design: the last of the letterpress newspapers


The Saguache Crescent


Call it coincidence.  Call it fate.  Or, maybe just dumb luck.  But when B. and I stopped in a sleepy little ranching town in southwestern Colorado last week, we were hoping for a decent lunch.  What we got was much, much more.  Because the town of Saguache (pronounced Su-watch), Colorado is full of a cast of characters, and we were lucky enough to meet a few.  After a simple, but delightful diner lunch (tomatoes AND jalepenõs on grilled cheese? yes, please!), we walked over to one of only a few places occupied and/or open on their small main street.  Run by a former Manhattanite, R. schooled us on the ‘industry’ (he laughed when B. used that word to ask what the main source of income is in these parts) and inhabitants of this scenic little town.  Hint: Cows play a starring role in the economy.  Seeing stars in B.’s eyes, he also cautioned that it might not be the best place for a couple of mid-30′s city folk to relocate, unless we were willing for big changes, not the least of upping the age of our social circle by a few decades… and, diminishing the size of it quite significantly.  The 500+ population of Saguache would be quite a change from metropolitan Chicago.  When R. asked what we did, though, he got stars in his eyes when I mentioned that I did some letterpress printing in addition to graphic design.  “Immediately after leaving here,” he said, “walk over to the bright building kiddie corner from here.  I won’t tell you more.  Just go- you’ll be amazed.”

Who could resist a mysterious deployment like that?  We walked over to the little yellow shop (I actually had noticed ‘PRESS’ signs in the window on our way to the diner and was already planning a walk by, but I don’t know if I would have walked right in).  Bells chiming as we opened the door, we were greeted by the two biggest Linotype machines I’ve ever seen.  Ok, I’ve never actually seen ANY Linotype machines in person before, but these were certainly bigger than I’d envisioned.  And, with hot lead cauldrons and gas pipes coming out the sides, they were more than a little intimidating.  The owner, Dean Coombs, is a third-generation newspaperman and uses these machines (plus a printing press in the back of the overflowing shop) to typeset and print one of only two remaining newspapers to be produced in this way (the other one, he mentioned, was also in CO, but I can’t remember the name of the town…didn’t know I should bring a notepad and camera with me to lunch!*).

Dean offered us a tour of his overflowing shop, full of lead slugs, metal type and an assortment of letterpress printers and parts, including the 1897 electric Lee Flatbed Press in the very back that he uses to print the paper. Each two-sided broadsheet is hand-fed one at a time into the printer.  Printing this way is time consuming, as any printer knows, and the thought of setting and printing for a two-sided paper each week makes my back ache.  Dean mentioned that some estimates of the time that it takes were also under-estimated in articles about him online (but, of course, I can’t remember how long he said it actually takes to print them!  Again, the lack of a notepad…).

The newspaper is by subscription only, and goes out to about 700 households every week, mostly the residents of Saguache, I assume, since people bring in their own articles and announcements for print directly to The Saguache Crescent.  Dean, after all, is a newspaper printer not an editor.  He reluctantly will help with wording, but clearly prefers that people bring in their own article or snippet written, proofed and ready to be typeset.  Something that Dean didn’t mention, but that I found online after our visit is that he only prints ‘good news,’ a rule that his mother settled on many moons ago.  Enough bad news can be found everywhere else, but not at The Saguache Crescent!


*MORE INFORMATION on The Saguache Crescent and the Linotype:

I found this slideshow that features a number of images of Dean and the inside of The Saguache Crescent, and explains some of the process of typesetting a newspaper in this time-forgotten way.

For more detailed information on the Linotype machine itself (I needed a primer on how the slugs are actually created after visiting the shop), see this link, or check out Wikipedia.

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