Hot off the presses

Published 11:30 am Friday, September 19, 2008

COURTLAND—Visitors to this Saturday’s Heritage Day festivities at the Southampton Agriculture & Forestry Museum in Courtland can take home a piece of history — literally.

That’s because a 123-year-old printing press will be in operation, printing out Heritage Day bookmarks for visitors to take home.

Bill Billings, a museum volunteer from Franklin, donated the printing press to the museum almost three years ago.

“I’ve always liked printing because you can do perfect work, and get it exactly right,” said Billings. “It’s a good way to communicate, and a good trade. It’s very satisfying work.”

Billings purchased the Chandler & Price “Old Series” press in Houston in 1985. At the time, the press was 100 years old. “It was in very good condition,” said Billings. “It had never been neglected.”

The cast iron press, which can print 600-700 pages in an hour, is unique because it was made with curved flywheel spokes. Straight spokes, according to Billings, would have cracked after being cast as it cooled. It’s also a heavy press, weighing in at about 1,800 pounds. “Moving it here from Houston was an ordeal,” said Billings, “and moving it here was another ordeal. It took six people, and a lot of pipes, rollers and wedges.”

The toughest and most satisfying printing job that Billings can recall was for creating dance programs. “It was one of the first jobs I did, and it was difficult because of the stock of paper I used, and for getting the lines to all line up,” he said.

Jim Creasey, another volunteer at the museum, is the owner and operator of Sedley Printing in Sedley. Billings introduced Creasey to printing about 20-25 years ago, and he’s been hooked since.

“We’re probably the only two people in Southampton County who know how to set type,” said Billings, adding that both he and Creasey wanted to get more people interested in the history of the trade.This will be the second Heritage Day that the press has been operated. Activities begin at 9:30 a.m. and conclude at 4 p.m.

“A lot of people miss (the press) because it’s in a corner of the museum,” said Billings.

Next to the press are four cabinets of handset type, containing individual letters made out of lead. The letters, which are organized by font and point size, are assembled to make words for the press to print. Blocks of wood called furniture are used to help align the type in the correct position. It can take several minutes to switch from one font to another.

According to Billings and Creasey, the press might be used in the future for printing bookmarks that would accompany advertising literature sent out by the museum. There are also plans to create a video of the press in operation to show museum visitors.