Museum pieces

A couple of weekends ago I dropped by the Shafer Museum in Winthrop because I hadn’t been there for a while, and because I love delving deeper into the valley’s fascinating history (it can only be absorbed and retained over time, I’ve learned). It was a scorching day and not that many folks were coming through, so the place was pretty quiet.

Naturally I gravitated to my personal favorite display in the old print shop, where some of the equipment and paraphernalia used to produce the Methow Valley News back when typewriters roamed the Earth are on display.

It’s definitely like walking into a time warp, yet some of the stuff there is familiar. My journalism career has spanned the transition from the last days of movable type to the utterly electronic digital age.

When I was in college and during my first few years working in newspapers, we still used manual typewriters. Our stories were submitted as pages pasted together in a continuous scroll. When they were edited, the desk sometimes rearranged the stories with scissors and glue – hence the literal term, “cut and paste.”

The edited stories were sent, usually by pneumatic tube, down to the typesetters – crusty old guys who actually wore visors – toiling at their Linotype machines, where they created the newspaper one slug of lead at a time. It was a hot, noisy job and the “back shop” smelled of oil, ink, tobacco and sweat.

From the Linotype, the lines of lead were arranged into a page form and locked into place. That’s how I learned to read print upside down and backwards, from looking at the unprinted page. To get a page proof, you inked the form and pressed a sheet of newsprint over it to get a positive image of what the page would look like. The proofed page went back to the Linotype operators for corrections, then on to plate-making.

I won’t take you through all the various advancements over the past 40 years – some of them dreadfully painful as we lurched toward a productive way to embrace technology. These days it’s all done on computers and paper isn’t involved until the product comes off the press.

At the Shafer, you can look at an old Intertype machine (basically a Linotype clone) that was used to set type at the News until 1977. The relic was purchased in 1962 after untold years of service at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. There are type cabinets that pre-date the Linotype. But the truly astonishing piece in the collection is an ancient Babcock press, something that looks like it might have started life in Ben Franklin’s print shop or as some kind of farm implement, that the News used until 1976 – after purchasing it from a defunct newspaper in 1947. If you look at some of the News editions of the 1970s, they’re not that different from the papers of earlier decades.

There’s also a list of the Okanogan’s pioneer newspapers, only three of which survive today. One of them is the Methow Valley News, launched in 1903 by Harry Marble. We recently passed our 110th birthday. At my desk is an old black-and-white photo of Marble in his cluttered print shop (date unknown). He’s always looking over my shoulder.

Beyond nostalgia, visiting the remnants of our past is a reminder to me that, while the technology has changed, our mission of serving the community hasn’t. I hope that 50 years from now, someone will be looking at our computers in a museum and thinking the same thing.