When Henry Fox Entered the Henhouse

Print this entry

One of my primary responsibilities as a publisher is to sell newspapers. That might appear blindingly obvious to most folks. But on innumerable occasions throughout my four decades in this business, readers upset with a story will say, accusingly, “You’re just trying to sell newspapers.” That always struck me as parallel with telling a car dealer, “You’re just trying to sell cars.” Well, duh.

Now that doesn’t mean we will publish anything. We have standards for libel, good taste, obscenity and relevance. But I can assure you that without fear or favor we are going to publish the news and give readers the best newspaper we can. That’s the only way I know how to run a newspaper.

OK, I’ll step down from the soapbox now. Like I said, selling newspapers is a big part of my job. We run promotions, try to increase sales in rack and stores, encourage teachers to use the newspaper in their classrooms — all the usual gambits newspapers employ. And we have had considerable success in boosting circulation in the nearly six months since buying the Trib. But retaining and increasing circulation is a never-ending exercise.

One of my country newspaper heroes is a fellow named Henry B. Fox. I have been writing a biography of him for nearly three years. With luck I’ll finish by the end of next summer and start shopping for a publisher. I have discovered that one best hold on to your day job when writing books, but it helps keep me off the streets.

Henry Fox was publishing the Madisonville Meteor in 1939 with the able help of his wife, Marie, who came from a newspaper family. The company I work for now owns the Meteor, and 20 years ago while redesigning the paper I discovered Fox in the dusty bound volumes of past issues. When redesigning a paper, I often look at what the paper used to look like in its various iterations to come up with ideas. And that’s when I discovered the Hen Subscription Contest.

It had been a tough year in Madison County, where most folks made their living growing cotton. Even though Fox several months later would be named the Best Country Newspaper Editor in the United States and travel to New York to receive the honor, he was still having trouble selling subscriptions. Cash was scarce and few farmers were willing to spend it on a newspaper subscription to The Meteor.

Fox decided, forgive me, to literally enter the hen house. He launched a Hen Subscription Contest for non-subscribers. One 5-pound or larger hen, or two hens weighing together at least 8 pounds, would earn a nine-month subscription. To sweeten the deal, Fox offered a $5 first prize for the heaviest hen entered; $2.50 for second place and $1.50 for third place.

Somebody on his staff produced a cartoon of two hens squawking, one saying, “I’d rather be swapped for the Meteor than the Dallas News,” and the other replying, “I’m the heaviest.”

Being quite the promoter, Fox — who wrote a column for his paper and others called the “Navasot Philosopher” in which he pretended to be a shiftless hayseed commenting on world affairs — kept the drive alive with feature stories and house ads. Only one person brought in a rooster. Fox threatened to send him a subscription to the Huntsville Item as punishment.

When the Hen Campaign ended, the Meteor subscription list had increased by 230 people who brought in 256 hens, owing to the folks who brought in two light hens — increasing the paper’s circulation by nearly 20 percent. The heaviest hen weighed 11 pounds, 4 ounces, earning Mrs. A.C. Bracewell of Bedias $5 for her efforts. Fox later explained that he sold the hens to a produce house that paid a premium for buying hens in bulk. Thus he converted chickens into currency for roughly the same amount of money he would have gotten if everyone had paid in cash.

Until Fox could get the hens to the produce house, he kept them in coops behind the newspaper office in downtown Madisonville. I came across a photograph of Fox weighing one of the chickens in the back of his newspaper office. That will definitely be in the book.

Fox held a couple more Hen Subscription Contests before World War II began and he joined the Army. He would go on to make a decent living writing his column and peddling it to other papers for nearly a half century. He and his family lived on a farm in Circleville, outside Taylor, where he raised cattle and wrote his column as well as three novels. It is likely there were a few chickens running around as well.

Print this entry

Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required