Michael Bixler works on the Monotype machine.
do it the old way
by Beth Battle
photography by Beth Battle
There is a sense of timelessness as the typecaster bends
over his machines in the old factory along Railroad Street.
Michael Bixler, the typecaster, along with his wife,
Winifred, run a special typography business in this two-story, brick
factory. The couple who both have art and printing degrees from the
Rochester Institute of Technology, run one of four shops in the country
that continue this late-1800s' process of setting type by hand.
Michael, who acquired his first printing press at the
age of 10, started accumulating his equipment in the early 1970s,
when people began replacing the machinery with computers.
"People were scrapping their machines," Michael said.
"I was able to purchase them for the cost of haulling them away. It
was a wonderful opportunity to start my own business."
"Most of the equipment we use they stopped making 20
years ago," Winifred said. While they still are in good condition,
Michael, with his supply of spare parts, is able to take them apart
and repair them if necessary.
The Bixlers use 10 tons of lead yearly. This lead is
continually melted down and recast. "The only resource we consume
is electricity," said Michael.
The crispness in the letter form still is highly sought.
"We offer a brand of quality people can't get elsewhere. We use the
best paper and ink, never cut corners, and generally do what we say
we will do."
Not only do they do typesetting work for Harvard, Yale,
the New York City Ballet, the Metropolitan Musuem of Art and others,
but for artists and authors all across the country. They have set
the type for special presentation book copies for former Presidents
Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
"An impreccable reputation for quality once you
have that, the work comes to you," Michael said.
The Bixlers selected Boston as a starting point for
their business, all the while hoping to move to a rural area someday.
As they began their search, they simply unfolded the map, selected
an area, then followed every road in that area.
They first found the Mottville factory in 1979. But
it wasn't for sale then, it was still a toy factory owned by Marshall
Larabee. During the next three to four years, they kept dropping by
In 1981, Larabee sold the property, along with his wooden
toy business to the Haqbermaass Corp. Habermaass moved the business
to a factory on Jordan Road, using the old building for storage. The
following year the Bixlers purchased the building and began to refurbish
The Bixlers moved in the spring of 1983, taking 10 trips
across the country with their heavy machinery.
"We moved it all ourselves. Otherwise, we couldn't have
afforded to do it. For us it was perfect. We wanted something small
and manable. We didn't want to be in a modern building," Winifred
However, things were less than perfect when they moved
in. There was no heat, no electricity, and sawdust everywhere. Even
the unique domed roof of corrugated iron leaked.
"There's always a solution to something, given time,"
Michael said. "You learn to cope until the solution becomes apparent."
"We didn't have the money to repair the roof, so we
bought a lot of buckets."
With the business their first priority, the Bixlers
began vacuuming, washing and painting the first level, preserving
everything they could. Woodwork, especially arond the windows, was
repaired where needed; the worn, random-width, chestnut floor was
removed and replaced by a new oak-covered one; and the original, painted
bricks were reset and sandblasted to their warm natural red color.
Richard Pardee works at hand-setting type in
Renovations are cotinuing on the second floor of the
structure, part of which has become a loft apartment for Michael and
Winifred. in another section, Richard Pardee, employed by the Bixlers,
and his wife Karen, have constructed a printmaking studio.
Inspired by the beauty of the surrounding natural woods,
the Bixlers also cleaned up their section of Skaneateles Creek. Although
he doesn't have time to fish himself, Michael said their 9-year-old
neighbor, Scott Bennett, keeps them well supplied with fresh trout.
The Bixlers admitted to becoming discouraged at times.
They said the secret is to not become overwhelmed by the task.
"We couldn't look at it all at once. We took one week
at a tim," Winifred said. "We were just at the right age. Over the
years we've acquired the maturity to take things one at a time."
The building the Bixlers restored has had a varied history.
The brick structure was erected in 1868 after the original machine
shop of Howard Delano burned in a fire in 1867.
Water from a westerly sluice turned a 25-horepower water
wheel. Within, machinery was produced for factories and farms in the
area. At one time, motors for the steam boats on Skaneateles Lake
were believed to have been manufactured there.
The takeover of water rights by the City of Syracuse
in the 1890s which reduced the creek's water flow, was the demise
of the foundry. The building remained vacant for the next 30 years.
Then it became a "shoddy mill," of a place where old
woolen rags were beaten back into fibers and reprocessed into material
for cheap pillows and mattresses. The factory had been vacated again
before Larabee took it over for his toy business in 1940.
Now, the odors of printing ink and solvents mingle with
molten lead, and filled with the clattering of the casting machine,
the old Mottville facoty along Railroad Street continues its march
- 30 -
from the Sunday, October 14, 1984 issue of The Citizen
of Auburn, New York, page 25.