The Barnsdall Letterpresses

In February of 2015, a terrible fire ravaged downtown Barnsdall, Oklahoma. It wasn’t the first time – many buildings in town have been lost to fire over the years, actually – but this one had a very specific family connection.

My great-aunt Estelle ran a beauty parlor in town for most of her life. Her husband, Marvin Bridgeford, worked for the Barnsdall Times newspaper next door. Mom would often tell stories of time spent watching Marvin set the lead type or hanging out at Estelle’s salon.

The fire of 2015 completely destroyed Estelle’s former shop. The shuttered newspaper office next door was also heavily damaged. Inside was much of the original equipment used to assemble and print the paper – machines that Marvin had used every day for nearly 50 years. It made me sad to think of it all as a total loss.

But, it wasn’t. Not quite. Friends of mine ended up taking ownership of two surviving letterpresses. When I learned about this and told them about my connection to them, they let me tag along.

I wrote about that experience here: https://rhysfunk.com/2015/03/29/pressing-luck/

Below is a reprint of the Bigheart Times newspaper article that followed on April 2, 2015. It talks about the salvage operation in more detail – I’ve also included a few of my photos to go along with Louise’s words. Although the future of the presses didn’t quite work out as the article hopes, it’s still a great story. Enjoy!

From Fire, an inky future

by Louise Red Corn

Out of the fetid, sooty and soggy remains of the old Bridgeford’s niece, said on Sunday as her son, Rhys Barnsdall Times building, a fresh start got under way on Saturday.

The old letterpresses, on which Supreme Court opinions, police tickets for Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Bartlesville and all manner of other documents were printer, were hauled out of the ruins and moved to a new home in Tulsa.

I could not have hoped for a happier outcome, for it turned out, through purest coincidence, that the artists cooperative/shop where they landed is related to Marvin Bridgeford, who operated the presses and typeset- ting machines at the “print shop,” as he always called it.

“I can’t tell you what this means,” Lory Martin, Bridgeford’s niece, said on Sunday as her son, Rhys Martin, surprised her with the presses on Sunday at Made, a shop in Tulsa’s Pearl District that is owned by Thom and Christine Crowe.

“This represents my happiest memories: I can’t tell you how much time I spent watching Uncle Marvin, with the letters coming down…. His thumbs were turned around backwards from pressing the letters, and he had a unique smell. He was precious to me.

“This is so cool. Life has a way of tying up loose ends.”

On Saturday, using a sky lift, a pallet jack and a lot of know-how, Curtis Standley, helped by Jason Stansberry, led the effort to get the three hefty presses out. Considering the obstacles and layout of the building, he did a remarkably great job. Both Standley and Stansberry also helped with the fire; Standley worked in the mad dash to get classic cars out of the building to the north of mine, and Stansberry worked the fire as a volunteer with the Wynona Fire Department, one of 11 departments that fought the inferno.

Which is not to say it wasn’t rather terrifying: The Kluge platen press, a monster that weighed over 1.5 tons, was not only top heavy but was heavy to one side. It literally crushed multiple 2-by-4s and pallets. At one point, it toppled into a support beam in the building, nearly taking out the toe of Thom Crowe when his foot was caught under the forks on the sky lift. It turned out to be the beginning of the end: That press ended up breaking, and wound up at the scrapyard.

A happier result was soon realized for the more maneuverable Chandler & Price letterpresses, which are more compact but still weighed at least a ton apiece.

The presses, which are becoming increasingly in vogue among young graphic artists, miraculously managed to escape damage from the fire and the thousands of gallons of water that gushed through the ground floor of the building: They were nestled in a corner that remained dry despite five days of water pouring down from the second floor (the water meter turn-off was broken).

Thom and Christine Crowe were thrilled to get them, and hope to have at least one of them up and running within a month. All of the gears on them still moved, and the only part that was missing was the frame used to hold the wood or lead type. They can replace that. The rubber rollers that lay the ink over the type are, of course, rotten. They, too, are still made in New York.

The fire, and its ensuing mess, has forced me to learn a lot about printing presses and typesetting and has also led me on a trip of discovery as my son and I retrieve all of the wood type, lead type, Linotype alloy, printers cases and myriad other things out of the building’s bowels.

My son is driven to work by the profit of selling the Linotype alloy, which is preferred by bullet reloaders to regular soft lead. (Linotype is 12 percent antimony and 2 percent tin in addition to lead, so it is harder.) Me, I get distracted by all of the treasures: The original plate used for printing Sen. John Dahl’s stationery, old advertising plates for Bigheart Day, Cities Service and Be Square, grocery ads from 50 years ago, photo plates of long-ago football teams and cheerleading squads, high school yearbooks, bank advertising from banks, that no longer exist, and so much more.

I had never known that it was a very busy and apparently lucrative print shop. I have found the aforementioned plates for Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Bartlesville police tickets, as well as tons of forms for oil gauges, banks, accountants, gift certificates and forms too numerous to mention. Matt Mace, the grandson of Art Moore, who published the paper and ran the print shop from 1930 until 1972, told me that his grandfather sold the business to Bob Evans for the princely sum of $75,000. Moore lived on investments from that money for the rest of his life, and died well off in 2009 at the age of 101.

When I bought the paper from Evans in 2006, I bought all of the equipment and other material historically associated with it. Bob thought it was junk, usable only as scrap. At the time, he might have been right, but times change and old fashioned letterpress printing became a movement in the graphic arts community. Wood and lead fonts can be worth a fortune.

Six months after I bought the newspaper, I bought the old newspaper building, too, just to house the equipment. Eventually, in 2012, we totally renovated the apartment on the second floor, turning a dingy living space into a bright, cheerful one.

After the Feb. 18 fire, I was at a loss what to do with the presses. I ended up putting them on Craigslist in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Kansas City and Chicago. Free, but you haul.

I was inundated with all manner of crazy people who wanted them, probably for scrap. I was determined not to let that happen. One woman appeared the day after the ad went in, allegedly ready to pick them up in her car. Sure. These are bone-crushingly large machines, Toots. There were many others. Key phrase to avoid: “How much do they weigh?” If you don’t know, you can’t have them.

Christine Crowe was the first person to contact me who sounded normal. “Hello! I saw your ad for the letterpresses and would be incredibly grateful for them if they are still available!” she wrote. “My husband and I run a coworking and community creative space in Tulsa called the Workshop. You can see all about what we do at http://www.theworkshoptulsa. com and our group of makers that we founded at maketulsa.com. I am also a printmaker doing mostly screen-printing artwork.

“I’ve been dreaming about getting a press and just have not had the money to purchase one, so this would be like a dream come true!”

Bingo! Several other graphic artists also wanted them, but I wanted them to stay as close to Barnsdall as they could be. I wasn’t as keen on sending them to Kansas City or Dallas.

That was on Feb. 26, and I was happy that Christine and Thom spent some time figuring out the logistics of getting them moved. I got them in touch with Curtis Standley, who had already offered to get them out of there and into the dry an incredibly kind offer.

When Christine mentioned the presses to her friend Rhys Martin, he was dumbfounded. “They’re the Barnsdall presses?” he asked. “My great uncle ran those presses for decades.”

Hence came Sunday’s surprise with Rhys’ mother, Lory Martin. She was born in Pawhuska, the daughter of Dick and Mary Ann Grim. Estelle Bridgeford, Marvin’s wife who ran the beauty shop next door to the print shop, was Dick Grim’s sister.

(In another coincidence, Lory married Tony Martin, the brother of Jody Martin, who runs Pawhuska Hometown Appliances. Tony was a grocer who started out at the Redbud market, which Simple Simons now occupies, then moved on to larger groceries like Scrivner, winding up as the head buyer for Price Mart. “In 2004, he could remember the price of green beans in 1984,” Lory said. “It was in his
blood.”)

When she and her siblings were young, their family moved to Pampa, Texas, but she and her siblings would spend every summer in Barnsdall before they returned when she was an adolescent.

Her brother, David Grim, of Bartlesville, recalled those summers fondly. He would tote lead ingots for his uncle. “I carried a ton of them things.” David Grim recalled. “Uncle Marvin’s thumbs were bent plumb backward and that place had a smell to it. I think the machines would get hot and they had all that oil on them, that and the melting lead. I can remember that smell just like it was yesterday. Oil, ink, lead, and that clicking, constant clatter.”

Another brother, Andy Grim, still lives in Barnsdall.

David Grim’s memories extend to articles in the paper, including one about Uncle Marvin catching a sturgeon in the Arkansas River near Cleveland in 1963, and a photo of Grim and a friend of his shoveling snow, using socks for gloves, that Art Moore put on the front page then laminated and distributed to everyone in town to promote the newspaper.

The clicking and the clatter of the presses will soon rise again at the Crowes’ workshop at 6th and Peoria, which used to be home to a print shop not unlike the Barnsdall one.

When they are up and running, you can go watch them operate, even get something printed on them.

But first dibs goes to Rhys Martin, the great-nephew of Marvin Bridgeford: He’s marry Samantha Extance in October at Cain’s Ballroom. And the invitations are going to be printed on the very machines Bridgeford operated in Barnsdall for decades.

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