By Sarah Goff
Trespassing is not one of Ryan Oetting’s hobbies. As a senior Union University student studying digital media studies and graphic design, he usually spends his time behind a computer or camera working to make creative content. But after traversing at a tourist spot in Green Frog, Tenn., Oetting didn’t end up in a court, but rather with an opportunity to help preserve a historical, artistic piece of technology: a printing press.
Oetting takes U.S. Highway 412 to go home to Sikeston, Mo. As many times as he has driven this farmland-dotted, flat stretch of road in his three years of college, he had never stopped at any of the landmarks along the way. However, on a beautiful November 2010 day, he acted on a promise made earlier that year to himself: to be more “adventuresome.” In that spirit, he stopped at Green Frog Historic Village, just outside of Alamo, Tenn., to take photos of the idyllic property and many attractions, including a 1900s-era church, schoolhouse, cotton gin and antique machinery.
While shooting, the owner of the historic village told Oetting that he was, indeed, trespassing. Instead of arguing, however, the two engaged in conversation. Dr. John Freeman, a retired doctor and missionary, wanted know more about his young interloper. When he learned Oetting was studying graphic design, Freeman offered him some freelance work helping Green Frog develop a website and logo.
While an incredible opportunity, nothing could have prepared Oetting for what came next: Freeman told him he possessed an old print shop on the property, which included a letterpress, metal-engraving machine, Ludlow, proofing press and Model-8 linotype machine, circa 1911. Oetting’s eyes grew wide. He had been interested in the historic art form of printing for some time, as a close friend of his had worked at Hatch Show Print Shop in Nashville, Tenn., one of the oldest working print shops in the nation.
Freeman then offered Oetting the chance of a lifetime: to help restore the print shop to working condition.
The partnership is a dream-come-true for both Oetting and Freeman. Oetting gets the chance to work on historic printing machinery, and Freeman sees history he has preserved come back to life.
Freeman said he has always been a history buff. Though a doctor, he also has a love for building — in fact, he built his own log-cabin home. As a missionary in Thailand for 10 years, his love for history only grew as he collected Thai artifacts. Moving back to the United States, he continued his love for history and architecture by starting Green Frog Historic Village in 1991, collecting buildings and artifacts from various states across the South.
He collected the various pieces of “hot lead printing-era” equipment from “The Crockett County Times” newspaper of Alamo, the “Jackson Sun” newspaper and 2003-tornado-destroyed Laycook Printing Company of Jackson, Tenn., and a shutdown antique print shop in South Dakota.
“You don’t spend all this work saving things just for the sake of saving them,” he said. “You dream of people being able to enjoy it and learn from it. The point of it is creating a place where history can be saved, and we’ve had opportunities to save bits of history that otherwise would have gone into scrap metal, or pushed into a hole in the ground and burned.”
Freeman said historically, one of the first things to come to any new frontier town was a print shop so they could produce newspapers. The linotype machine alone was a groundbreaking piece of technology in its day, he said, revolutionizing the printing process as significantly as the Gutenberg press.
“Thomas Edison, when he saw the linotype machine for the first time — he, of course, was no slouch when it comes to inventive endeavors — he declared it be the ‘eight wonder of the world,’ and it was so amazing what it did in revolutionizing printing,” Freeman said. “We enjoy showing off the eight wonder of the world in Green Frog, Tennessee.”
The linotype machine looks something like a cross between a hutch-style desk and a typewriter. The hulking piece of equipment has over 7,000 parts, and works by literally creating a “line of type” — as you type on the keyboard, brass mats engraved with letters fall into a line and hot lead squirts over them, molding the line of type. Those lead “slugs” are then arranged into a page format and used to print copy. Once they have been used, the lead can be melted down and used in the machine again.
Jesse James Roberts, a retired linotype operator, helped Freeman initially clean and restore the linotype machine to working order. Thirty years after the linotype had run and Roberts had run a linotype, he got the machine to work in just one day. Oetting will learn to operate the equipment from Johnny Tritt, retired owner of Tennessee Industrial Printing, and Whitt Donald, a retired “Jackson Sun” employee, both of whom have had experience in operating the various machines.
In rejuvenating the press, Oetting not only wants explore the medium and craft, but also to establish an educational tool.
“I’d love to build this small working museum here in west Tennessee that would cater to students in Jackson, or just people who wanted to come through — whoever was interested in learning how to do letterpress (printing), how to run a linotype machine, how to make their own type, and do these things by hand,” Oetting said. “Ultimately, I’d love for people to just be able to learn.”
Freeman agrees. His vision has always been for Green Frog to be a teaching site. Restoring the press to working order “fulfills a dream I’ve had of seeing it used more for teaching purposes,” he said, “and trying to get students a greater appreciation of history.”
To facilitate the educational aspect of the press, Oetting has collaborated with Melinda Eckley Posey, Union University assistant professor of art and a graphic designer. They plan to use Union graphic design students in a mutually beneficial relationship with the press: Students have the chance to learn this art and use the antique equipment, while the shop will be put to use through intern workers.
“There is nothing that fosters a greater love of history and craft than actually getting to experience it,” Posey said. “The act of moving from book-learning to actually getting your hands dirty is the quickest way to fall in love with history and our best chance at preserving it.”
Posey said appreciation and respect for the past is essential for young designers to understand. Many students today take for granted the ease of using computers to produce creative art pieces, but it is a completely different experience to see the technology that founded the craft of design.
“You can’t appreciate how far we have come when we automatically double-space a paper until you have set the lead spacers on a case to print a page of type,” she said. “It is such a different world now than it was then. The linotype is a perfect example: 7,000 moving parts to accomplish a single line of type at 10-point font. You can read about this machine, watch clips on YoutTube, but until you actually see it taking molten metal and forming type, you have no idea the sheer immensity of where we have been or where we could be going in the industry of design.”
Oetting agrees that learning the historical method of graphic design is extremely important to understanding the art. He noted a current resurgence of people who are interested in “old-school,” “analog” graphic design — many people are “inundated with digital technology” and consequently are turning away from it in an effort to learn how things were done before computers.
“In studying history and in studying the past, we can learn a lot more about what we use today and ultimately the future of where the field is headed,” he said.
Oetting said he is excited about the project because it is the opportunity to learn a new skill, which is something he loves, and to not rely on using a computer.
“There’s something about getting messy and having ink stain my hands and clothes, and to be dusty after working all day, and possibly working for a week nonstop to produce a poster that I could have turned out in probably two hours on a computer … there’s something about that that excites me,” he said. “It takes it back to you have to know what you are doing. Not just anybody can step into a print shop and produce something — you’ve got to work at it, and work hard, and really try to learn the form to actually produce anything.”
As for Green Frog Press, Oetting is still in beginning stages of learning to use the equipment and restoring the shop to working order, but he says he is eager to bring the rare historic equipment back to life and preserve the craft through production.
“It’s not easy and it’s not familiar,” Oetting said, but it is a challenge he is ready and willing to face.