Museum events kick off Buffalo Bill’s birthday bash.
Master printer Mike Parker arranges the letters in his California Job Case before giving elementary school students a printing demonstration at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on Wednesday.
When a busload of students from Cathy McKenzie’s fourth-grade class at Parkside Elementary in Powell streamed into the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on Wednesday, Mike Parker tightened his apron and grinned.
The master printer had prepared for their arrival, spreading black ink on the face of his two pilot presses, arranging the 12-point type in his California Job Case, and ensuring the verse he intended to print in demonstration — “a penny saved is a penny earned” — was correctly spelled.
But how do you explain arcane details of obsolete printing technology to young students whose appreciation for vowels stems from ”Wheel of Fortune?” Whose understanding of printing and its rich history is based on their Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 1000?
If you’re Parker and you’ve been asked by a prestigious museum to demonstrate now-ancient printing terms and technology for two consecutive days, you just tell how it is and hope the students understand.
“You know what they say about small-town papers — we print the truth, the whole truth and anything but the truth,” Parker joked. “The other thing is, when I was young, we’d put the paper out once a week and jokingly call them tri-weeklies, because we’d try weekly to get the paper out.”
Pressman jokes, all of them.
In anticipation of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody‘s birthday this weekend, the museum named for him kicked off Buffalo Bill’s Birthday Museum Adventure on Wednesday, hosting hundreds of elementary students from Powell, Cody and Wapiti.
Museum staff and volunteers dazzled the students with historical facts and displays, Wild West games, town building, making hats, Buffalo Bill in the movies, and Parker’s old printing press.
The students stepped up to Parker’s press — loaded with 20th Century bold font and black ink — and pulled the lever.
“We have some letters in the English language we use more than others,” Parker explained while surrounded by students. “The most commonly used letter in the language is E. The rarest are Q, X and Z.”
Scrabble players holding the three letters understand the difficulty of putting them to use, and Parker’s California Job Case is no different. The division of boxes reflects the frequency of each letter, E taking up the most space, Q, X, and Z relegated to the smallest containers.
Back in the “olden days,” Parker said, printers arranged their letter cases in stacks. The selection of capital letters was in the “upper case,” the small letters assigned to the “lower case.”
The terms are still used today, of course. Parker said the cases were combined side-by-side by printers heading to California who didn’t have room to spare; hence the term California Job Case.
“I started delivering newspapers in south-central Kansas — the Winfield Daily Courier — when I was 10,” Parker said. “I would go up to the pressroom to watch and I was up there enough that the production foreman asked me ‘What do you want to know?’ I told him I wanted to know everything he knew.”
That was more than 50 years ago, when typesetters placed each letter by hand and fed galleys of lead type to the editor for proofing and the press operators for printing.
The work is now done with the stroke of computer key before it passes under the watchful eye of an editor and heads to the pressroom, where operators turn out thousands of newspapers an hour on multimillion-dollar machines.
“It’s no fun anymore,” Parker mused. “The printers don’t touch the paper like we used to. We used to touch every sheet that went into the press. Modern-day printers don’t do that. It’s a totally different thing.”
Parker’s printing days took him from the Winfield Daily Courier to the Leoti Standard and the Peabody Gazette Herald, a weekly that also printed five other newspapers on a sheet-fed press.
His love of printing eventually led him to teach the trade at Northwest College in Powell. He ran his own Wyoming print shop for more than a decade.
As one might expect from a master printer inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Parker’s knowledge of printing history runs deep. His pilot press — an 1895 Craftsman — is a descendant of Franklin’s own printing invention.
“Back in the days of the Old West, there was a press just a little bit bigger than this that went across South Pass,” Parker said. “At one time, there was 1,000 newspapers out here in the intermountain West. For every wagon train that went across South Pass, there had to be at least one printer on board to fulfill that need.”
Parker asks the elementary students to thank the ancient Phoenicians for much of our modern alphabet.
He said the word “news” dates back to the gathering of events from the north, east, west and south (NEWS).
“Buffalo Bill recognized the value of publication for promotion,” Parker said. “His sister had a printing press in Duluth, Minn. The paper went belly up, so he brought that printing press out here to start the Cody Enterprise.”
Every town across the region, from Cody, Wyo., to Helena, Mont., has a similar story to tell, and there remains a brotherhood of typesetters and press operators across the region who once loaded the galleys by hand to print and share the weekly news.
“When Cody brought that press out here in around 1896, there were 11 people living in the sagebrush at that time,” Parker said. “Cody asked them to print extra copies of the paper.
“When he bumped into people, he’d give them a complimentary copy of that weekly. Within a year, 1,000 people were living in Cody just because of those complimentary copies.”