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Waco Museum, New Home for Old Alto Herald (June 2012)

nullWaco Museum, New Home for Old Alto Herald
By Deborah Burkett

As pioneers moved west to settle new territories, the printing press and newspaper followed close behind. Such was the case in 1847 when the Cherokee Sentinel appeared in Rusk. Within three years two other newspapers were also launched in the county seat.

Later along the El Camino Real, the town of Alto was established just eleven miles from Rusk. In 1896 the first newspaper published there was the Alto News. Soon the name was changed to the Alto Herald and multiple owners ran the business over the years. In 1920, Frank L. Weimar took over the paper. Frank had originally set out from Tennessee to join his brother, Harry, as a pressman for the Houston Chronicle. Traveling by log train in 1911, Frank heard of an editor's position at the Ratcliff Herald and stopped there for nine years before moving on to Alto, while his brother Harry worked at the Houston Chronicle for 65 years.

The Alto Herald built quite a reputation. As other newspapers in Texas changed to offset or computerized style of printing the Herald still used the 'hot type'--Linotype method of putting out a newspaper. Journalism students from Stephen F. Austin descended upon the Alto office. Under the guidance of Instructor Ben Hobbs they saw firsthand how a 'real' newspaper was printed.

After being in the Weimar family for 58 years, the Alto paper was sold in 1978. Frank Ed Weimar, publisher and editor of the 'hot-type' press, sold the business to Emmett and Marie Whitehead of Rusk, owners of the Rusk Cherokeean. Interesting to note--in the mid 1970s Marie Whitehead was a journalism student at SFA. The Whiteheads published the first 'cold type' or offset issue of the Alto Herald and ran the paper until it merged with the Cherokeean.

For 33 years it was not clear what would happen to the old Alto Herald; the dream of turning the building into a local museum never materialized. When all seemed lost, Waco Tribune-Herald owners, Gordon Robinson and his father Clifton, made a deal with Rusk Cherokeean editor, Terri Gonzales and her mother, publisher Marie Whitehead. Ferris Fain, production manager of the Lufkin Daily News, was instrumental in getting the parties together.

After a laborious move, the entire contents of the Alto Herald arrived in Waco. The complete 'hot type' print shop, including a 1919 Miehle press (weighing 24,000 pounds) along with two Linotypes and Kluges, were added to the print museum inside the Waco Trib office. The Alto Herald collection now occupies its own gallery and Curator Ann Roznovsky is pleased with the results. The exhibit recreates the experience of walking through the print shop in Alto.

At the official dedication held in early June 2012, attendees were treated to a historical overview of the newspaper business in Cherokee County by Marie Whitehead. Next Terri Gonzales shared the ups and downs of finding a new home for the old Linotype and press equipment. She called these relics from the past 'her dinosaurs'.

At the museum that day I saw firsthand the love newspaper people have for each other and their craft. Retired Trib employee Norman Huddleston gave me a special tour explaining how paper was printed using the Linotype and how the newspaper business has changed over the years. He also consented to an oral history video. Next I met Ferris Fain of the Lufkin Daily News. He shared the story of his youthful encounter with a Linotype machine. Ferris accidently dropped his ice cream cone in the equipment…much running for cover occurred, and not just Ferris. Working around Linotype machines was a dangerous endeavor with or without ice cream in the mix.

It became clear that 'Hot Type' printing could be hazardous to your health. Thirty-five pound 'pigs' of metal were melted over open flames then transformed into lines of type. Then for the next issue of the newspaper the type was melted and used again.

During the ceremony former employees of the Alto Herald were mentioned, such as Mrs. Mamie Lee Carter who worked in the print shop. Many of those present noted it was extremely rare for a woman to do so. By all accounts Mamie was very good at operating the Linotype keyboard, even though occasionally a hot piece of metal would fall on her foot, burning her severely. (More on Mamie in a future column, her nephew Marshall Bynum promised he would help.)

The trip to Waco certainly piqued my interest; I wanted to know more about the history of the newspaper business in Cherokee County. Especially after Marie Whitehead and I visited the grave site of my ancestor, John B. Long. In 1886, he purchased the Standard Herald, a Rusk newspaper, which he edited until 1905.

Reading and researching further led me to Texas Governor 'Jim' Hogg. He was a printer's devil in 1866 at the Rusk Chronicle. Named for their inky appearance at the end of a long day-printer's devils were young boys who mopped floors, picked up scattered type, cleaned out furnaces and scrubbed ink rollers and presses. Good experience for a future governor who would find himself immersed in Texas politics at the highest level.

Only last week I discovered that good friend John Thomason, owner of Creative Graphics in Jacksonville, has a Linotype machine and other old print equipment stored in a side building. As he and I walked among his relics he shared stories of days spent working with the Linotype at Kiely's Printing Company. John still uses one piece of equipment but in a limited way. The Miehle V-50, a basic press has been around since the early 1900's; the first versions actually used Model T pistons in the air pumps. Today the press is rarely used for printing, but is useful for scoring, perforating and consecutive numbering.

The events documented in this column remind me just how fascinating history can be. One story definitely leads to another. All of us need to get out more; become involved in county and state activities and when we do, we may discover our past.