- by Tom Eastman
The Print Shop Time Forgot
In a small, time-weathered cabin set off in the woods on the grounds of the Mount Washington Hotel, Dave Sheppard dons his printer's apron every summer morning and goes to work. If the shop can be described as a place that time forgot, then Sheppard can be called the man who forgot time. He is a throwback to an earlier era, as much a part of the cluttered cob-webbed building as is the unique, 1881 water-powered press he operates.
The shop has been there printing menus, a newspaper and other publications in Bretton Woods since 1902, and it looks every bit of its 79 years. Sheppard has been its resident printer for only 10 years, but no finer match between a locale, a vocation and a man has ever been made.
Born and brought up in Montana, Dave left that remote and unspoiled country as a young man intent on becoming a commercial artist. He found the high-pressured world of Madison Avenue to be too - as he calls it - "plastic" for his tastes, however, so he left it. Always a tinkerer with printing presses since his high school and college days when he took courses in the subject, Dave turned his avocation into his vocation by teaching high school students the finer aspects of printing, drafting, and mechanical drawing.
An avid hiker, Sheppard escaped from the Blackboard Jungle in 1971 when the opportunity of taking over the printer's shop at the Mount Washington Hotel presented itself. The job fulfilled his three requirements of providing him with the equally important amenities of pleasurable work, reasonable pay, and a nice place to live in the mountains, so he accepted it.
By doing so, Dave became, as best anyone can recall, the tenth printer for the shop. There have probably been more, but the only way of knowing who preceded Sheppard is by reading the hand-carved names of printers etched onto the legs of a table in the shop. It's a tradition that Dave supports, as evidenced by the crude carving of his own name on the worn table, just below that of his predecessor and near those of Ed Wood (1909-1910) and JF Watts (1915). He is a proud successor to that line of now forgotten men, perhaps the last.
"Most of the old printers who knew about these types of presses were of the World War I era, and they're mostly all gone now," Dave said recently while working on a menu for the Mount Washington Hotel's dining room. Straight and tall, he has the quiet bearing of a man who enjoys spending time by himself. Working in the quiet of the secluded shop, that pre-disposition is almost a pre-requisite for the job. "My era is World War II, and not many of my generation were interested in this kind of work. I'm afraid that once I'm gone, this shop will have to be turned into a museum of some sort."
A walk through the two-roomed building past the press, posters and type-setting stalls is a trip back in time through a working museum as it is. Unlike the sterile tidiness that is often found in conventional museums, however, the print shop emanates a cloistered warmth and clutter that transports one back to the turn of the century without losing any of the era's color. Menus from dinners served to wealthy guests long ago during the grand Mount Washington's golden age of elegance remains pinned under the coat of dust on the walls, testimonies to an extravagance of style which more than likely will never return. Entertainment posters boasting of a performance at the Mount Washington during the 1920s featuring a young Bob Hope and the Hotel's orchestra lay propped against one wall, looking like they hadn't been moved for decades. The same could be said for everything else in the building.
"This shop is a freak, there's no doubt about it," Dave remarked when asked to comment on its appeal to him. "You don't need to have a spic 'n' span place to work - there's a warmth here which opposed the conventional but closed-minded idea of efficiency," he added with subtle glee, enjoying the idea that his quaint little shop goes against the grain and still works. You might say that it's an extension of his friendly yet quietly un-conventional philosophies about life and the way people view their work nowadays. Working along gives him a lot of time to think and some of his favorite topics are economics and the decline of the work ethic.
"I've got a real axe to grind about economics. The world's really messed up nowadays, and it bothers me to see how people's attitudes have changed toward work and professionalism," he lamented, noting that times were definitely different in the old days. Pointing to a photo of employees of the Hotel wearing black outfits with aprons and starched collars shelling peas in between meals in 1902, Dave said that the era of the dedicated servant has long since passed. "Employees in that grand age cared about their work. One person used to be able to do the work of what it takes three people to do nowadays." he commented.
Printing the daily menus for the dining rooms of the Mount Washington Hotel, Dave is staging his vendetta. He turns out thee times as much work as may modern outfits, "and it's three times better quality as well," he says. Someday, he plans to write a book about his press, water power, and efficient energy conservation measures. For now, he is gathering all of the information he thinks he'll need by working in the shop.
The subject of water power and its conventional uses are likely to consume a large portion of that book when and it it is ever written. Calling the water-powered turbine that runs the printing press "New Hampshire's largest antique," Dave says that it is an excellent example of how to take advantage of a free energy source with an easily maintained device. "This old printing press can do circles around modern machines - die-casting, numbering, and perforating, you name it," Dave commented. "As for the turbine, its possibilities are great. There's enough power here to run a ski lift, if people would just open themselves up to the idea."
As far as Dave knows, the 1881-built turbine and press are unique, although he notes that many hotels in the White Mountains utilized water power for other uses during the early 1900s, such as powering hydraulic elevators at the Crawford House, laundry machines, electric generators, and ice-crushing devices. The printing presses and the shops still-sharp two-ton paper cutter were manufactured by the Golding Co. of Boston, designed before the concept of planned depreciation became a popular concept. "Furthermore," Dave states, "These machines will still be operable when the little kids of today have grandchildren. It all just takes time and some interest to reconvert and recycle all of this old junk in the shop into usable components."
The turbine press set-up resembles something which Rube Goldberg might have dreamed up for a mechanical cartoon. Water from Mt. Jefferson feeds into the Mt. Washington Hotel's reservoirs and tanks in the nearby hills in Bretton Woods. And then flows in three-inch pipes to the print shop under great pressure. The water turns the turbine to which overhead belts are connected. The belts pass along the ceiling and then down to the press to unusual double wheels make of wood. Half of the double wheel is used for idling, while the remaining part engages the press. The speed of the press is adjusted by turning the intake valve of the pipe leading into the turbine itself.
"This shop, and the press, are working examples of the uses of water power," Dave says with pride. While admitting that the press does not provides the high speed and flexibility of modern automated photo-offsetting printing presses, he says that the quality and cheap operation make up for the difference.
The printing press is currently used by Dave to typeset and print breakfast and dinner menus for the Hotel, as well as special tickets for groups, functions and conventions staying at the resort. Usually, he checks in with the Hotel's chef early in the morning to make last minute changes on the menu he type-set the day before. After the printing, he takes down the letters and sets the type for the next day's dinner menu, always operating a day or two in advance. Since the Mount Washington uses the American Plan of daily changing entrees, a printing press is a necessity. Dave explained that all of the large resorts in the past used the system, as it provided a dining room with flexibility. "In an isolated location such as the White Mountains, shipments of food often couldn't be counted on to arrive on time," Dave Said. "Also, the system was helpful in cases where food spoiled or guests ate too little or too much of any particular item. The American Plan was and is a handy system provided that you have a press."
Whether the Mount Washington Hotel will have a working press in the long term future after Dave retires remains uncertain. Explaining that he jumped back a generation to take the job, Dave says that he doubts that many young people will come along to carry on. "The average young person today is allergic to any work that requires precision, patience, and sweat, all three of which are part of this job. They dream beautiful dreams, but only one in 100 wanted to do anything routine. There are few who even know what an antique is, let along appreciate if for its values." Eventually, he thinks that the veritable gold mine of printing equipment will have to become some sort of museum. "Unless, of course, some very unusual person happens by here with a nostalgic kick who'll be willing to knock themselves out like I have to run it. I'd like to think that it'll happen, but it all goes back to what I said earlier about the work ethic of today," Dave commented.
Excusing himself, he knew that it was time to get back to work on the menu for the next day, even though there was no clock around the shop. A chipmunk - his pet of sorts - sat outside the doorway on the sagging steps in the mid-day sun, eating the scraps the printer always leaves for him. If Dave finished his work on schedule, he would soon be outside as well. A hike to the Ammonoosuc Falls or to Mt. Willard would suit him fine.