Volume 7, Number 2, 1998

Perseverance pays off for historical sleuths

Boy Wanted

A boy wanted with Pep, Punch and Perseverance to learn the Printing Trade. He must have wit and< a desire to become a Craftsman worthy of the name. Boys without this desire and Printer's Grit need not apply at Kells.

Robert Barnes, AS '78, read the announcement in the Newark Post with interest. In high school, he had considered printing as a possible vocation.

But, this advertisement for the Press of Kells was almost 80 years old, and Barnes was reading the ad on microfilm in UD's Morris Library.

Little did he realize that those few lines would change his life, sparking a desire to learn all he could about the Press of Kells and its founder- Everett C. Johnson, AS 1899, a lifetime UD trustee, state legislator, secretary of state and founder of the Newark Post.

Newark is Barnes' beat, both on and off the job. The Newark police officer is a lifetime member and past president of the Newark Historical Society.

He first consulted back issues of the Newark Post while researching the history of the Newark Police Department, which he published in a book called 125 Years of Community Service, 1887-1992.

"The history of Newark," he says, "is largely unwritten and scattered. I guess my goal is to write it, one section and one person at a time."

Intrigued by the history of old buildings, Barnes learned the fortress-like building that is now the YWCA on South College Avenue originally housed the Press of Kells-where, according to an old advertisement, "printing is an art form."

The first hint of what had been printed there came from Barnes' own bookshelf. One of the leather-bound books he had previously collected-a copy of the Bible-was printed at Kells in 1921.

A chance encounter with Judy Pfeiffer, manager of the Hardcastle Art Gallery in Newark, brought new momentum to his search. Pfeiffer had locked herself out of her car, and Barnes responded to her call to the police.

It took a while to open the car door, and the police officer found himself discussing the art of printing with Pfeiffer, an artist and former high school art teacher. She mentioned the revival of fine printing in the United States in the early part of the century, and Barnes told her of his interest in the Press of Kells.

By the time Barnes had retrieved her keys, Pfeiffer had volunteered to help write a bibliography of books printed at Kells.

"He didn't accept my offer at first," Pfeiffer recalls, laughing. "It wasn't until I sent him an extortion letter, you know, with the words cut out of the newspaper-'I-really-want-to-do-the-book'- that he took me seriously."

The discovery that all of the Press' business records were lost when it was sold in 1940 did not deter the researchers. Instead, the pair talked to the only remaining living employee of the Kells Press and to family members of deceased employees, searching for anything they might have kept from those days.

"We started to read every issue of the Newark Post since it was founded," says Pfeiffer, holding up the first issue, dated Jan. 26, 1910.

The pair also contacted Marjorie Tilghman, AS '28, Everett Johnson's daughter, who lives in Newark. "She shared with us the Kells books in her private collection," Pfeiffer says.

They photographed every important detail of the books in Tilghman's collection, as well as of those from the Louise Staton and Everett C. Johnson Papers in the Special Collections section of UD's Morris Library. They also contacted Oak Knoll Bookstore in New Castle, Del., which specializes in publishing books on books. Owner Robert Fleck, EG '69, had several Kells books in his private collection, and John von Hoelle, in charge of new publications, was interested in publishing the bibliography.

Spurred on, the pair stepped up their pursuit. They searched through old bookstores-from Northeast, Md., to Bryn Mawr, Pa., to Ohio. They tramped to regional auctions of antique Delaware books. They visited the UD Archives, the state archives in Dover and the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington. They asked for help in a newsletter for Delaware book collectors.

It was painstaking work.

Pfeiffer recalls sitting on the floor of Doe Run Bookstore in Chadds Ford, Pa. Tired and discouraged from looking at dozens of old books, she was holding a booklet she was sure must have been printed at Kells. She recognized the Bookman Oldstyle typeface and the typical orangey-red ink color, but, she couldn't find anything specifically identifying it as printed at Kells. About to give up, she turned the book over, and at the bottom of the back cover was the Kells logo.

"It was like finding an egg in an Easter egg hunt," says Pfeiffer.

The two accumulated between 50 and 60 books printed at Kells, which now occupy a shelf and a-half in Barnes' family room.

One of the most famous is a dark volume containing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence-the first time the two documents were published together. In 1911, when Johnson was in the state legislature, he was frustrated when he couldn't find copies of the documents in the same place.

Another favorite find came from Barnes' visit to DuVal Cleaves, son of the Kells Press foreman, whose father had saved a one-inch-square typeblock, containing one of the two logos used by the Press of Kells.

"Most printers' typeblocks don't have any meaning, but, this one really hit home with me," Barnes says, holding out the block to show the name "Kells" embossed in a flowing script. "It came right out of that shop. Everett Johnson may have handled it."

In the course of their research, Barnes and Pfeiffer came across a story in a Review from 1935 with the headline "Unknown Portrait in Old College That of Everett C. Johnson, Immortal Delaware Citizen," and they decided to expand the scope of their book to encompass Everett Johnson the man, to ensure that he received overdue credit for serving his community and his state.

They read every editorial Johnson wrote in the Newark Post. "We wanted to know his personality, the causes he championed," explains Pfeiffer.

One of his favorite causes was the construction of Memorial Hall after World War I-a tribute to Delaware's 262 war dead. For display there, Johnson prepared a special book.
A medallion given to war veterans from Delaware, surrounded by four diamonds representing the diamond state, adorns its leather cover.

Each deceased soldier's name is inscribed on a separate page, Pfeiffer explains. The book stood on a pedestal and a page
was to be turned each day-a tradition still carried on today despite a temporary interruption while the building is currently undergoing extensive renovation.

The researchers found little written about Johnson's family. His mother was referred to only as "Mrs. Johnson," and they assumed he was an only child until they traveled to the Johnson family gravesite in Clarksville, Del. There, they found a headstone marking the grave of Harry R. Johnson, Everett's sibling, who died when he was 26 days old.

The authors read letters from Everett to his daughter, Marjorie. At the Hagley Museum, they consulted the letters of Pierre S. du Pont (former president of the DuPont Co. and one of the first major benefactors of the University), looking for any reference to Johnson. Barnes searched Delaware history books and law books for passages that mentioned Johnson or the issues he supported as a state legislator and as secretary of state.

The two uncovered a man whose politics were progressive: He supported the establishment of a Women's College in Newark in 1914 and he fought for the adoption of a school code, to bring Delaware schools up to a decent standard of hygiene and safety.

The manuscript for the book, Press, Politics and Perseverance of Everett Johnson, is due this spring to the publisher.

Even as they write, the two continue searching. A recent phone call to Richard Carter, author of a book on Delaware's Gov. John G. Townsend Jr., in whose administration Johnson served, yielded unexpected fruit-a tape-recorded interview Carter had conducted with Johnson's wife 20 years ago.

Pfeiffer says she could hardly control her excitement over the recording, where Louise Johnson speaks of her husband's life, explaining the direct connection between the Press of Kells and the Roycroft Press in East Aurora, N.Y., similarly built as a fortress-an enigma the researchers had been trying to solve for two-and-a-half years.

They also are seeking photos of the actual presses used at Kells; they want to find the house in Blackwater, Del., where Johnson was born; and they continue hunting for more books printed at the Press of Kells.

"No bibliography is ever complete," says Barnes. "I guess that's why there are second editions."

-Barbara Morris