Monday, July 30, 2007

Prairie Village Memories

My home town of Madison SD has a frontier village right outside of town. Prairie Village is designed to simulate a pioneer village of the late 1800s. Every August they hold a Steam Threshing Jamboree at the village. This year is the 45th edition of the threshing Jamboree. It is also the 35th anniversary of the first Jamboree that I ever worked at. A couple weeks ago a second cousin of mine called me to point out that they local newspaper, The Madison Daily Leader, was running a request online for people to write their fondest memories of their times at Prairie Village. These memories will be collected in a booklet to share with visitors to the Jamboree this year.

Here is my submission:

I was a Prairie Village Printers Devil.

I was born in Madison, SD but moved west river to Rapid City when I was two. I got to spend part of almost every summer in Madison with my Grandmother, Myrt Huettl.

A large portion of my summer of 1972 was spent helping my Grandmother fill the new summer kitchen at Prairie Village with stuff we had dug out of my Great Grandfather’s garage. By the time the Steam Threshing Jamboree was ready to start we had spent so much time out at Prairie Village that I was starting to think that my Grandmother planned on moving into the new summer kitchen and living there. After all, much of the kitchen furnishings of her childhood were already out there.

Spending this much time at Prairie Village gave me a chance to wander into and through all the buildings in the park. So every time Grandma would turn her back on me for a moment or two I went exploring.

One of my favorite buildings in the park was the Print Shop. My grandfather, Chet Huettl, worked in the print room of the Madison Daily Leader for most of his adult life. I used to love visiting him there. But the machines at the Print Shop did not look at all like the machines down at the Leader Shop. Since Grandpa had passed away a few years earlier I started asking my Grandmother about the machinery in the Print Shop. My sudden curiosity in the Print Shop led Grandma to decide that the Print Shop is where I should spend my days during the Steam Threshing Jamboree.

The day before the Jamboree opened Grandma took me to meet Bob Nellis. Bob was a printer from my Grandfather’s days and he was going to be manning the Print Shop at Prairie Village that year. Bob absolutely terrified me. He was a large man with a bad leg that required him to walk with a cane.

My Grandmother introduced me to Bob as his new printer’s assistant. Bob immediately informed both of us that I was too green and inexperienced to be a printer’s assistant. Instead I would have to be the printer’s devil, which was one step below a printer's assistant.

Bob then explained what the printer’s devil’s job entailed. My job would be to clean and sort the type. Clean the presses, clean the benches, sweep the floors and empty the trash. It sounded a lot like a janitor’s job to me.

Since Bob and I didn’t have any period clothes to wear my grandmother promised to round up some printers aprons for us to wear. Then we left Bob with a promise to see him out at Prairie Village bright and early the next morning. Grandma stopped down at the Daily Leader to see if they would loan us a couple aprons. They were happy to oblige and she got an apron for Bob to wear. Then she spent the rest of the afternoon digging through boxes of stuff at home looking for some of my grandfather’s old aprons so I could wear one of them. I spent the afternoon trying to think a good reason, or illness, to get me out of this nightmare she had concocted for me. I did not relish the idea of spending my weekend cleaning the Print Shop.

The next morning I met Bob at the Print Shop about an hour before the park opened. The excitement level as everyone tried to get ready for the jamboree was killing me. I could not believe that I was going to have to spend my entire weekend stuck inside the Print Shop cleaning up after Bob Nellis.

For the next hour Bob crammed as much knowledge about hand setting type into my teen-aged brain as he could manage. Bob taught me how the proof press worked. He taught me about ink and rollers, sticks and galleys, quoins and forms, the California Job case, moveable type and type lice. Bob showed me the racks of movable type in the back of the shop and threatened to toss me into a threshing machine if I dropped any of the cases.

Then Bob showed me what we would be printing. It was a wanted poster that we could customize with individual names. He talked me through the whole process of setting the type with the person’s name – backwards, then, locking the quoins, inking the galley, placing the paper, and running it through the proof press.

By the time the Jamboree started Bob announced that I was ready to solo for a while. So with a final admonition to keep my fingers clear of the roller on the proof press, he moved around to the front of the counter where he could prop himself on a stool and talk to any visitors who wandered in, leaving me alone running the back of the shop.

It was a busy day. I spent the entire morning setting type, printing wanted posters, cleaning the galleys, putting type away and then starting all over again on the next poster. At lunchtime my grandmother brought us some sandwiches from the Prairie Village Kitchen. We sat together on the front porch of the Print Shop and watched the visitors walk past while Bob shared a bit more about printing with me. It was sometime during lunch that I stopped being afraid of Bob Nellis.

That afternoon and all the next day I had a blast working as Bob’s Printer’s Devil. I worked the back of the shop and Bob worked the customers. Occasionally Bob would allow a customer behind the counter so I could help them set their own name in type, and then supervise them through the process of printing their own wanted poster.

It was the middle of the second day when a family from Missouri stopped in to check out the shop. He was a printer and wanted to take a close look at our old printing presses. While Bob and our visitor talked shop it fell to me to entertain his teenage daughter who was standing around looking bored. After an hour in the print shop Bob’s guest was being dragged away by his wife. Meanwhile his daughter had been running the proof press for me for a while and she was also getting pretty good at setting type. Before she left, we exchanged addresses and the two of us stayed in touch as pen pals for the next 7 years.

I worked the Print Shop with Bob for three consecutive Steam Threshing Jamborees. The fourth year I was a junior in High School and had other plans for the summer that kept me away from Madison. I didn't manage to get back to Madison for the Jamboree for several years. When I did, my Grandmother told me that Bob had passed away. She asked if I wanted her to get permission for me to work the Print Shop again that year. I turned down her offer. Without Bob Nellis perched on the stool out front it just would not have been the same.

I don’t work in the printing industry. But for three summers I got a small taste of what my Grandfather did for a living for many years. I met a lot of really interesting people, and one great old printer who took a young kid under his wing and turned him into a printer’s devil.

Once I finished this submission for the memory book I got a little pretentious and decided to speak out for my Grandmother. Grandma never would have tolerated me trying to put words in her mouth. But she has been gone for a while now, and I figured what the heck. So I submitted this memory for her.

Creating a Summer Kitchen

My Grandmother, Myrt Huettl, passed away in March of 2001. She worked at and supported Prairie Village for many years. Taking her grandchildren out to Prairie Village and telling tales of her childhood using the displays as examples was one of her favorite past times. I do not presume to know what my Grandmother’s favorite memories of Prairie Village were. But I do know that she treasured the time she spent working there. For many summers the Steam Threshing Jamboree marked our last weekend at Grandma’s house in Madison before my sisters and I had to return home to Rapid City to start the next school year.

Sometime prior to the summer of 1972 Prairie Village acquired a small building that they wanted to set up as a summer kitchen. I don’t know if she volunteered, was drafted, or just decided to take on the task on her own. But when I arrived in Madison for the summer my Grandmother was already making plans to decorate the new summer kitchen with belongings out of her basement, her garage and her father’s garage.

My grandmother directed several weeks of digging, restoring, repairing and cleaning kitchen items for inclusion in the summer kitchen. Often her directions were as imprecise as “there was a large black thing-a-ma-jig for the oven in one of those boxes in that corner of the garage, about 30 years ago, dig it out, clean it off and put it on the porch.”

I spent a lot of time looking for thing-a-ma-jigs, whatchamacallits and various other similarly named items.

It took a couple weeks but slowly the summer kitchen started looking like a kitchen. Eventually the night before the Steam Threshing Jamboree was to start Grandma finally declared the summer kitchen ready to go.

The next day my grandmother practically floated into Prairie Village. She proudly checked us all in as exhibitors. My Grandmother, Mother and both sisters were wearing period looking dresses that Mom had sewn for them all the previous week. Grandma and my sisters even had bonnets to cover their heads.

As Grandma dropped me off at the Print Shop she shooed her brood of pioneer daughter and granddaughters across the road to the summer kitchen. Grandma’s plan was to sit in the summer kitchen all day and tell people all about the things in that kitchen. Mom and my sisters were scheduled to be working in the Auxiliary Kitchen all day. Unfortunately for Grandma, her granddaughters had other plans. They worked the kitchen for a while and then they sat in the summer kitchen with Grandma for a while. Eventually some of their friends from town showed up and that was the last grandma saw of them until they all got hungry. Grandma spent the rest of the day splitting her time between the food kitchen and the summer kitchen.

Grandma loved that summer kitchen. She also loved to work the Auxiliary Kitchen serving food to visitors at the park. But most of all she loved taking her family to Prairie Village. Her proudest year was 1988 when she was named the Auxiliary Kitchen Queen.

Kitchen Queen

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