Two Kohl Sisters


3. 'Any Fool Can Set Type'

McClure, South Dakota (it's on the map), was the halfway point on the stage line between Pierre and Presho, three or four miles from our claim. It consisted of the Halfway House, which combined the functions of a general store, a post office, a restaurant, and a news center for the whole community, with the barns and corrals of the old McClure ranch. And set off a few rods from the house there was another building, a small crude affair that looked like a homesteader's shack. Across its rough board front was a sign painted in big black letters:


The first time I saw that sign, I laughed aloud.

"What on earth is a newspaper doing out here?" I asked Mr. Randall, the proprietor of the Halfway House.

"It's a final-proof sheet," he answered, not realizing that the brief explanation could mean little to a stranger.

These final-proof sheets, however, were becoming an important branch of the western newspaper industry, popping up over the frontier for the sole purpose of publishing the proof notices of the homesteaders. As required by the government, each settler must have published for five consecutive weeks in the paper nearest his land, his intention to make proof (secure title to the land) with the names of witnesses to attest that he had lived up to the rules and regulations prescribed by the government.

Also, according to government ruling, such newspapers were to be paid five dollars by the landholder for each final proof published, and any contestant to a settler's right to the land must pay a publication fee. Thereby a new enterprise was created--the "final-proof" newspaper.

These weeklies carried small news items with a smattering of advertising from surrounding trade centers. But they were made up mostly of "proofs" and ready-printed material supplied by the newspaper syndicates that furnished the prints; leaving one or two blank sheets, as required by the publisher for home print. The McClure Press had two six-column pages of home print, including the legal notices.

This paper was a proof sheet, pure and simple, run by a girl homesteader who had worked on a Minneapolis paper. Myrtle Combs was a hammer-and-tongs printer. She threw the type together, threw it onto the press and off again; slammed the print-shop door shut; mounted her old white horse, and with a gallon pail--filled with water at the trough--tied to the saddlehorn, went loping back to her claim four or five miles away. But Myrtle could be depended upon to get out the notices, which was all the owner required.

One day when I went for the mail she called to me: "Say! You want the job of running this newspaper? I'm proving up. Going home."

We needed the extra money badly. Proving-up time came in early spring. To get our deed and go home would require nearly $300, which Ida's $25 a month would not cover. Besides, I felt that I had been a heavy expense to Ida Mary because of my illness on the road, and I did not want to continue to be a burden to her. She had succeeded in finding a way to earn money and I was eager to do my own part.

I didn't know as much about running a newspaper as a hog knows about Sunday. It was a hard, dirty job which I was not physically equipped to handle. But I had lived on a homestead long enough to learn some fundamental things: that while a woman had more independence here than in any other part of the world, she was expected to contribute as much as a man--not in the same way, it is true, but to the same degree; that people who fought the frontier had to be prepared to meet any emergency; that the person who wasn't willing to try anything once wasn't equipped to be a settler. I'd try it, anyhow.

"Any fool can learn to set type," Myrtle said cheerfully. "Then throw it into the 'form' [the iron rectangle the size of the page in which the columns of set-up type are encased, ready to print]. If it don't stick, here's a box of matches. Whittle 'em down and just keep sticking 'em in where the type's loose until it does stick."

She locked the form by means of hammering tight together two wedge-shaped iron pieces, several sets of them between type and iron frame which were supposed to hold the type in the form like a vise; raised it carefully, and there remained on the tin-covered make-up table about a quarter of a column of the set type. She slammed the form down in place again, unlocked it with an iron thing she called the key, inserted more leads and slugs between the lines of type, jamming them closer together.

"If you need more leads or slugs between the lines," she said, "here's some condensed milk cans--just take these"--and she held up a pair of long shears--"and cut you some leads." She suited the words to action; took the mallet and smoothed the edges of the oblong she had cut. I watched her ink the roller, run it over the form on the press, put the blank paper on, give the press a few turns, and behold! the printed page.

With this somewhat limited training I proceeded to get out the paper. I knew absolutely nothing about mechanics and it was a hard job. Then a belated thought struck me. Perhaps I should ask the owner for the job, or at any rate inform him that I had taken it. From The Press I found the publisher's name was E. L. Senn. I learned that he owned a long string of proof sheets. A monopoly out here on the raw prairie. Folks said he was close as the bark on a tree and heartless as a Wall Street corporation.

With this encouragement I decided to ask for $10 a week. Myrtle had received only $8. Of course, I had no experience as a printer, but I explained to Mr. Senn my plans for pushing the business so that he would be able to afford that extra $2 a week. Of my experience as a typesetter I wisely said nothing.

While I waited for the owner's reply I went on getting out the paper. There was no holding up an issue of a "proof" newspaper; like the show, it must go on! The Department of the Interior running our public lands saw to that. Friday's paper might come out the following Monday or Wednesday, but it must come out. That word "consecutive" in the proof law was an awful stickler. But everyone who had hung around the print shop watching Myrtle work, took a hand helping me.

When the publisher replied to my letter he asked me about my experience as a printer and added: "I don't know whether you are worth $2 a week more than Myrtle or not, but anybody that has the nerve you exhibit in asking for it no doubt deserves it. Moreover, I like to flatter such youthful vanity."

He called it nerve, and I had thought I was as retiring as an antelope. But the main reason for his granting my demand was that he could not find anyone else to do the work on short notice. Printers were not to be picked up on every quarter-section.

I made no reply to this letter. A week later I was perched on my high stool at the nonpareil (a small six-point type) case when the stage rolled in from Presho. Into the print shop walked a well-dressed stranger, a slender, energetic man of medium height. He looked things over--including me. And so I found myself face to face with the proof-sheet king.

It did not take long to find out how little I knew about printing a newspaper. So in desperation I laid before him an ambitious plan for adding subscriptions and another page of home print filled with advertising from Pierre.

The trip alone, he reminded me, would cost all of $10, probably $15. "And besides," he added, "if you did get ads you couldn't set them up." With that final fling at my inefficiency he took the stage on to Pierre.

The average newspaperman would have sneered at these plains printing outfits, and thrown the junk out on the prairie to be buried under the snowdrifts; but not many of us were eligible to the title. The McClure Press consisted of a few cases of old type, a couple of "forms," an ink roller and a pot of ink; a tin slab laid on top of a rough frame for a make-up table. Completing the outfit was a hand press--that's what they called it, but it needed a ten-horsepower motor to run it; a flat press which went back and forth under a heavy iron roller that was turned with a crank like a clothes wringer. My whole outfit seemed to have come from Noah's ark.

Most of the type was nicked, having suffered from the blows of Myrtle's wooden hammer. She used the hammer when it failed to make a smooth surface in the form that would pass under the roller. Readers had to guess at about half the news I printed, and the United States Land Office developed a sort of character system of deciphering the notices which I filed every week.

But running proof notices was not merely the blacksmith job that Myrtle had made it appear. It required accuracy to the nth degree. The proofs ran something like this:

Blanche M. Bartine of McClure, S. D., who made Homestead Entry No. 216, Serial No. 04267, for the South One-half of the NE 1/4 and North One-half of SE 1/4 of Section 9, Township 108 North, Range 78 West of the Fifth Principal Meridian, has filed notice of intention to make final computation proof to establish claim, etc., etc.

Then the names of four witnesses were added and the signature of the Land Office Register of that district.

One day a man went to town with a string of witnesses to prove up. He intended to go on to Iowa without returning to the claim. That night he walked angrily into the print shop and laid a copy of his published notice before me, together with a note from the Land Office. I had him proving up somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean, having given the wrong meridian. For that typographical error the man must wait until I republished the notice. Washington, so the man at Pierre said, was not granting deeds for claims in mid-ocean. One can't be inexact with the government's red tape.

But, on the whole, the work was not as trivial as it may appear. With every proof notice published in these obscure proof sheets 160 acres of wasteland passed into privately owned farm units--and for this gigantic public works project there was not a cent appropriated either by State or Federal government.

One day when the corn was in the milk--that season which the Indians celebrate with their famous corn dance--we saw Wilomene White streaking across the plains on old Buckskin, her knock-kneed pony. Wilomene was a familiar sight on the prairie, and the sight of her short, plump figure, jolting up and down in a stiff gallop, as though she were on a wooden horse, water keg hanging from her saddlehorn--just in case she should come across any water--was welcome wherever she went. "It doesn't matter whether it's illness or a civic problem or a hoedown, Wilomene is always called on," people said. And she was repaid for every hardship she went through by the fun she had telling about it, while her rich, contagious laughter rang over the whole country.

Today there was no water keg bouncing up and down behind old Buckskin. That in itself was ominous. For all his deformity and declining years, she descended on us like Paul Revere.

She galloped up, dismounted, jerked a Chicago newspaper out of the saddlebag, and pointed to a big black headline.

"Look at this. The reservation is going to be thrown open. The East is all excited. There will be thousands out here to register at the Land Office in Pierre--railroads are going to run special trains--"

"What reservation?" we wanted to know.

"The Indian reservation, just across the fence," Wilomene explained. The "fence" was merely a string of barbed wire, miles long, which marked the boundary of our territory and separated it from the Indian reservation.

I glanced at the paper announcing the great opening of the Lower Brulé by the United States Government which was to take place that fall, some hundred thousand acres of homestead land. Here we were at the very door of that Opening and had to be told about it by eastern newspapers, so completely cut off from the world we were.

"What good will that do us?" practical Ida Mary inquired.

"It will help develop this section of the country and bring up the price of our land!"

That was worth considering, but Ida Mary and I were not dealing in futures just then. We were too busy putting away winter food--corn and the chokecherries we had found along a dry creek bank; patching the tar paper on the shack. Like most of the settlers we were busier than cranberry merchants, getting ready for the long winter. But there is a great satisfaction in doing simple, fundamental things with one's hands.

That evening, however, I picked up the pamphlet on the Opening which Wilomene had left. It announced that the United States Government would open the Lower Brulé reservation to entry for homesteading on a given date. At this time any American citizen eligible as a claimholder could register "as an entry" in the Drawing for a homestead. And after the registrations were closed there would be a "drawing out" up to the number of claims on the reservation. Eligible persons were to register at the United States Land Offices most conveniently located--and designated by the General Land Office in Washington--for a quarter-section of the land.

The next day I was a stage passenger on the return trip to Pierre to get detailed information on the Lower Brulé Opening from the United States Land Office. With a new and reckless abandon I listed the expenditure and received a prompt reply from the proof magnate. "I note an unauthorized expense of $10--trip to Pierre. You are getting to be an unruly outlaw of a printer."

Then I forgot the coming Land Opening. There were days, that early fall, when McClure was lifeless and I would work all day without seeing a human being anywhere over the plains. In the drowsiness of mid-afternoons the clicking of my type falling into the stick and the pounding of the form with the mallet would echo through the broad silence.

And one day in October the stage driver rushed into the shop, shouting, "Say, Printer! She's open! Blowed wide open!"