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Tramp Printers

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

As 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 inclusion.

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 wet.

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 the road.

“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.”

Not every printer had tumbleweed inclinations. When Dick Hopson landed in Sherman 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.)

Soon Hopson 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 to publisher.”

In 1880, as the Democrat continued, Hopson “set in type from memory and without copy the history of Sherman.”

President Grover 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 said.

And, though Linotype machines had long since replaced character-by-character typesetting, the South-pawed Hopson could still fill a stick by hand.

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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