T his could be a kind of farewell to my life as it was wrapped in with two grand buildings, industry and people with whom I have spent portions of most of my life although it really had a different purpose originally.
I wanted to tell you about an event that changed everything about the newspaper business. It had nothing to do with me, and yet, it had everything to do with my reaction to it because I was there at just that moment. I was actually there when it was happening.
Progress, it was.
The thought came to me while I was mulling over the loss of our Fifth Street Observer plant.
We have been purchased again by another company, which spells success to our future as a continuing newsprint, but the transition requires the loss of our office and the big printing press as well. The headquarters for the office will be changing along with the future of the paper, and I was at the Fifth Street building, watching the remaining crew hard at work helping make it happen.
It was progress that I was observing in the changes happening, but I needed to refresh my memory of an earlier time in which the changes were even more dramatic and played an intricate part in what was happening now.
It was at the earlier plant at 1710 Sixth Street in La Grande. The Observer was located in a two-story yellow brick building with the printing press a huge monster taking up a great portion of the basement floor with several Linotype machines flanking one side. At the back of the building a stairway from the upper floor led down into the dark environment filled with the odor of ink and machinery in action.
Facing the length of the huge printing press and Linotype machines was first the tables bearing boxes of cold lead type, filed alphabetically, from which the ink-stained hands of the printer or “devil” (printer’s apprentice) put together the headlines in column widths to be added to the hot lead print coming off of the Linotype machines. Next to that was a stand and chair for the proofreader to scan each dummy copy, making corrections and sending it back to the typists for repair and to be reinserted in the lead column for printing on the press.
The lead columns were then placed in chases, locked in place and fixed to the big press in preparation for printing the usually eight- to 12-page paper of the day. I remember the man dressed primarily in black with ink stains and oil his daily wear. He wore a little cap and darted in and out of the big press’ machinery tentacles with what I remember as being an oil can in a quick effort to keep the machinery in working order.
The size of the machine with its arms ready to move the rolls of paper forward to printing looked almost like a huge monster in itself, but when it shuddered into action even trembling the building, it truly was impressive and came alive. It was as though we held our breath between starts and stops until the shuddering giant swam into smooth action. At the end of the run, the ensuing silence was equally awesome with the newsprint printed, folded and stacked, ready for distribution by the carriers to the waiting customers and subscribers for the news, advertising and amusement columns.
At this point I must say that when I saw the printing press at the new quarters on 1406 Fifth Street, I was somewhat disappointed in its size compared with the first one; however, it was still impressive and I knew that this was part of progress. I had been called by Di Lyn Larsen-Hill to write a couple of features for the paper’s special edition, and when I took my copy into the office it was blooming with individual computers. This was a surprise in that I had been used to manual typewriters and copy paper. Now she was putting my story into her computer so that it could be used by the paper. But, I’m jumping ahead of my story’s intent.
Upstairs back on Sixth Street in those days was where the newspaper was put together by dozens of employees working in various ways to make the day’s paper happen, and I was one of them. Perhaps I never would have given thought to the monster in the basement other than its shaking and spewing out the printed matter on a regular basis had it not been that for a time I was given the position of proofreader down in the dark cavern.
It was toward this day’s work on my way to the basement that I crossed from the newsroom and was passing the “dark room,” the little room they used to develop and print the pictures for use in an issue. The door to the little room was open, the overhead light on and several young men from the newspaper (who were they?) bent excitedly over a sheet of paper on which the front page of the newspaper was fully printed.
“It worked!” the photographer-reporter cried out while the others jumped about in glee.
Wondering at their difficulty in containing their excitement, I poked my head inside the door to ask what was going on and was told that they thought big changes were ahead for the paper because they could print the whole dummy page from glued-on typewriter copy. I, of course, didn’t understand that it would no longer use the Linotype machine hot lead letters and predestine the Linotype machines to oblivion and the printing press to smaller bulk.
I must admit that because of my lack of knowledge I wasn’t impressed with my initial introduction to the potential of what the young men were seeing so clearly, and I went on to the basement to check and mark copy brought to me by the foreman for needed corrections. Little did I know that what these young men had just discovered and willingly shared with me would spell the destiny for my beloved machinery located in the basement.
I’ve wondered what happened to the monster and its sidekicks in that basement and imagine them to be mountains of rubble instead of residing in some museum to be touched and wondered at by those who have no idea of how news was put to paper in the early days. Now the smaller but impressive printing press in its 1406 Fifth Street quarters will find the same fate, never to be seen in person to teach and earn the respect of its visitors to a museum. A photograph is never the same as seeing the actual item with one’s own eyes, touching or feeling its service in the past. To know, not just imagine.
There will be a lot to move from this latter building just as there was from the yellow brick two-story structure, but the press won’t go with desks and chairs, phones and computers. It will become scrap metal because of a broken part that couldn’t be replaced. Its place will be taken by a working press elsewhere, another surprise to this old-timer.
While this may all seem to be about printing presses and Linotype machines that are no longer in use, it really had the different purpose of discovering that the little event in the dark room was a moment in which the world was changing before my eyes. Now I know that the young fellows had just successfully completed a first trial run of what would change the newspaper business.
What impresses me at this moment, however, is to suddenly realize that in my youth I was there for an important development without knowing it. In that little room with an overhead electric lightbulb years ago, what I was seeing was progress as it was happening.
I didn’t realize the importance of those few moments. Today, I appreciate the surprising realization that I WAS THERE at the moment it was happening.
Now, in the new era of electronic publishing, The Observer moves on, in a different place, a changing newspaper that still continues to fill the need for the printed copy. I, on the other hand, bid adieu to the old-fashioned world of publishing in these two buildings and to what I have known there.
I can’t help but wipe away a tear or two for old times’ sake.