An Art, a Craft, a Career: Baker Library Recalls the Stinehour Press

Thursday, May 02, 2013
After serving as a Navy fighter pilot in World War II, Roderick “Rocky” Stinehour came back to Whitefield, N.H., to propose to the woman who would become his wife. He and some fellow pilots had started the Connecticut Valley Air Service, flying tourists around the White Mountains, but when he and Elizabeth came back from their Florida honeymoon, the business had failed.

For someone who had learned to land a plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier, this might not have seemed like a big deal, but jobs were not always plentiful in the North Country. Young Rocky felt some urgency.

“I had to get a job,” he said in an interview at his Lunenburg, Vt., home. “I was a responsible man. I was a husband. I had a child coming.”

So he went to the print shop owned by Lunenburg farmer Ernest Bisbee, “because I thought printing was something I could be interested in,” Stinehour said.

That was in 1948. Over the next 60 years, Stinehour would make a name for himself as one of the country’s finest printers. Despite working on an isolated farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the Stinehour Press name became a watchword for quality book design and production.

After working for Bisbee for a year, Rocky Stinehour came down to Hanover to finish his bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth College and to learn about printing from Ray Nash, who ran the college’s Graphic Arts Workshop. (Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library is honoring Stinehour with an exhibtion about Stinehour Press. See related story below.)

Bisbee, who started printing in his sunset years when he grew tired of farming, made business forms, letterhead, invitations and other practical printed materials people needed. How he started printing is an interesting story in itself. He’d done some printing work in Boston when he was young. One day, taking a load of wood into Lancaster, N.H., he spied a printing press on the porch of the Lancaster Hotel. He inquired and found that the press was available, as the hotel no longer used it to print its menus. Bisbee put the press back into service.

It was at Dartmouth that Stinehour decided to learn to print books, a trade he learned from Nash. “He taught me everything,” Stinehour said. “He really brought me into the world of books.”

While Stinehour was finishing his Dartmouth degree, Bisbee died of a heart attack in his print shop. Stinehour trekked back and forth between Hanover and Lunenburg to help Bisbee’s widow run the press until he graduated a few months later in the spring of 1950. She offered him a good deal to buy the press, the farm and the house, and he took it.

Through Dartmouth, Stinehour met other people who would continue to influence his work in Lunenburg, including Edward Connery Lathem, who graduated a year later and was in many of the same classes. Lathem worked in the Dartmouth libraries from 1952 to 1978, when he became emeritus librarian and dean. Stinehour also was close with Marcus McCorison, who worked as special collections librarian at Dartmouth in the mid-1950s before becoming the longtime director of the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Mass., which has the world’s largest collection of Americana. Lathem died in 2009 and McCorison, whose parents were from East Corinth, died in February.

Like Lathem and McCorison, Stinehour has Upper Valley ties. He spent much of his early upbringing in Hartford, where his father worked as a railway mail clerk between White River Junction and Montreal. His mother was English and had trained as a governess. His parents met while working for a wealthy Canadian family, she as a governess, he as a chauffeur.

Stinehour credited his mother with fostering an early interest in books. “I always had a lot of books around,” he said. “My folks loved art.” The family moved to Whitefield when his father started work on the rails between White River Junction and Berlin, N.H., when Roderick was a junior in high school.

Except for his war service, his time at Dartmouth and the trips he’s taken to talk about the book trade, Stinehour has stayed in Northeast Kingdom, a place many people counseled him to leave. Lenders suggested he set up shop near the Burlington airport, the better to bring clients to his door.

“In a sense, nobody but myself thought this was the place,” Stinehour said. “But I wanted country living.”

The employees he lured to Lunenburg liked it too, and that was essential; his intention to design and print books depended on his ability to bring a team of people together. “I couldn’t do it myself,” he said.

The Stinehour Press’ big leap to prominence happened after it started a quarterly publication called Printing and Graphic Arts. Nash was the editor and Stinehour Press designed and printed it and produced a bound volume at the end of the year. (That meant that two prestigious graphic arts quarterlies were published in Vermont in those days, as Woodstock’s Elm Tree Press produced an older, similar magazine called Print.)

Turning out a magazine that featured articles by prominent designers helped make Stinehour’s name.

“I was very quickly a significant player and I hired the right people,” Stinehour said. Talented designers and typographers were more than happy to decamp to Lunenburg, where Stinehour eventually assembled a staff of 40 people.

“I could get a Harvard graduate, Freeman Keith, he was a Greek and Latin scholar at Harvard,” Stinehour said. “I wasn’t even comfortable in English.”

Stinehour marched along, turning out books of enviable quality for decades until it was done in by the digital revolution.

“What I was doing was working in a 500-year-old activity that was mechanized,” Stinehour said. “Then digital came and it threw everything in a bucket.” Suddenly, book publishers could send a job to China and pay half of what Stinehour charged.

After a couple of mergers, the press closed in 2008, and Stinehour went to work in the Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth.

One of Stinehour’s sons now has a digital print shop nearby, and Stinehour said he’s working on getting a letterpress machine going, too. At 88, he can’t move the press’ workings, but he can set type, he said.

The old farmhouse he and Elizabeth live in has low ceilings and wood paneling. In the dining room, where a side table might sit, is a proof press, with a heavy iron roller. There are shelves full of books and on the walls are alphabets of every description, carved and printed by such celebrated type designers as Stephen Harvard, incised in marble, or block printed. Over a fireplace in the sitting room are two written out by a great-grandson. The barn outside is now occupied by Great Bear Renewable Energy, a stove shop.

The Stinehour Press’ Latin motto is Haec Olim Meminisse Juvabit, a line from Virgil that translates as “In time to come you will enjoy recalling these things.”

“That was my life, and I do like thinking about it,” Stinehour said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com, or 603-727-3247.