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home : considered comment : august 2007 April 30, 2016

8/21/2007 2:28:00 PM
The enduring Rochester legacy of Henry A. Barnhart
President and Owner, The Sentinel

The good that men do lives after them, it is said, which is a truism that precisely fits Henry A. Barnhart. His legacy can be found yet today in two Rochester institutions: an independent daily newspaper that's one of Indiana's finest and an independent telephone company that's continually abreast of its industry's technology.

Henry Barnhart was a 19th century man of vision and probity, of tireless energy and of dedication to the progress of his community and political party.

He was, in turn: farmer, county official, widely respected newspaper editor, telephone industry pioneer, leader in community improvements, astute politician and accomplished orator and, to cap his career, a U. S. Congressman for 11 years.

He emerged into life on his parents' farm south of Twelve Mile in Cass County, one of six children in a German Baptist, or Dunkard, family. Defying his family's tradition that education ended with the one-room school, he left home and attended Amboy Academy. He then taught school, married and began farming east of Fulton.

There his fate first beckoned in 1884 when county Democratic leaders induced him to run for county surveyor at a time when the office was a political sinecure; trained assistants did the surveying. Henry was elected and moved to Rochester.

Two years later, Barnhart answered another call that would launch his life's professional career. Tully Bitters offered to sell the county's Democratic weekly newspaper, The Rochester Sentinel, so he could become postmaster. Henry seized the opportunity and on May 5, 1886, became a newspaper proprietor.

In 20 years, Barnhart moved The Sentinel from a modest, struggling enterprise in second-story rooms into a two-story building, established a daily edition in 1896 and claimed the largest circulation, advertising and commercial printing in the county. Henry accurately claimed of his newspaper at that time: "It's all in The Sentinel. If you see it in The Sentinel it's so. It's in The Sentinel the same day it happens."

As an editor, Barnhart might constantly be proclaiming the worth of the Democratic party, but his primary interest was in community advancement. He not only criticized local officials for their sloth, but involved himself personally in progressive ventures.

That's what led him, in 1895, to gather a group of distinguished citizens and create local telephone service. The Bell telephone patent had expired the year before, allowing independent companies to organize for the service. Within 10 years, 6,000 such companies would appear. Barnhart became the telephone company's first president and general manager.

It was not an unusual role for Henry. He had helped organize the city's first water works, helped form a local bank and was a founder of the Kiwanis club. Professionally, he was prominent in state Democratic organization politics, was president of the Indiana Editorial Association and president of both state and national telephone associations.

All of these activities earned him wide recognition in northern Indiana, so much so that in 1908 he was chosen the Democratic nominee for Congress from the eight-county 13th District, which also included Kosciusko, Marshall, Elkhart, St. Joseph, LaPorte, Pulaski and Starke counties. Henry spoke in nearly every city, village and school house in the district and won by 290 votes.

In those quiet years before World War I, Congress was much different than it is today. Washington was a small city unencumbered by the bureaucracy that later would envelop it; travel was difficult and citizens rarely visited the capital. Henry's two-person staff consisted of secretary and stenographer. He served in Congress until 1919, sponsored bills assisting citizens in his district and became known among his colleagues as an orator and story-teller. In an event widely publicized at the time, he left his hospital bed in a stretcher to cast his vote for women's suffrage on the House floor.

In his Rochester retirement, he continued as telephone company president, having turned the newspaper over to his sons, first to Dean and then to Hugh. He delivered a speech on "Congress in Action" throughout the county and wrote a history of Fulton County for the two-volume History of Indiana by Professor Logan Esarey of Indiana University.

His first wife, Loretta Ann Leffel, having died in 1916, he married a neighbor, Alwilda Dillon, in 1923. The couple lived in her home on the southwest corner of 11th and Main Streets; the original Barnhart family home still stands two houses directly south.

Henry made friends easily in Congress with his outgoing personality and homespun stories like this one which he often was asked to repeat:

In Fulton circuit court, an attorney was defending his client from selling a diseased animal. In his closing argument, he told the jury: "You have heard how a sick jackass was sold by my client. That is not true. He was perfectly healthy at the time. The new owner carelessly turned him into a pasture adjoined by one in which there were several healthy and lively mares. The lonely little animal tried in vain for three days to break through that barbed wire fence but could not make it. Members of the jury, that poor jackass did not die from disease. He just died from a broken heart." The attorney won the case.

Henry circulated among former constituents easily and often after he returned from Washington and never sought their deference. Once, while in a discussion with local acquaintances, the subject came up about a book uncomplimentary of President Warren Harding. Barnhart had known Harding as a fellow congressman and said he had found him to be a "real gentleman" and said further that he hoped people would not talk about him like that when he was gone.

To which a member of the group, John Troutman, replied, "Well, Henry, they ain't saying much about you now."

Henry Barnhart died March 26, 1934, at the age of 75. In attendance at his First Baptist Church funeral were 800 persons, including Indiana Governor Paul McNutt. Among the many government dignitaries who sent telegrams was Vice President John Garner, who wrote: "Many men come and go in Congress without being remembered but the memory of Mr. Barnhart always will live."

So should that memory be kept alive in Rochester, for all the many good things that he began here.

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