the staff of the Sherman Daily Democrat worked to close out the
newspaper’s forthcoming 60th anniversary edition, an old man showed
up at the front counter with an interesting story that merited last-minute
J.L. (Coon) Bruce had spent most of his life as a tramp printer
and didn’t mind saying so. For more than half a century, he had
been traveling from coast to coast, setting type at scores of newspapers.
Now it was the summer of 1939, but at the age of 71, the autumn
of his life. Bruce had worked a short time for the long defunct
Sherman Courier, a weekly. He also had spent time in the back shop
at the rival sheet, the then weekly Democrat. That had been in 1889.
All told, Bruce had practiced his inky trade in Grayson County for
six months before moving on.
Since then, he told a Democrat reporter who hadn’t even been born
the last time Bruce hit Sherman
that he had “worked from ocean to ocean and from the Canadian border
to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Tramp printers – itinerant typesetters motivated by incurable restlessness
and often bedeviled by the bottle – used to be fairly common but
eventually faded from American culture as surely as Saturday mail
delivery and afternoon newspapers.
Though he had been everywhere, Bruce grew up in Collinsville,
70 miles north of Dallas
in western Grayson County. His father had a farm not far from one
of the cattle trails that snaked north through Texas.
As a boy, Bruce watched big herds go by and made a little money
selling watermelons to cowboys hankering for something sweet and
By the time he became a teenager, Bruce had decided that indoor
work with small pieces of lead type beat farming. He learned the
trade at the Collinsville Times, but didn’t stick around.
“The old printer has not had steady work in about 20 years and has
not stayed in one place longer than 18 months in the last 40 years,”
the Democrat said. “He said all his immediate relatives are dead
and that he has no place he can call home, so he will just keep
on traveling as long as he is able.”
Fellow printers often staked Bruce to a meal and sometimes a room
for a night. Soon, he’d move on, hoping for more hospitality down
“Occasionally he picks up a day’s work at the trade but he is too
old for anyone to hire him at steady work now,” the newspaper continued,
reflecting a common prejudice that later would become a violation
of federal law – age discrimination.
Whoever wrote the 10-paragraph piece about Bruce and his wandering
ways concluded with this observation: “So Coon Bruce is probably
miles away at this time, as the sixtieth anniversary edition… is
being distributed. It would have cramped his style to remain until
it came off the press.”
every printer had tumbleweed inclinations. When Dick Hopson landed
in 1861, he pretty much stayed put.
Born in Kentucky
in 1849, he came to Texas with his
parents about the time the Civil War began. Six years later, in
1867 at the age of 18, Hopson got a job as a printer’s devil on
the Sherman Courier. (In the modern vernacular an entry-level position,
a printer’s devil stood on the lowest rung of the typographical
trade’s ladder. A devil earned scant pay collecting old type and
melting the lead for reuse.)
learned to set type, eventually to be recognized as the only known
left-handed printer in Texas.
As the Courier’s
surviving competitor later reported, “He worked with the paper from
27 years and filled every place on the paper from devil to editor
In 1880, as
the Democrat continued, Hopson “set in type from memory and without
copy the history of Sherman.”
Cleveland appointed Hopson as Sherman’s postmaster in 1894 and he
ended his relationship with the Courier. Four years and a new president
later, Hopson founded his own printing copy, an operation he still
ran in 1939 at the age of 90. In fact, “Uncle Dick,” as he had come
to be known in and around Sherman,
still worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“He has a remarkable
mind and memory and is a good conversationalist,” the newspaper
Linotype machines had long since replaced character-by-character
typesetting, the South-pawed Hopson could still fill a stick by
When and where
“Coon” Bruce’s wanderings finally ended has not been determined,
but Hopson stayed put in Grayson County.
© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
November 1, 2007 column
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