Freedom of the Presses

Jacob Lane · Wednesday, June 7, 2017
“The printing press was a turn towards freedom of the press, the freedom to be able to print what you want,” says Steve Alt. “It was the first revolution of its kind.”

To think that a mechanical device that applies ink to a print medium though pressure would fundamentally change a nation. It’s the reason a majority of our own American history exists.

This history is very much alive at Liberty Press, a one-of-a-kind living collection of printing presses that date as far back as the 1880s in downtown West Liberty.

“Everything runs. You see, hear and smell it,” stresses Alt. “We’re preserving the art and the craftsmanship of letterpress and typography printing.”

Steve and Sandra Alt own a growing collection of letter presses, which also includes the necessary 600 sets of typeface, dozens of cabinets and additional equipment.

In 2015 the married couple purchased and began restoring a beautiful storefront located on Third Street in order to display their growing collection.

Inside, visitors are treated to polished hardwood floors, giant ancient arches, stacks upon stacks of organized letter face, rows of rustic letter presses and the thick smell of ink.

There’s an 1879 Golding Pearl No. 3, which runs remarkably smooth for a 138-year-old pice of equipment. Then there’s the 1879 Alden Model 3 and a one-in-ten 1962 Chandler & Price.

In fact, there are around 20 presses at Liberty Press. Most are treadle presses, meaning they’re operated by pushing down on a peddle with one’s foot over and over again.

Talk about a workout.

“It’s a lot of footwork,” admits Alt. “Not everyone can get the hang of it, but I think it comes pretty natural to the both of us.”

The Liberty Press facility is separated into two halves, on one side sit rows of letter presses, on the other side sit restored cabinet after cabinet of letter press.

To the uninitiated, letter presses are those small “stamp” like letters that get inked and pressed against another medium, usually paper or post board. They’re the magic behind the machine.

To get more specific, one letter press “set” consists of all 26 letters of the alphabet, uppercase and lowercase, as well as the various punctuation and spaces needed.

So, when Alt says he has over 600 sets of letter case…well, that’s a lot of letters. There are thousands of letters, characters and special designs.

“Our big thing is hand set,” says Alt. “That means we take each letter and hand set it.” When printing a poster, envelope, or bookmark each and every letter has to be physically put in place.

Considering there are also a hundred different types of font, letter sizes and spacing… well, there’s a lot of patience behind the old-fashioned form of printing.

But out of that patience, true beauty is born. What the Alts create is vibrant in color with rich texture. It simply can’t be done via a computer and home printer.

That’s one of the reasons Steve loves his craft. He started his fine collection in the fall of 1991 when the couple picked up their first press for free.

But, they also learned their first real lesson in letter press and typography.

“One thing we learned in a hurry was, ‘Okay, we’ve got a printing press but we can’t do anything with it unless we have some type,” he says.

So they picked up two cases of type case. But, that really wasn’t enough variety, so they picked up a few more pieces. Then another press. Then more type. Then another press…

A good 16 years later Steve and Sandra were sitting on one of the more formidable printing press collections in Iowa. It’s a good thing that his wife got into it about four years ago.

“There’s the text side of this with printing and the machines, which is what I lean towards,” says Steve. “Then there’s an art side of this that Sandra leans towards.”

Married for 28 years, both were raised in and graduated from West Liberty. They’re also equal partners when it comes to Liberty Press. Together they continue to build and maintain the collection.

However, most in West Liberty are probably familiar with another grand collection amassed by Steve Alt and his father George Alt at the local fairgrounds.

Together the two have built up an impressive showing of fully working gas engines, which are on display every year at the Muscatine County Fair.

And, up until last year, George Alt would spend every day of the fair by the engines or his popular rope making station, no matter how hot the weather.

Unfortunately, George passed away at the age of 75 back in March 2017. He was a well known figure around the community.

“I would say throughout the years, one thing we both had very much in common was teaching other people,” remembers Steve of his father. “Whether it was how to drive old cars or how to run gas engines.”

The Alts want to hold classes and seminars as they get better situated, as well as continue to host visiting groups or just generally interested people.

In fact, that’s the secondary purpose of Liberty Press. Steve Alt wants to take everything he knows and teach it to the public, to anyone of any age.

He knows an absolute wealth of information about the trade. Everything in the building has history and a story, of which Steve is eager to share to everyone who visits Liberty Press.

One could go so far to say that Steve Alt could fill books with the knowledge of printing in his head, and he could use his own equipment to do it as well.

“I’ve love old mechanics stuff my whole life, they’ve always fascinated me,” he says.

So far Steve has used the equipment to make posters for several occasions and companies around the community. His biggest project recently has probably been posters for the Chilly Chili 5K held at the fairgrounds.

He’s made posters for the fair, as well as various special projects for Slightly Vintage, the Midwest Old Threshers, Carolina’s Boutique, Fred’s Feed and William B. Tharp.

He’s printed about 2,500 bookmarks for school tours, which come in frequently. Two months ago he hosted a Chamber P.M. where he made posters and showed off his equipment.

No, the Alts aren’t bringing in the big bucks as printers. Both have full-time jobs used to support their expensive hobby. But they’re not in it for the money.

“Today you just put something in a printer and it comes out,” says Steve. “You never ask why or how that happened. Here you can actually be very personal with it.”

There’s a sort of freedom to Liberty Press. Among the confined ridges and spinning wheels of the press, governed by age and technique, is an art form without limits.

It also represents the past as well as what we’ve become in the present. These vestiges of yesteryear are the building blocks of the written word today.

“The liberty of free printing,” he describes it. “The freedom of the press.”

To learn more about Liberty Press visit www.libertypressia.com, or get into contact with Steve Alt with any questions or comments.
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