Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sumac and Willow

Dr. Emerson Wulling of the Sumac Press of La Crosse, Wisconsin must hold the record for the longest running private press in North America. He began printing when he was 11 (1915) and continued until age 101 (2005). He produced over two hundred letterpress books, pamphlets and publications in those ninety years. A close friend and mentor to my father Gary Hantke (Willow Press), he was a family friend too. I remember him from my childhood as a delightful gentleman with a quick wit, a kind heart, and a wry sense of humor.

My dad told me how he and Emerson Wulling had met. He was a freshman in Professor Wulling’s English class in 1938. Asked to write about a hobby, Dad wrote about printing. Dr. Wulling called him over after class and told him that his hobby was printing, too. That was the start of an over fifty year friendship between the two men.

Emerson Wulling usually visited on Saturday mornings. An unfailing gentleman, he would always call first. When we lived near the college he often arrived on his ancient bicycle, which he rode in slow circles before parking in front of our house. Only later did I learn that was his way to slow down because the bicycle had no brakes.

Usually Dr. Wulling brought something printing related with him when he visited -- a book, a specimen sheet, or an item he’d printed. He was my father’s mentor as well as mine. When I printed a children’s fairytale at age 8 (with lots of help from my dad), Emerson Wulling listed it in one of his publications of recently printed pieces. I was so proud.

Dad wrote about his friendship with Emerson Wulling in a printed piece called, “On Printing ... and Friends”: “I muddled along. My father made me a composing stick formed out of sheet steel, but my lines were still uncertainly justified. I acquired another quoin and a can of black ink. Then, in my freshman year at college, there came a turning point and the beginning of a friendship which still continues. My English prof was himself a hobby printer. Emerson Wulling, already a craftsman with type and press, gently guided my crude attempts and taught me to use my press properly and to appreciate printing done in good taste. His work is still today the example which I strive to emulate.”

Together Emerson Wulling and my father – Sumac and Willow − formed The Impromptu Chappel. When another printer came to visit La Crosse, Dr. Wulling and my father would print a cooperative piece. I helped out in The Impromptu Chappel, setting type, feeding the press, and enjoying the fun with the printers.

After my father’s death in 1990, Emerson Wulling was a support to my husband Bob and I as we reduced dad’s print shop to manageable size and moved it to St. Louis. On a trip to La Crosse in the late 1990‘s, we visited Dr. Wulling and his wife, and enjoyed a tour of The Sumac Press. Dr. Wulling was delighted to show us his shop, printing books, and collection of composing sticks. He was particularly pleased with a pulley arrangement his son had created to help him lift the chase into his C&P press.

We retained our friendship with Dr. Wulling through correspondence, phone calls, and holiday cards. An optimist despite increasing age, Emerson Wulling signed his letters “Good Cheer!” We delighted in his hand printed New Year’s card for 2004: “With a combined age of 193 years, we have had how many times to say HAPPY NEW YEAR? Here is another! Jean and Emerson Wulling”

Emerson Wulling passed away in 2006, an active private press printer to almost the end of his lifetime. He was a superb craftsman, creating classic, beautifully designed books and booklets. But I most remember the kind, witty, intelligent man that he was. His generosity, warmth, and enthusiasm for living made him a person truly worth knowing. I feel fortunate to have called him a friend.

Press Preterite 1 from 1945, a record of Sumac Press printed pieces for the first thirty years of the press. Wulling printed eight Press Preterites throughout his lifetime.

"Again the Kensington Stone", a 1969 booklet printed by the Sumac Press.

An article about private presses in La Crosse, Wisconsin in the 1970's mentions Gary Hantke and Emerson Wulling.

Emerson Wulling's printed piece on the double knee composing stick. Wulling was fascinated with unique composing sticks and had a large collection of them.

Ever the printer, Emerson Wulling explores his printery in his later years.


  1. What a treasure to have known this man and have become friends with him. Amazing that he had so many years as a private press person. Not sure if that's the correct terminology, but he obviously loved what he did. You captured him beautifully.

  2. Thank you, Lynn. Emerson Wulling was one of the most congenial people I've ever known, a true gentleman with a warm heart. He printed beautifully with a classic sense of design. He was a wonderful printing mentor.