Bell Graphics building full of history for former owner

By Brian Sanders

Walking through the old Bell Graphics building on East Fifth Street in Holton — long ago known as The Gossip Printery — is like visiting a small museum dedicated to printing, except that Gary Bell, who owned the building with wife Carolyn from 1977 to 2002, knows how to operate all the exhibits.

“You go into a museum where they’ve got one of these presses and tell them you know all about it, and they instantly let you run it,” Bell joked.

Now, the building has been pur­chased by Kerwin and Carolyn McKee, and it’s undergoing an in­ternal renovation that Carolyn says will continue to house the Bell Graphics office and may someday be the new home of the Holton/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, of which Carolyn is the executive di­rector. The building will retain part of its old name, to be known as “The Gossip,” she said.

But the “exhibits” will stay, and in many cases, people will be able to see them at work during a “bare bones tour” scheduled as part of the “Historical Holton” event, the latest “Second Saturday” promotion slated by the Chamber. The event is set from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, and covers many buildings on Holton’s Town Square.

Tuesday morning, however, pro­vided Bell a chance to revisit the building from top to bottom and provide brief explanations and sto­ries about the various printing presses and implements. Bell, who worked there for five years — it was still known as The Gossip Printery then — before he and his wife bought it, said he got a lot of information about the old machin­ery from Dale McKenzie, who worked at the printery for 54 years.

One of those old machines, still sitting in the building’s basement, is the old press that A.V. Dworak purchased used in 1914. He brought the press to Denison and started The Gossip Printery with it, then moved it to Holton in 1919, where he started issuing his own publications.

“They never did put it out of service,” Bell said of Dworak’s first press.

The Gossip Printery published “Weekly Philatelic Gossip,” a magazine for stamp collectors con­sidered to be among the best in the U.S. as far as publications devoted to stamp collecting, as well as other publications with the same focus. Bell also has a copy of “The Yel­lowjacket,” an “alternative news­paper” that Dworak would publish whenever “the spirit moved” him, according to its flag.

Dworak died in 1932, but The Gossip Printery continued to flour­ish through three generations of owners, until the Bells bought it in 1977 from Phyllis Parker. One as­pect of the building that remains in place, Bell said, is a dart sticking out of a support beam; the dart has remained in place since the 1920s.

“We always said we didn’t want to pull it out, because we’d crash and burn,” Bell joked.

Many other remnants of the printery’s daily operation remain, including boxes and boxes full of “cuts,” or die-cut graphics carved or molded into wood or metal blocks and used in the printing process. Some are made out of lead and coated with copper, Bell said, recalling the process by which some of the “cuts” were created.

“It’s just mind-boggling to me, all the work that went into printing back then,” McKee said.

Among the printing presses that remain on hand are a 1947 model Heidelberg “windmill” letter press that Bell purchased from the Westmo­reland Recorder newspaper. The Heidelberg still fires up easily, he noted.

“When I bought that, I was happy as a clam. I always wanted one of these,” Bell said of the Hei­delberg. “I was the guy that ran this most of the time. The other guys didn’t care to run it. There’s a lot of guys that got busted-up hands from it because there are no safety at­tachments.”

Also still in good working con­dition is a 1951 model Miehle ver­tical press, which the Bells pur­chased in 1985 and used for color printing. Bell estimated that the press remained in use long after he and wife Carolyn sold the building, adding that he and his personnel performed most of the maintenance duties on the press.

“There was only one guy I ever hired to do anything to it. I had a press problem one time, and he flew in from Chicago, stayed in a hotel and ate the best food in town,” Bell said. “He was in the shop 20 minutes and told me what was wrong, and the next morning. he’d cleared out. It cost me $1,800.”

There are plenty of other old ma­chines and implements to be dug up in the building, with Bell and McKee finding an old “eyeletter,” used for creating eyelets, a “round corner machine” and a 1920s model Dictaphone that played old wax cylinders recorded on another Dictaphone set up for that purpose. The recording Dictaphone may be found at the Jackson County Mu­seum, Bell said.

Another aspect of the building that will be preserved is a manu­ally-operated freight elevator that Bell said was originally powered by a “rear-end” motor from an old Ford Model A. The elevator worked fine until an attempt to haul a barrel of lead up to the main floor was too much for the old Model A motor to handle.

“That elevator hit the ground with a bang,” said Bell, who even­tually upgraded to a stronger winch that still works today.

In 2002, the Bells retired from the printing business, selling the Bell Graphics building and contents to Don Walters of Capital Graphics in Topeka. It was a tough choice to make to sell the business, Bell said.

“For me, it was terrible hard,” he said, “especially when I sat down in that realtor’s office to sign my name to let this go.”

The building and business still retained the Bell Graphics name over the years, and it is now run by Duane Kimmi, whom McKee said will continue to have an office in the building.

“A lot of the projects now get shipped to Topeka, but people still call it Bell Graphics,” she said.

As for the old presses, McKee plans to clean them up and preserve them on the main floor of the building.

“I love history, and I’m going to try and preserve that for this build­ing,” she said. “It’s fun to watch these machines at work.”

McKee also plans to hold “Sec­ond Saturday” events for the Chamber and host vendors for those events on the main floor. There may also be a second-story apartment — Bell said the building was originally constructed to have a second story — but McKee said that’s not in the immediate plan for the building.