In six days, I’ll be leaving the midwest. It is bittersweet, of course, and I’ve been lucky to have met some pretty amazing folks and seen a slew of inspiring things. I’m calling these next few days my “Farewell to Iowa” week–a time in which I try to cram in the last bits of socializing, exploring, and getting around to the outings I’ve been putting off. I kicked off this celebration Saturday with a trip to Mt. Pleasant, home of the Old Threshers Hall. What are threshers, you ask? I still am not clear on that, but each year they host the Midwest Printers’ Fair, which is a little like a cross between Antiques Roadshow and Comic-Con for letterpress enthusiasts. I’m lucky enough to have a fella who likes going to things like this, and still (I think) considers outings like these to be “dates.” Our conversation sounded a lot like this:
Me: Any interest in going to the Printers’ Fair Saturday?
Andrew: What’s that?
Me: A bunch of old printers with lots of cool old tools, and prints, and things for sale. I was going to go early though, because they sell stuff flea-market style in the morning.
Andrew: Cool. How early is “early?”
Andrew: Oh, man. You mean old-man-early. Like seven.
Me: Well, maybe eight.
(I should interject here that Mt. Pleasant is an hour’s drive from Iowa City.We must also add an hour for stumbling around, waking up and drinking coffee.)
I was a little surprised he was game, but I think it helped that the Threshers Hall is also home to a museum devoted to early farm equipment and relics of the prairie. A friend of his had told him about it recently, so he was sold. On the drive he said I shouldn’t be surprised if I looked up and he wasn’t there. “I might go check out the farm stuff if I get overloaded on printing,” he said. He’s a good sport about these things. I try to pick art-related outings carefully so as not to wear him out. So far, he seems to enjoy them, and I love a dude who loves the art museum.
One of our first dates involved printing demos at the UI Center for the Book, so I know he’s interested to a certain point. (He pulled a print that is still hanging on his refrigerator.)
We did not leave at 8. It seems that was a wee bit ambitious for a Saturday, for both of us. We rolled into Mt. Pleasant at 11:30, which was well past the peak period for seasoned printers. Several folks who had come to sell their wares were already packing up and calling it a day. But we did get to peruse the type cabinets and tools for a while. I was tempted to buy a little tabletop press–it was calling to me in the way that sock monkey does in the Pier 1 ads, but I resisted, thinking it’d be better to hold out for a bigger model. So then we wandered through and checked out the rooms where the Threshers keep their own presses–everything from tiny tabletop platens to these beasts that are so tall you’d need a ladder to reach the inking rollers. Some things we found:
C&Ps. I admit, I was drooling a little.
Some lovely type, about to go on this very large press…
As we were poking around, leaning over the rails to get a closer look at things, Andrew burst out laughing and pointed to this box of printed eye charts.
Then we kept snooping and found the linotype machines. This one held a galley with a note attached. The note reads, “Finally finished the beastly mother.”
And finally, there are these type case pulls. You know you’re a bona-fide printing geek when you get a little excited by seeing a whole collection of drawer pulls. (But yeah, it took a slightly bigger geek to frame them.)
We ventured to the back of the building, where there was a surprising number of train cars, enormous farming equipment, windmills, and buggies. I learned how to properly harness a horse. I saw how meat was cured at home back in the day. I saw a wagon that promised a cure for melancholy.
And there were these rad chicken prints. They made me nostalgic for my Gordo, Alabama days.
Sadly, there weren’t a lot of people at the gathering. I like to think that they all showed up in early-bird style and we just missed them, but a friend of mine said the turnout was low. I talked to a printer from Des Moines (probably in his 30s) who had some funky prints and postcards, and talked to a man from Indianapolis (who was likely in his 80s) who claimed to have 50 old presses in his barn that he’d paid scrap prices for a couple of decades ago. Even though letterpress printing seems to be in revival mode, there weren’t a lot of young pups in the crowd. Hopefully things will pick up for the Great Midwest Printers’ Fair–the Threshers have a pretty amazing set-up there, and a lot of stories to tell.
And just for the record, Andrew was the one doing the shopping (his fondness for this craft runs a little deeper than I first thought). He walked out with a wild postcard printed on a faux-wood kind of substrate, some printed notepads, and gets major points for discovering growth charts printed with illustrated plates from the 1950s. When we each bought one for $1 (his has rocket ships, mine has cowboys), the printer who made them told us his story of rescuing them from someone who was cutting up the plates for other purposes. This printer called him up and said, “Do you know what those are? Do you want to sell them? And stop cutting them up!” And so the plates were rescued and put back into action. He said the guy was from South Carolina. When I said, “Hey, that’s where I’m from,” he said, “Well, since that’s the case, I won’t tell you what I thought of him for doing that.”
And so I left with my first housewarming gift for my new-again home in ol’ Carolina: a chart filled with cowboys to mark my continued growth as a printer and remind me of this fine Fall day in the midwest, where the folks still think I talk too slow and said “oil” the wrong way. But I’ll miss them a little bit in spite of that.