It’s impossible to mention the Cowles family publishing legacy without talking about the man who started it all, Gardner Cowles. Born of humble means in the shadow of the Civil War, Cowles built the foundation on which the Cowles media empire would grow and thrive. His story is one of success and influence in business, politics and publishing. Every corner of the state of Iowa has been influenced by the man, his publications, or by the foundation that continues to bear his name.
Gardner Cowles was born February 28th, 1861 in a pioneer household in Oskaloosa, Iowa. His parents were William Fletcher Cowles, a Methodist minister, and Maria Elizabeth LaMonte. When Maria married William in 1857, he was already a widower with three children. Gardner’s mother gave birth to Gardner and two years later his brother LaMonte followed. Unfortunately, his mother died at the age of 35 when Gardner was just 12 years old. As Methodist ministers were transferred frequently, Gardner’s family moved every year or two, living in a variety of Iowa towns, including, Albia, Eddyville, Grinnell, Knoxville, Mount Pleasant, Muscatine, Oskaloosa, and Ottumwa.
Gardner spent his first year of college at William Penn College in Oskaloosa. He moved to Grinnell for the next two years of his studies, before finishing up at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wesleyan in 1882, and three years later he earned his Masters of Arts from the same institution. Gardner’s noted frugality came to light during his college years, most famously by going a whole year wearing the same suit. During his college years Gardner supported himself by working as a teacher, and after graduation he took the position of superintendent of schools in Algona. During his tenure there, he met Florence Call. Six months later they were engaged, and soon after married.
During his time as school superintendent, Gardner Cowles bought a half-interest in the weekly paper The Algona Republican. Harvey Ingham, editor of a competing newspaper The Upper Des Moines attacked Cowles in a front page editorial for “threatening to neglect the pupils of the town to make a few dollars on a second-rate newspaper.” Despite the initial confrontation, the two rivals struck up a friendship that would last them the rest of their lives.
In 1884, Cowles left the newspaper and education fields to go into business with his father-in-law, Ambrose Call, a well-known Algona banker. Between 1885 and 1903 Cowles focused on business, capitalizing on Iowa’s rapid development. He speculated on land, managed investments, and became involved in banking. By 1900 Cowles had controlling interests in ten different banks in northern Iowa. Cowles also had a great interest in politics, and between 1899 and 1903 he served as a Republican member of the Iowa State Legislature.
In 1903, Harvey Ingham found that the paper he edited and owned a minority investment in, The Des Moines Register and Leader, was for sale. He contacted his old friend Gardner Cowles, who by this time was 42 years old and wealthy. Ingham convinced Cowles to travel to Des Moines and was able to persuade Cowles to purchase a paper that was $180,000 in debt and had a circulation of about 14,000. In 1904, Gardner, his wife Florence, their children Helen, Russell, Bertha, Florence, John, and Gardner Jr. (Mike) relocated from Algona to Des Moines. The Cowles family was in the publishing business.
With Ingham’s help, Cowles worked tirelessly at fixing the paper’s problems. By 1906 he had reduced the company’s debt and doubled the circulation of the paper. Cowles introduced a variety of innovations early on. In his first year he introduced a color comics section for the Sunday edition. His emphasis on home delivery proved successful and allowed the Sunday edition to be distributed outside of Des Moines (The delivery system outside of Des Moines had operated through the postal system). In 1908 he purchased the Des Moines Evening Tribune. He renamed his company the Register and Tribune Co. and took on the role of both president and treasurer. Ten years after entering the publishing business the Register and the Tribune were reaching about 55,000 readers, over half of whom were outside of Des Moines. The growth of The Register outside of Des Moines was possible because of Iowa’s spreading rail network which allowed the early editions to reach all corners of the state each morning.
As the paper grew, Cowles continued to remain interested in politics and in 1916 he even agreed to be a delegate for Iowa at the Republican National Convention. His innovations in the newspaper industry continued as the Cowles papers started running public opinion polls created by a young George Gallup. His company was also one of the first newspaper publishers to provide employees group insurance, retirement and stock purchase plans.
In the 1920s Cowles was able to do away with his competition in the Des Moines area by purchasing the Daily News from the Scripps-Howard chain in 1924, and buying The Capital in 1927. Both of the purchased papers were merged with the afternoon Tribune, which was briefly renamed The Tribune-Capital. With the Des Moines newspaper market under their complete control, Cowles became Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Register and Tribune Co., with his son Gardner Jr. moving into the position of company president. By this time the papers had grown to be the most influential papers in Iowa with a combined daily circulation of 350,000 and Sunday circulation of 425,000. By 1928 the Cowles family expanded into broadcasting, purchasing radio stations in Des Moines, South Dakota, and Washington, D.C.
While Cowles’ sons began to take more control over the operation of the family business, he began spending more time golfing, traveling, and playing bridge at the Des Moines Club. He continued to remain busy serving on the Boards of Trustees at two colleges, a hospital and several banks. In 1932 President Herbert Hoover appointed him director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). He left his post at the RFC in 1933, returning home to Des Moines. The following year he and his wife founded the Gardner and Florence Call Cowles Foundation. The Foundation is a charitable trust set up to support educational and other charitable institutions in Iowa. By this time Gardner was 73 years old. He suffered from vision problems and most of his reading had to be done by others for him. As he continued to age, his hearing also failed him. In his last years he could not see at all, and was unable to hear much. He could still hear well enough to be read to, and family members read to him constantly. He died February 28th, 1946, at the age of 85.
As his sons took control of the company in the 1930s they were able to facilitate major growth in the Cowles publishing empire. They expanded into the Minneapolis market in 1935 with the purchase of the Minneapolis Star. Four years later they purchased the Minneapolis Journal, merging the two papers into the Minneapolis Star-Journal. In 1941 the Cowles family took command of all the major papers in Minneapolis with the purchase of the Minneapolis Tribune. In 1937 the Cowles family went on to introduce LOOK magazine to the nation, and several other publications followed.
Gardner Cowles, Sr. was a success in many different fields, and his family worked to preserve his reputation in publishing. Not only were the publications they founded profitable, but well-run and well-known for their journalistic integrity. Fifteen years after Cowles passed, journalism educators rated the finest morning/evening newspaper publishers in America. The Cowles papers in Minneapolis and Des Moines were ranked second and third. The prizes and accolades continued, and by 1985, the year the Register was sold, it had garnered 13 Pulitzer Prizes – second only to the New York Times.