Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, but as a community newspaper editor, Jesse Luse was more concerned that month with the beaches of Coos County.
He pieced his fiercely local four-page weekly paper together in 19th-century fashion, letter by letter to create a metal slab of type, every week for 53 years. That morning in late June seemed no different — another week, another deadline.
That week’s edition of the Marshfield Sun would, as always, have kept its readers apprised of quilt raffles, pie sales and the goings-on at the McKinley Grange Hall.
Except the paper never reached the press. Luse collapsed just as he was setting the type.
He died a month later on July 22. His children, Bill and Margaret, closed down the office at 1049 Front Street in Coos Bay, and it remained sealed off and frozen in time until 1975.
When it reopened in 1978 as the Marshfield Sun Printing Museum, it offered a perfectly preserved picture of life at a hometown newspaper 80 years ago. Visitors to the museum on the Oregon coast can still step inside from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays.
When they do, they have the same experience Margaret and Bill Luse had when they entered the building in 1975.
“They walked into a time capsule of 19th-century printing and newspaper life,” said historian Lionel Youst, who serves on the board of the Marshfield Sun Association that runs the museum.
“It was intact,” he said. “Everything was there — all the type, all the fonts. Everything was there.”
Yet a mystery remains.
No one knows what the local headlines were going to be Friday, June 23, 1944.
Association President Don Blom said Luse had page 3 (which he traditionally reserved for local news) ready for the press. Museum founders in the late ‘70s wanted to preserve the page and tried to gently move it as a single unit.
“In the process of moving it, it came apart,” Blom said. “We have it on display under glass, but you can’t read it. The print is all jumbled up. In the world of printing, that’s called printer’s pie.”
Visitors still find the hodgepodge of letters educational, he said.
“What it shows our visitors is how many little pieces of type it took to make a page. That’s pretty revealing.”
By 1944, publishers of even small newspapers relied on linotype machines. The machines, as their name implies, cranked out stories one line at a time.
Luse had no use for such modern folderol.
He preferred to build his paper letter by painstaking letter, just as printers had done since the first Gutenberg press was invented in the mid-15th century. He also had no use for electricity.
“He never had electricity in the building,” Blom said, though the building was wired decades later for the museum. “He didn’t think it was necessary. He had enough light, he thought, with a lot of south-facing windows.”
Museum exhibits include Luse’s original Washington hand press, as well as a smaller Chandler press used for job printing such as business cards and wedding invitations. An assortment of antique typewriters is also on display, along with the paper’s original paper cutter, perforator and 14 type cabinets.
Visitors can also browse the paper’s “morgue,” with more than 50 years of the Sun’s archives.
Luse was the grandson of one of the original settlers in Coos Bay — or Marshfield, as it was called at the turn of the last century. His grandfather was among the earliest European immigrants in the area and controlled most of the original townsite. His father was an attorney with numerous local business interests.
“His family were influential people right from the beginning here,” Blom said. “He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He wanted to be a newspaperman. He had a lot of populist ideas, and he wanted to get those out to people.”
Luse started the paper in 1891 in a small downtown building. He built his own building on Front Street in 1911.
Coos County had other local newspapers, including the daily Coos Bay Times, which eventually evolved into The World. Nonetheless, the weekly Sun played a prominent role in the community.
“The first 10 years or so, Luse took all the county legal advertising,” Youst said. “He was the prime newspaper publisher in the area.”
Luse pushed local headlines back to page 3 because he used what was called a “boilerplate” service for his front and back pages. Such services produced and distributed pre-set pages with stories that were more entertaining than newsworthy.
“One result of that system was that everyone got the same boilerplate all over the country,” Blom said. “These companies could set the agenda for what they were trying to do. One of the things they worked on for years was the temperance movement.”
Luse’s own populist political opinions shifted over the years.
“He started out on the liberal side for at least the first 20 years but then inched over to the more conservative side as he got older,” Blom said.
Bill Luse sold the building in 1975 to the city of Coos Bay. His sister Margaret sold a small adjacent piece of property to the city two years later.
City officials, finding the building an eyesore, wanted it torn down.
“It took a couple of years, but we convinced them that wasn’t going to happen,” Blom said. “It’s too valuable.”
The city continues to own the building and its contents, but the association maintains and operates the museum.
Bill Luse, who died in 1995, contributed $20,000 toward the creation of the foundation. The museum briefly paid a high school student to be a docent in the summer, but now all the work is done by volunteers.
The museum closed down for two years because of the coronavirus. Only now are people beginning to trickle back in.
“We haven’t had many visitors this summer,” Youst said. “Normally, before the pandemic started, we would get several hundred people in the course of a season.”
He estimated the museum draws 500 to 600 people per year, including all the local fifth graders who come through in March and April. “It’s really nice when they do,” Youst said. “They’re really interested and asking all the right questions.”
One of the prominent volunteers these days is association board member Marty Giles. She is often the person who opens the doors and greets visitors. She also arranges private tours beyond the regular museum hours.
Giles said she likes working in the old building because she grew up with a mother who worked for newspapers. “She said she had printer’s ink in her blood,” she said. “Working here, I can honor my mother.”
Association members preserve not only the Marshfield Sun building, but the community’s entire newspaper heritage. When the archives of The World nearly were discarded 10 years ago, the association managed to collect the bound volumes of the paper.
They were stored in the back storage space of a local real estate office for three years before moving to the basement of the Harding Building, an old school district building. Today, 100 years of Coos Bay Times and World editions reside in the recently built Marshfield High School, where they’re accessible to the public.
The upper floor of the Sun building houses more than 30,000 copies of newspapers including the Sun, Coast Mail, Empire Builder and Southwestern Oregon News.
(The Coos Bay Times was owned by brothers Michael and Dan Maloney from the early 1900s to 1927. They had a sign in their office that read: “Independent and unafraid” — a message to the Ku Klux Klan, which supported the Southwestern Oregon Daily News.)
Blom said preserving the papers and the old newspaper office itself is important, especially as ink-on-paper news continues to fade.
“Preserving the original source material that is newspapers is critical because you get a full understanding, a full view of all the papers, as history happened,” he said. “It’s all there to see as it was printed.”
The museum and its holdings become even more critical as time passes, he added. “The ability to preserve all of these original materials is more important the further we get from it,” Blom said. “People need to see how newspapers were created and these things were done.”
— Tom Henderson | For The Oregonian/OregonLive
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