Colorado’s last hot-lead sheet-fed newspaper

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Old Technology – October 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

“To love what you do and feel that it matters — how could anything be more fun?”

The words are those of Katharine Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post. But they apply equally to another woman with printer’s ink in her blood — Marie Coombs, editor of Colorado’s last “hot lead” newspaper, The Saguache Crescent. The 81-year-old Coombs, who is celebrating her 60th year at the helm of the Crescent, combines an abiding interest in local happenings with a work ethic that could easily exhaust people half her age.

She enthusiastically fills her pages with “good news,” namely, accounts of events that shape the lives of residents of the San Luis Valley. “We let other papers dig the dirt while we zoom in on the good things,” Coombs explains. “We could be a `Peyton Place,’ too, if we wanted. But what good would that do? Besides, we don’t have room to print all the bad news, even if we wanted to.”

But what kind of news — good or bad — is generated in this 900-square-mile valley, where mule deer and antelope outnumber people, and one can drive for miles without glimpsing another moving vehicle? To hear Coombs tell it, plenty. Her four-page weekly contains ranching, logging, church, club and civic news, letters to the editor commenting on everything from school district controversies to recent bear sightings, historical anecdotes, proverbs, poetry, and reports on weather and back-country road conditions. Front page space is reserved for the most important stuff: listings of residents’ birthdays and anniversaries, along with engagement, wedding, and birth announcements.

National and international news even merits an occasional sentence, at the editor’s discretion. “And we had a big headline when World War II ended,” Coombs recalls. Coombs may hold the record for being the youngest person ever to set foot upon a career path. She was just four years old in 1918 when her father, Charles Ogden, who had purchased the Crescent the previous year, put her to work hand-folding and selling newspapers. Soon Coombs was a “printer’s devil” who could tell you everything you ever wanted to know about “type lice” and assorted press shop jargon. Later, Coombs learned to set type on the same 76-year-old Linotype machine she uses today. The bulky, intricate contraption has a typewriter-like keyboard which casts lines of type from molten lead, hence the term “hot lead”. She also handled page layout, and proofed columns printed on an 1890-vintage, manually operated proof press.

When her father died in 1935, Coombs dropped out of college and took over the paper, with help from her mother, sister, and late husband and business partner, Robert Ivan. And she’s been at it ever since, garnering numerous awards in the process, including the 1986 “Golden Makeup Rule” award from the Colorado Press Association, celebrating 50 years of journalistic achievement. “People come in, see me at the [Linotype] machine and ask, `How long have you been there?”” Coombs remarks. “I say, `Since I was about 16 years old.””

Coombs and her current staff, consisting of son, Dean, the Crescent’s publisher, and Mugs Batchelder, self-described “managing editor, advertising manager, circulation manager, bookkeeper, and anything else you can think of,” ply their trade in the same building where the first Crescent was printed in 1879.

The cluttered, museum-like structure draws tourists from throughout the United States and as far away as Switzerland and Australia. Many mistake the canary yellow, frontier-style, false-fronted Crescent building for an antique shop. “I tell them, `Well, it is an antique, but we’re still using it,”” Coombs chuckles. Locals often drop by with news items, or to chat or use the copying machine. “We have a computer and a fax machine now, too,” Coombs notes. “But I don’t know what the kids (Coombs’ affectionate term for her son and Batchelder) do with those. I’ve never been into that.”

Although the bulk of the Crescent’s approximately 700 subscribers hail from the San Luis Valley, tourists are sometimes so fascinated by the business that they subscribe on the spot. That leads to unusual payment arrangements, as with the subscriber from Alaska who renewed by sending a gold nugget in lieu of cash.

Although a serious lung infection sidelined Coombs for six months a couple of years ago, she’s back in full swing now, working at the Crescent office from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at least five days a week, sometimes longer. “I usually don’t work on Sundays if I can get out of it,” Coombs confesses. And she has no plans to slow down or retire. “I pretty much live one day at a time. I don’t worry about things too much. But my life has to have a purpose. And that’s why I stick with the paper. Besides, I’m still needed here. And I enjoy it,” Coombs says. Katharine Graham would be proud.

Lynda La Rocca lives and writes in Leadville, home of the last hot-lead daily in Colorado before it converted in 1988.