohio Volunteer Militia.

    In 1866 James Pierce began his long career in journalism, establishing the Star in Ashley, Ohio. After moving to northern Missouri to farm, he and an older brother lost their crop to grasshoppers. Pierce then worked on and soon bought and edited the Grant City Star in 1870 and established the Hopkins Journal in 1875, both in Missouri. After moving to southern Iowa, he published and edited several county seat weeklies, including the Taylor County Republican at Bedford (ten miles from Hopkins) and the Osceola Standard.

    In March 1885 Pierce and a partner purchased the Iowa Homestead, successor to farm journals dating from 1856, for $20,000, and he moved to Des Moines as its publisher. The Homestead 's purchase brought Pierce into an association with its editor, Henry Wallace (1836-1916), until the two quarreled over editorial policy in 1895, with Wallace leaving to edit a rival weekly. The Iowa Homestead 's paid circulation increased from about 1,000 in 1885 to 111,784 by 1918, while the rival Wallaces' farmer had only 31,405. In 1893 Pierce acquired two other midwestern weeklies, the Wisconsin farmer (Madison) and the farmer and Stockman (Kansas City).

    Late in life Pierce began writing editorials, or signing his name to editorials written by his staff, for the Homestead. In the first one, published in the issue of September 4, 1913, he told of his father's death during the siege of Vicksburg and burial in an unmarked grave, and his own enlistment as a teenager, much to his family's distress. Pierce used his family's wartime experience to support President Wilson's initial refusal to invade Mexico, then in revolutionary turmoil. During World War I, Pierce denounced attacks on the patriotism of the German American citizens of Bremer County. The same editorial attacked the Des Moines Register as an enemy of the farmer without giving specifics. Also during the war, Pierce supported the precursor to the American Civil Liberties Union. His last cantankerous editorial appeared in the issue of November 4, 1920, the same issue in which Dante Pierce printed his father's obituary. Under the title "The So-Called 'farmer' Strike,'" James supported the plan by Milo Reno, then secretary-treasurer of the Iowa Farmers Union, and farm organizations to withhold grain from the market until its price covered the cost of production plus a reasonable profit, a proposal Reno would make famous with the Farm Holiday of 1932. Pierce opposed a split between farmer and industrial workers over strikes, criticizing Senator Albert B. Cummins for wanting to make it "a crime for workingmen to strike."For good measure, the editorial opposed the election of the Republican candidates for governor and senator, but with no mention of the presidential race also under way.

    Dante M. Pierce was born in Bedford, Iowa, in 1880. After service with the Fifth Regiment, Missouri Volunteer Infantry, during the Spanish-American War, he attended Iowa State College (1899-1900).

    Dante Pierce inherited his father's position as publisher of the Iowa Homestead. Like his father, he wrote editorials on agricultural issues and politics. Unlike many midwestern agricultural leaders, Dante Pierce opposed the McNary—Haugen bills proposed to make the tariff effective for agriculture. In an editorial in 1924, he contended that "the bill was cumbersome, impractical and valueless to the general farmer, and that it was written, introduced and promoted only for political purposes."

    Dante Pierce was, however, no conservative in politics. In 1924 he favored maverick Republican candidate Smith Wildman Brookhart for the U.S. Senate, and endorsed Progressive candidate Robert M. La Follette for president. Just before the 1924 election, the Homestead printed a ballot illustration, "How to Vote for Brookhart and La Follette."Despite their political differences, Pierce was personally friendly with Presidents Coolidge and Hoover. At the beginning of Roosevelt's New Deal, Pierce, at the request of his friend Henry A. Wallace, the new U.S. secretary of agriculture, headed a group of agricultural journalists who drafted new legislation.

    In 1929 Dante Pierce sold the Iowa Homestead to the Wallace family. The last issue of the Homestead, dated October 19, 1929, does not mention the sale. Until the end of 1958 the merged paper carried the name Wallaces' farmer and Iowa Homestead. As advertising revenue fell sharply during the Depression, the merged paper was printed less frequently and pagination was greatly reduced. The Wallace family could not keep up payments on their Homestead debt, so Pierce became the paper's receiver in 1932. Henry A. Wallace continued as editor, with Pierce's support, until Wallace became U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1933. Pierce bought the merged paper back at a sheriff's sale in 1935.

    Dante Pierce had also inherited the Wisconsin farmer In 1929 he combined it with the Wisconsin Agriculturist (Racine), continuing a nationwide trend of consolidating farm publications. The farmer and Stockman, in Missouri, had been sold.

    Dante M. Pierce died in 1955 and was succeeded as publisher of the Iowa and Wisconsin papers by his son, Richard S. Pierce, who had been named associate publisher in 1950.
Sources James M. Pierce's obituary appeared in the Iowa Homestead, 11/4/1920, and Dante M. Pierce's was in the Des Moines Register, 7/28/1955. See also Donald R. Murphy, "The Centennial of a Farm Paper," Palimpsest 37 (1956), 449–80; Joel Kunze, "Shameful Venality: The Pierce-Wallace Controversy and the Election of 1896," Palimpsest 71 (1990), 2–11; and John J. Fry, The Farm Press, Reform, and Rural Change, 1895–1920 (2005).
Contributor: Earl M. Rogers

Cite as: Rogers, Earl M. "Pierce, Dante Melville" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 27 August 2014