by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)

from Bill Taylor
(Bill Taylor died not long after writing these memories; 
about 1980 I believe, living alone in a hotel room in Bozeman, Montana.)

Many people assume that all tramp printers were natural vagabonds who moved from place to for the sheer enjoyment of travel, for the companionship of other tramp printers, for variety and a zest of life. But many didn't willingly choose this lifestyle, particularly those who "hit the road" during the depression years.

Traveling? Yes, some folks traveled on the Twentieth Century Limited, Santa Fe Chief, or the North Coast Limited. But we printers seldom could afford luxury travel. We usually went by freight train, slept in barns, and ate dinner from cans.

When I was 13, I took up printing at Lathrop Trade School in Kansas City. At 14, I went to work in a small shop on Missouri Avenue. They had two Pearl presses, foot powered, a few racks of type, etc. The owner was quite old, about 70 or 80. I was honest, and admitted that I knew the case like a monkey recently escaped from the organ grinder. Therefore, he gave me a job feeding the Pearls.

I worked at two other places, one plant that was too large to be good for a printer’s devil, and then a smaller one that gave me much experience. But, feeling I should get into a better grade of work, I went to work for Triumph Printing on Fifth and Delaware, where I spent a full five years.

I received my ITU union card April 1930. That meant out, out! Make room for another apprentice and go look for a job.

Kansas City had always been a good town for printing work, but during that hot summer of 1930, I canvassed every shop in town only to hear horror tales of woe and poverty. There was no work to be found anywhere. Newspapers in those days still worked a six-day week; job shops five days and four hours Saturday. But nothing for subs.

By January 1931, my funds were very low. Just in time, the Kansas City local adopted a plan to pay a dole to out-of-work printers and also voted to go to a five-day week. That meant regulars had to hire a sub once a week, even those who had never missed a shift in their lives.

Now, the Kansas City Times had at that time, the champion firing foreman of the world: Sammy Hayward. Sammy was 80 years old; everyone felt sure he would live at least another 80 years. With this local five-day law in effect, another newly graduated apprentice slipped up on the Times in hopes of catching one of those sixth days. Sammy fired the kid before he could take his hat off. However, according to the union contract, the boy collected a day’s pay anyway!

I decided that I had nothing to lose, and that I was going to do the same thing and collect a much-needed day’s pay ($9.16). I showed up on the Times, fully expecting to be fired. To my surprise, I was hired for two shifts that week; Sammy never seemed to notice me. I worked on the Times as much as two or three shifts a week for about four months.

That wonderful work lasted the length of time the five-day proposition had been voted to run. Then back to six days for those poor, poor old regulars! The only chance to catch a shift now was from the few union-minded printers on the Times. With about 80 subs, that meant one night a week for the lucky ones.

Then came the summer lay-off! There were so many subs on the slipboard that my slip was tacked way down on the mop-board, almost on the floor. No more work for six months. That was the summer of 1931. I was never so close to starvation. Then a dole was voted in—just a dole, no five-day rule. Soon so many printers were out of work, the dole started to fade away. My last dole was $1.62—and that had to last a whole week. I had walked six months straight. And I do mean walk! Carfare was an expensive two tokens for 15 cents, so I walked to the paper to show up and then walked back home.

By the fall of 1931, I began to get the feeling that I just might not be needed on the Kansas City Times

A friend encouraged me to go to the Journal. I did a little better there. A shift every month, sometimes two. But unexpectedly, I was put on a situation, due to a death of a regular situation-holder. That was in 1938. I was ecstatic. I now had a real, full-time situation, a lifetime job! My future was secure.

As an aside: The Kansas City Journal-Post had an interesting history. Originally, the morning Journal was at Eighth and McGee Streets and the evening Post at Tenth and Main Streets. The Post belonged to Fred Bonfils and Harry Tammin. As Fred was closing the deal to sell the Post to the Santa Fe Railroad, Harry came into the room with a breathless protest: “I just put two freight carloads of paper into the warehouse. We can’t lose that, Fred!”

The Santa Fe was reluctantly hedged into buying two carloads of paper to get on with the purchase. Fred and Harry were long gone to Denver when the buyer found only two rolls of paper in the warehouse! The Journal and Post were later sold to W.S. Dickey, a tile manufacturer. In 1928, the papers were simmered down to one evening paper, the Kansas City Journal-Post.

By the time I joined the Journal-Post it had changed hands again; adopted a new dress and dropped the name to just the Journal. When the war started, we put out nine editions daily with chasers any time Hitler blew his nose or Mussolini belched. When Hitler marched on Poland, we went to 12 regular editions plus chasers all along. There was plenty of work and I thought I was set for life.

Then, on April first, 1942, I arrived in the composing room for my usual 8:30 a.m. starting time. My mouth fell open when I saw a sign on the copy cutter’s desk that said: “This will be the last day of the Journal.” At first, I smiled; after all, this was April Fools Day! But I suddenly realized that the copy cutter wasn’t pulling my leg. The tears in his eyes told me this was the bitter end. On April 1, 1942, the Kansas City Journal folded. Three hundred employees, whose families depended upon their paychecks, were dumped into the street at the end of that shift.

All sixty of us out-of-work printers realized we could never find work in Kansas City, not in 1942 with the Depression still very oppressive. The Kansas City local voted to pay each of us $50 if we would leave town forever. That amounted to a week’s pay. So much for my lifetime job! The agreement was, if we ever returned to Kansas City we were obligated to repay the $50 to the union (which I did later on.)

That was how I came to leave Kansas City to become a tramp printer. First, I traveled to St. Louis, where fortune smiled unexpectedly on me, to the extent of a shift or two a week.

Two other Journal printers also came to the Post-Dispatch the same week. They had both spent their working lives on the Journal; one 20 years, the other 30. Both slipped up on the P-D, but the next morning, before show-up time, they had me instruct the chairman to pull their slips. They were afraid to try to work in such a strange place! Any printer who spends his entire life in one spot will very likely have a strong feeling he is inadequate and handicapped, simply not able to to work just anywhere.

But work didn’t last long in St. Louis, not after paper rationing came on. That cut out editions and advertising on the Post-Dispatch, which in turn cut down on the subs’ chances for work. The nation was then heavily at war, yet still deep into the Depression. The local secretary sent me down into the Ozarks, to the town of Washington, to work a little print shop called the Miller Press. The job paid $24 a week—low pay, but it sure beat starving. The Model 5 was in perfect condition, like factory new; it had a Bunsen Burner, no thermostat. The big hitch was a font of ten point roman with italics and small caps. All I’d ever set on a keyboard was heads and captions. I soon learned why printers were driven to drink: small caps. Unfortunately, the shop was about to close due to the owner being eligible for the draft.

I was looking for a way to survive, when a “help-wanted” ad in the Publishers’ Auxiliary led me to Bastrop, Louisiana, where a little weekly paper needed a printer. In August! Ohhh! It was hot! There was no decent food in town; the only thing really edible was ice cream. Ned Bolton, the newspaper publisher, was trying to purchase this marginal weekly on a shoestring. He was a fine fellow who worked 14 hours a day, and the help stayed right with him. Not easy, but it still beat starving! Near the end of the week there was always a little overtime; that is, we worked 18 to 20 hours a day! But Ned was a right fine fellow; he’d always send out for pop or beer for the crew. He, his wife and the foreman were from Missouri. Mrs. Bolton worked too, as a Linotype operator. There was also a pressman, a young office girl and a teen-age Negro boy who was janitor, ran errands, etc.

It had always been an accepted custom in the South for Negroes to take a little something now and then: never much, just a little. One day the pressman intended to get a haircut. He had a half dollar coin in his pants pocket when he changed into his overalls, but when he went to pay for the haircut, he found a quarter in his pocket.

In that Turkish bath of a shop, a complete change of clothes daily was a must. The laundry bill was killing me. Then a barnstorming ad promoter came into the shop one day and told me I could catch some work in Monroe, 26 miles away. So I was off to Monroe for some week-end hours. I was hired for a night shift and fired at its end. When I asked why, the foreman said I didn’t do enough work. He didn’t add, “you Yankee bastard,” but it was plain he meant it.

So I made it back to Bastrop in time for another 14 hour shift at the Enterprise on Monday. (Had to keep my shoulder to the wheel to send money to my wife and oldest boy who was then nine.) Yet, to my surprise, I did collect a day’s pay from the Monroe World. About $7.

I was beginning to feel like I was doomed to stay in the hot, steaming South, when a letter arrived from Ed Hand, a Ludlow salesman based in Kansas City, telling me to hurry back to St. Louis.

“Things have changed,” he wrote, “the war is outwearing the Depression. The Post-Dispatch is short of help!” I could work up North again! The news was just like manna from heaven!

I felt Ned deserved a week’s notice. So I agreed to stay until he could run an ad in the Publishers’ Auxiliary and find a replacement printer. Then, one hot afternoon, an old tramp printer drifted into the back shop. Since Ned was out, the printer talked to me. I must have been affected by the heat, because I should have told him to start work, so I could leave at once. When I did finally think about it, I went running after the old boy. But he was gone before I could catch up with him. When I returned to the shop, dripping with sweat, Ned was there and asked what was the matter. When I told him I’d been chasing a tramp printer, Ned asked in alarm: “Did he steal a numbering machine?”

I didn’t find much enjoyment or adventure in traveling—at least not the way I had been doing. It was simply a way of surviving and getting money to the family.

I arrived in St. Louis April 4, 1942, in a downpour of rain, a Missouri cloudburst! In the short block to the nearest hotel I was soaked to the skin. I wore a topcoat but no raincoat. Had only one pair of shoes with me. They were soggy. The clothes slowly dried over the radiator. The shoes were oozie for days. The Ludlow salesman was right about St. Louis. I worked full time on the Post-Dispatch.

While I was in St. Louis, the secretary occasionally sent me to a Jewish shop on Easton Avenue for extra work. It was a confusing place because there was much shouting and waving of arms. At times it seemed sure the owners would seize each other by the throat. Then one of them came to me and said, “Don’t mind us, Bill. We’re Kikes, that’s just the way we talk to each other.” Each Friday afternoon the proprietors provided beer served in stew pans, like the bootleggers used to do. I always remember the oddity of drinking beer from a saucepan at that place. While most of the composition was in English they also set Yiddish. They never gave me anything to set in Yiddish, but oh my, sometimes I had to distribute some Yiddish! Talk about confusing!

But my wife refused to move to St. Louis. That forced me back to Kansas City, where I had to return the “leave-forever $50.” That was early ’43; the war had finally rubbed out the Depression (our only thanks to Hitler). I went to work at McWhirter Printers. That was another 12 hour day due to a mass of war work. It was a crowded little shop, but busy, busy, busy. Work, work all the time. But the McWhirters were fine people to work for. The old man took the crew to dinner now and then. But work, work, work. Just sleep and work.

After the war (missed the draft due to war work) I was working at Barrich Publishing. They put out a national weekly. All ad proofs were very carefully read before store proofs were air mailed out. The lady proofreader was very particular. Old Mitch was with us in the ad galley. He was working on an office proof, ninth revise. “There is no way to please that woman,” Mitch moaned, “Just no way at all! I moved this two points, that one-point. Now she wants it all moved again!”

I looked at the newsprint proof and said, “Try this, Mitch.” I took his ad to the proof press, pulled a good, sharp proof on book paper without any more moves at all.

“Oh, Mr. Mitchell,” the gal came running. “You have moved it just right! Exactly what I wanted. Pull the store proofs.

After the war, work was good everywhere. So, in 1947, we left Kansas City forever in search for Utopia. We departed like immigrants, towing a baggage trailer with all our worldly possessions: our clothes, the boy’s bicycle, the family dog, and all, to re-establish ourselves in the promised land of the West.

Our first stop was Delta, Colorado. My wife’s sister lived there. My brother-in-law had a fine job waiting for me. It was in the shop of Frank Sternes, an old printer from Denver. Frank, his son and daughter-in-law ran the shop. The hours were any time I chose, the conditions of work were perfect. Every one came and went as they pleased. But paydays were far apart. I worked there two weeks and am still waiting for a pay check.

On to the Mormon Utopia. I was put on a sit at the Salt Lake Tribune before I took my hat off. After a few days, the local secretary suggested that I see George Brother, a Mormon Bishop who ran a job shop in town. George was in need of a printer so I quit the Trib. This was another family shop; George, his wife, two daughters and one son-in-law. The chapel chairman was a nephew. One morning, I shocked everyone by asking where they kept the coffee can with the numbering machines. (Always kept ’em soaked in kerosene-filled coffee can, remember?) They were aghast: “Bill, you know we don’t drink coffee!”

Then we were off to Seattle: Utopia on Puget Sound. But during the time we left Kansas City and our arrival in Seattle, the Seattle Star folded. In a time of plenty everywhere else, Seattle printers faced woe and poverty. I subbed about a month on the Post-Intelligencer, but had to bump overtime to get work, so we left.

We were sad, because Seattle was a fine place. During the month of July we could always wear coats, even at noon. A far cry from the Turkish bath of Kansas City. Fresh sole could be caught in Puget Sound in abundance. Delicious, not like the embalmed sole they serve in hash houses most places.

Since there wasn’t any work, we headed for Portland where I found a situation on the Oregon City Enterprise. We put out a 200 page centennial edition on a flatbed press! They had horse drawn street cars in Oregon City during that time, an interesting place, but I could smell the stroke of doom for the Enterprise. (It was sold to the Courier about a year later.)

That sent us to San Francisco, where there was plenty of work; at that time the city still had four dailies. But it seemed like most San Francisco landlords wanted a month’s pay for a week’s rent. I worked a few shifts at Purno-Walsh on Market Street and decided to leave. We went back to Salt Lake for a few months, off to Spokane for a few months, down to Denver for a few years. But we never found Utopia.

We had always liked Montana; so off we went to Great Falls. That was a real busy place. Rents were high and food cost double the prices in Denver, but it was nice there. I worked two years on the Great Falls Tribune. We even hunted elk; and we got two of ’em!

It seemed like there was always something wrong with every place. We packed up and headed for Calgary, just for a short vacation on our way to Spokane. But it started raining, raining, looked like it would never stop. Trying to get to Spokane would be a mistake since all roads were washed out in British Columbia. To pass the time until the rain stopped, I went to work on Max Bell’s Albertan. Finest of conditions, nice people to work for, but of course $20 below the Great Falls’ scale. Still, it covered expenses until the rains stopped.

Rent was reasonable around Spokane, so I went to work for Hill Printing. We liked Spokane a lot, and decided to settle down. After working for Hill for about two years we made a drastic mistake: we bought our first home. Immediately after buying the house, I was laid off because business was slow. This added my body to Spokane’s surplus printing help.

We went to Bozeman, Montana, where I found a situation in a job shop. It was another family place where I would naturally earn the smallest pay check of the crew, and with no security. From there I went to Butte to work on the Standard (owned by Anaconda Copper) which was very busy and a good place to work, as well as a place to earn a good pay check. However, Anaconda sold out to the Lee Syndicate, whereupon conditions of work went down, down, down. After working there 15 years I returned to Denver to work on the Rocky Mountain News and put my slip on the bottom of the board again. My wife passed away about this time.

If I would have had only myself to look after, my earnings would have been ample to get me out of here years ago. I could be living in a far better place than this. Traveling today? Impossible. The only traveling I ever intend to do this late in life is to return someday to western Montana to get out of this hot, hot climate forever. That will have to be when I can retire. Montana is a poverty state now. No chance to ever work there as a printer again.

Living alone here is only a matter of staying in this room to avoid being robbed, beaten or murdered! It is a risk to go out for meals. There is nothing to do here anyway. Just wait to go back to the office at show-up time to see if there’s any work. And to hope to make it there and back alive. My only recreation is to get out of this state twice a year; go somewhere there is still room to go fishing.
(Bill Taylor left the Denver Post after work for substitutes became nonexistent. He managed to escape from Denver’s skid row and move to his beloved Montana. There, he eked out an existence on Social Security income, bitter and disillusioned, until he died of a heart attack, alone, in a cheap hotel in Bozeman, Montana.)

Table of Contents

Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman,
authors of "Tramp Printers"

Copyright and all rights reserved.