Michael Bixler works on the Monotype machine.

Mottville printers
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 the shop.

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 it.

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 said.

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 composition room.

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 in time.

- 30 -

from the Sunday, October 14, 1984 issue of The Citizen of Auburn, New York, page 25.

Copyright © 2003 Michael & Winifred Bixler
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