Friday, August 19, 2011

Finding History at Whippletree Junction

(A shorter version of this appeared in the April 2011 edition of Nanaimo Magazine - here it is in long play)

10 minutes south of Duncan, BC, or, 45 minutes north of Victoria, BC, (depending on which way you are travelling, mind you), sits a little ‘town’ – Whippletree Junction. Just off the Trans Canada Highway on Vancouver Island, 14 restored buildings from the early 1900’s house coffee shops, speciality shops, and restaurants. Antiques and artifacts nestled in the gardens between the shops further enhance the ‘old time’ ambiance.

But most importantly, to me at least, is the presence of a washroom. Nothing beats modern plumbing and electricity - thank you very much.

On the day I made the journey from Victoria to Nanaimo for a writing-related function, my halfway-mark pit stop at Whippletree Junction found me dodging puddles as I raced to the door bearing the ‘Ladies’ sign. The rain was awful – there is no flowery, fancy, or literary way to put it. Going 50 km/h on the typically 90 – 120km/h highway, I white-knuckled it as I fought each hydroplane-inducing puddle. The usual pit stop at the ‘town’ was much welcomed; not only for my bladder, but also for my nerves.

But as I made my way back to the car, already dreading the rest of the drive home, something caught my eye. In the alcove of a building sat a forgotten piece of history, rusting in the elements of Mother Nature. At first glance it looked like something out of Star Wars, circa 1977. But I soon realized Darth Vader’s throne, it was not.

Fighting the wind with my umbrella, my feet soaking in a puddle, I poked around this contraption, and figured out it was some sort of printing press.

Okay, I’ll admit it – the very large keyboard bearing still-intact letters was my hint.

As my research would later tell me, this particular ‘line casting’ machine, a printing machine able to print whole lines of type at once, was produced around the 1920’s by Intertype Corp., in Brooklyn, NY. With its 90-character keyboard (half upper case, half lower case, and the rest special characters – no qwerty anywhere), along with its countless levers, handles and gizmos, a hot metal ‘slug’ would be produced bearing words and sentences (I am giving you the extremely condensed version, here). Line those up, and you have yourself a whole paragraph, article or story! And Extra! EXTRA! You got yourself a newspaper.

Fun fact: The first line-casting machine was purchased for newspaper publishing by the New York Tribune in 1886.

How fitting I should notice this piece of history when my mind was abuzz of writerly thoughts, post meeting. I picked away a few stray pieces of grass, and juggling my umbrella, my purse and the rain drops, I snapped a few photos. How contrary this was, to be standing in front of this piece of rusted history, when only an hour or so before I was discussing e-publishing, e-books, e-readers – basically ‘e-everything.’

And I wondered – will our children, their children, and THEIR children line up to take pictures of our long discarded cellphones, laptops, Blackberries, iPads, Notebooks and god-knows-what-else has yet to come along? And in the typhoon-force rains like I was in, no less?

And what about those long past masters of their craft, able to multi-task all the levers, keys, and switches to produce copy for distribution. Have they been forgotten? Only their memory remains in this piece of history that sat before me, covered in old paint splatters, rust, grass and twigs.

What a long way we have come. Yet, now all we do is sit on our butts, type on a 104-key computer keyboard, 26 of which are actual letters, and moan that the printer is too far away from our arm to reach.

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