The most extraordinary thing I own (and the most difficult to get rid of) is an antique printing press—or what used to be a printing press. Now it is a 2000-pound cast-iron anchor to my past and to this place. We got it from a bachelor farmer named Jim Booth, who used to live in Princeton, Missouri, and who, in addition to farming and caring for his elderly mother, also ran a business he called, logically enough, “Jim’s locksmith, print shop, and shoe repair.” (I wonder how he classified it for purposes of accounting or income tax preparation.)
We first met Jim through his mother, “Maw-maw,” whom we got to know when my ex-husband, Mike, was putting together an alumnae art show for Stephens College, where he was then teaching graphic design. She had responded to an invitation to tell how she had used her art since graduation by saying that she “hadn’t done much with her art, other than give occasional chalk talks around the county” but that her son, George, was doing right well as a cartoonist in New York. We could not believe our luck. Could this be the same George Booth whose cartoons we read each week in the New Yorker?
Well, one thing led to another, as they tend to do, and Maw-maw agreed to make the four-hour trip to Columbia to participate in the alumnae art show in the spring, and she said she thought she could convince George to come along to do an “ambidextrous chalk talk” with her. Maw-maw was well into her eighties and didn’t travel easily, so her son Jim fixed up a “camper” with a place for Maw-maw’s wheelchair and easel and pads of drawing paper and buckets of colored chalk, as well as a platform where she could stretch out if she got tired on the trip, and one day they all pulled in to our driveway.
It was the oddest thing to meet characters we had seen for many years in New Yorker cartoons. Maw-Maw was obviously the inspiration for George’s drawings of Mrs. Ritterhouse, the fiddle-playing old woman who used to sit on her front porch and shoot down crop-duster planes. And looking at Jim’s home-made camper, I could easily imagine that their farmhouse up in Princeton might have bare lightbulbs hanging over the kitchen table, with numerous extension cords running from the fixture to every appliance in the place, and dogs and cats lounging about the house and yard—just as in George’s cartoons.
George did indeed do an ambidextrous chalk talk with his mother to a small but somewhat bewildered audience in Windsor Lounge. They stood together at the easel, telling down-home stories and illustrating them with funny drawings, Maw-maw holding the chalk with her right hand and George with his left. It turns out that she had done something with her art since graduation, after all, as she had been publishing a cartoon a week in the Princeton paper for the past thirty years. Before that she was a schoolteacher, and her husband was a principal. She was very happy to be back at her alma mater and reminisced about how she had met her husband at the University a couple blocks away. As they were packing up the camper to return home, Maw-maw told us again what a good time she had and invited us to come visit them sometime. Of course, having just met these people who looked as though they had walked straight out of cartoons we loved, we had to go see the place they called home. That’s when we learned about Jim’s locksmith, print shop, and shoe repair.
The print shop especially caught our imagination. I had been interested in letterpress printing and book arts for many years, since taking a workshop in library school, and Mike, as a graphic designer, was interested in woodblock prints. Of course, Jim’s printing press was nothing like I had worked with before or was interested in owning. For one thing, it had an electric motor hooked up to it and an enormous flywheel that frightened me. The trays of type that Jim used were all mixed up, different sizes and fonts all jumbled together, but they served his purpose, apparently, which was to print flyers for tractor pulls and farm auctions and old thresher reunions. Possibly we mentioned sometime during the visit that we had “always wanted to have a printing press.”
We only went for the one visit and we never met George again, although Mike continued to correspond with him for a while; the year our younger son was born, George sent him a stuffed animal (an adorable pig) and sent our older son one of his books, It’s Not My Turn to Look for Grandma, which was destined to become a favorite. During those years, Jim would occasionally stop by the house when he came down to Columbia for medical appointments or visits to the VA. Sometimes he would spend the night in his motorhome, which he pulled up out front and plugged into our house. He began talking about having to sell the farm when his mother died and wondering what he was going to do after that.
One day he arrived unannounced, hauling the printing press on a trailer, and then proceeded to hook up a winch to his old car and basically “ride” the press down the concrete steps on skids into our basement. It was amazing to watch, and I wish now that I had filmed the process. He then unloaded typecases, trays of jumbled and broken type of all sizes, bottles of ink, ink rollers, composing sticks, quoins and keys, and various other supplies and equipment. He assured us that the press worked fine, but I had no intention of ever turning it on around my two-year-old son, and sending that giant wheel flying. Fortunately, within days of it being in our house, our dog chewed through the band, and I knew we would never get the thing repaired and running. Years later, Mike and I divorced, and he moved out, but the broken printing press remains.