Merritt, Ada Chase (1852–1933)

Ada Chase Merritt, like many Americans, moved westward in the mid-1800s, leaving Michigan with her family to raise stock in Austin, Nevada, in 1864, and later to Salmon, Idaho, with her husband Henry Merritt and two children. Chase spent much of her adult life running a small-town newspaper and raising her children, and she was involved in local and state politics. She was a Democrat in a mostly Republican area and eventually supported the People's Party.

Although she was born in Clinton, Louisiana, on February 24, 1852, Merritt grew up in Michigan. Little is known about her education in Michigan or later in Nevada. She met and married her husband, Henry Clay Merritt, in 1870 while living in Austin, Nevada, and their two children were born in Austin and nearby Elko. The couple followed the Chase and Merritt families north to Salmon, Idaho, in 1883, where Henry Merritt took a job as a mine superintendent. He was killed in a river accident a year later, leaving his widow to teach school for a short time until she became part owner in the Idaho Recorder.

Started in June 1886, the Recorder came under the ownership of Merritt and O. W. Mintzer in July 1888. The partnership of a Republican and Democrat was meant to make the paper independent, at least until the Republican ran and won a slot in the state assembly. Merritt bought out Mintzer in October and was the sole owner and editor of the paper until she sold it in 1906. As a weekly, the Recorder focused primarily on local and county news. Merritt even added a “People's Column” open to anyone who wished to publish something. While the paper appeared to be sufficiently profitable, Merritt, as many westerners and small-business owners did, bartered subscriptions for necessities such as her winter fuel supply.

Merritt and her son became embroiled in a major scandal in that same year. In 1900, Merritt had been elected county treasurer. In 1901, Merritt and her new assistant, George W. Walsen, traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, and Chicago to buy new printing equipment. These capital investments led to a biweekly publication of the paper, now competing with the Lemhi Herald. In the May 20, 1902, edition of the paper, Merritt reprinted an article that had appeared in the Pocatello Advance under the headline “The Arrest of Walsen.” The reprinted story revealed that Walsen and Merritt had been secretly married in Omaha in December. Promoting a new mining route, Walsen left Salmon at the end of March. Shortly thereafter, Merritt discovered that $6,000 of county funds was gone. Merritt, as county treasurer, and her son Allen, the deputy treasurer, were the only ones who knew the combination to the safe. Walsen had gained knowledge of the combination and stolen the money. The story continued, telling of Merritt's efforts to locate Walsen and entice him to Denver, Colorado, so he could be arrested. Although this attempt failed, Walsen agreed to meet Merritt in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was eventually arrested. It turned out that Walsen had a criminal record, having served three terms in prison for forgery in Colorado and one more in Utah. The reprinted article ended with an expression of sympathy and endorsement for Merritt, applauding her determination in finding and bringing Walsen to justice. During the next several months the scandal played out with numerous, bitter, and public exchanges between the editors of the Recorder and the Lemhi Herald. By May 1903, the court case against Walsen had been dismissed, Merritt had pled guilty to aiding in the escape of a prisoner and been fined $50, the stolen funds had been reimbursed, and Walsen and Merritt were divorced.

Amy M. Hay

See also: Democratic Party ; Gilded Age ; Gold Standard/Free Silver

References

Bennion, Sherilyn Cox. “Ada Chase Merritt and The Recorder: A Pioneer Idaho Editor and Her Newspaper.” Idaho Yesterdays 25 (4): 22–30.

Bennion, Sherilyn Cox. Equal to the Occasion: Women Editors of the Nineteenth-Century West. Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1990.