Machinery is silent, but history presses on at Burlington Free Press landmark

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The cinema-sized printing press is now quiet. For more than half a century it had cranked out millions of copies of the Burlington Free Press and other newspapers.

On May 4 — just two days shy of a 52-year run, when Free Press printing operations shifted to Portsmouth, New Hampshire — the dynamo stopped.

The absence of the press room’s terrific racket last month was a powerful incentive to take a quiet, last look inside the building that bestrides the better part of a block on South Winooski Avenue.

Clamor would soon return to that ink-stained cavern, this time to accompany its deconstruction. New owners would transform this stretch of downtown.

In an interlude between historic moments, Bob Boutin, the press room manager, offered to serve as tour guide through the factory’s innards.

Boutin remains in awe of the three-story, Illinois-made Goss Metro, even after 32 years on the job.

Everything here — from the finest of springs to the 26 one-ton plate-and-blanket cylinders — was built to industrial-strength standards.

“They didn’t know how beefy they had to make it back then, so they just went overboard,” he said of the venerable manufacturer.

Some of the Goss’s mechanical workings are patterned after steam-driven rotary presses of the mid-19th century. Other bolt-on gizmos, such as electronic sensors that micro-manage ink flow, confirm the paper’s dogged adaptation to modern times.

Old-school/new school fusion

From 1833 until the Goss arrived in 1967, the Burlington Free Press had been printed in the basement below 191 College Street, home of the paper’s editorial, advertising and circulation offices.

The upgrade from a 1928-vintage Hoe press to the beefier, 250,000 lb. Goss required the construction of a new building here, across from the fire house.

A miniature trolley line was installed to haul 1,800-pound rolls of newsprint to their spools. Forklifts heaved through the back rooms with 3,200-pound vats of ink.

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We tour the cinema-sized, now-silent Goss press, which retired after almost 52 years of printing the Burlington Free Press. Recorded May 27, 2020. Burlington Free Press

Steel flooring, supported on piers that extend 90 feet underground, held the press rock-steady, independent of the building’s shell.

“If it wasn’t there, the press would have quickly vibrated all the mortar loose from the walls,” Boutin explained.

Yet all that tonnage hummed with finesse.

Adjustments to color alignment were calibrated to the 100th of an inch, for example. No detail — mechanical, pneumatic, digital — could be overlooked, he said: “This is a dying art.”

Boutin has no plans to pursue the craft further.

“It’s been a good run. It’s over, so let’s do something different,” he said. “I’ll probably end up fixing things. Just no printing presses; maybe something outside for a change.”

Meanwhile, he had some chores to attend to. He turned, took a few steps and vanished into his familiar labyrinth of machinery, pipes and cables.

Still more ink to dry

Near the building’s loading dock, Trevor Chase, the paper’s general manager of production, was on the phone, untangling shipping orders that would whisk his stockpiled tonnage of newsprint to other presses around North America.

Chase finished the call. He had a few minutes before the next one. The 27-year veteran of the Free Press had only a week or two remaining before he retired.

“I’m going to miss the team we had here,” Chase said. “Working as a group, putting together a new product every day and getting it out the door.”

About two dozen press workers lost their jobs when the machinery stopped.

“These were local people here,” Chase said. “Yes we were owned out-of-state, but we actually worked here. We lived here. And we did what we could.”

Other crews would arrive to disassemble the press. Useful components will end up at other printing operations. Worn cogs and gears will be sold as scrap and recycled, said Patrick McDonough, the Free Press’s distribution manager.

And the fate of the custom-built building at 137 S. Winooski Ave.? McDonough said that Gannett Corp., the Free Press’s owner, is negotiating its sale, “but nothing’s been inked yet.”

Timeline: From ‘a stout Irishman’ to digital editions

1827 – Weekly Free Press founded by local lawyers Seneca Austin and Luman Foote, on the north side of Court House Square. Burlington has a population of about 3,000 at the time.

1833 – Building at College/Mechanics Lane (now “Thorsen Way”) constructed by new owner, Henry B. Stacy, a former journeyman printer for the paper. His family lives in the building’s upper stories. Printing takes place in the basement — and will remain there until 1967.

1843 – First daily edition published  — two months after the arrival of telegraph service to Burlington. Afternoon edition only. Weekly edition continues.

1853 – Upgrades to operations include a steam engine, installed by new owners George Wyllys Benedict and son George Grenville Benedict. Until then, the machine had been powered by “a stout Irishman,” according to a Free Press summary written in 1961.

1868 – Morning edition added (evening edition discontinued in 1882; weekly edition halts in 1922).

1895 – Vermont’s first Linotype typesetting machine installed.

1927 – Bulletins from Associated Press now printed on newly installed Morkrum machine. 

1928 – Wood-Hoe Rotary press units installed in basement of 191 College Street. They remain operating until 1967. 

1929 – Photo-engraving allows Free Press to print local pictures.

1941 – Free Press acquires a teletypesetter, Vermont’s first.

1950 – “Job” printing for other merchants is halted after more than a century.

1952 – Paper installs the state’s first AP Wirephoto receiver.

1957 – Press capacity expands to 64 pages, as does use of color.

1961 – J. Warrren McClure (1919 – 2004) and his associates buy the Free Press — the first transfer of ownership in 108 years.

1967 – Goss Metro press installed in new, three-story building on South Winooski Avenue. The machinery costs $750,000. It begins rolling the following year, and reliably churns out 30,000 copies per hour.

1971 – McClure sells paper to Gannett; serves as corporation’s vice president of marketing out of Rochester.

1975 – Sunday edition introduced. McClure retires from Gannett.

1981 – Color added to inside pages; upgrades cost $1.5 million. Press building extended into alley to accommodate paper storage.

2012 – Massive overhaul of press takes 4 months and $2.4 million. More than 100,000 pounds of steel recycled. Paper’s format switches to tall tabloid; color now possible on every page.

2020 – Last print run in Burlington on May 4. Press operations shift to Portsmouth, New Hampshire as part of corporate reorganization.

Free Press reporter Dan D’Ambrosio contributed to this article.

Contact Joel Banner Baird at 802-660-1843 or joelbaird@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @VTgoingUp.

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