WILLMAR — For most of the day, the behemoth known as the Goss Community offset press sits like a sleeping dragon in the pressroom at the West Central Tribune.
During the daylight hours, caretakers pump grease into more than 260 zerks, keep the 65 gallons of oil that feeds the 58-foot-long by 14-foot-high machine flowing and maintain the two 75-horse-power motors that power it.
Three men with 55 years of experience between them fill ink wells with globs of shiny, gooey cyan, magenta and yellow ink that comes in small buckets. The black ink is delivered by a semi and is stored in a big tank.
The crew maneuvers rolls of paper that weigh 750- to 1,050-pounds into the belly of the beast and then gently weave it through a maze of rollers and belts to create a delicate, yet amazingly sturdy paper web.
At about 10:30 p.m. the dragon starts to wake up as floppy 35-inch by 23-inch sheets of aluminum — which have laser images of the photos and words of local news stories, ads for area businesses, opinions expressed by neighbors and legal government announcements — are attached to plate cylinders.
The energy starts to pick up as workers file into the mailroom and pressroom manager Chris Peterson waits for the final stories to be edited and pages to be designed. It could be the sports department working on last-minute scores or the news department waiting on election results.
When the final story is done the last aluminum plate is snapped into place.
At 11:45 p.m. a jarring alarm bell blasts and the dragon starts to heave and bellow.
At first, the long roll of paper feeds slowly through the maze as Peterson and his crew look to make sure the colors and alignment are correct and the tension on the web is just right.
As the speed accelerates to a pace that can generate 17,500 completed newspapers in one hour, the men quickly dart into ground-level units to turn ink keys and then jump up on ladders to adjust colors on the upper-level plates.
The men — who seem to be half artists and half mechanics — repeatedly grab a completed, folded newspaper from the conveyor belt, open it up to look at the quality of the print on a certain page and then dash into — and on top of — the machine again and again to make more adjustments.
This dance goes on until the proper number of papers are printed, the switch is turned off and the dragon slowly grumbles back to sleep.
On Friday night the dragon took its last breath.
If you’re reading this story in a printed copy of the West Central Tribune, rather than online or in the e-edition of the paper, you are holding the last issue of the paper to be printed in Willmar.
After 125 years, there will no longer be a printing press operating at the West Central Tribune.
“Friday night will be the end of an era for our printing facility,” said Publisher Steve Ammermann.
Since 1985 the newspaper has been printed in Willmar.
The West Central Tribune was sold to Forum Communications Company in 1979 and moved from its downtown Willmar office to the Willmar Industrial Park in 1980, when the company purchased a Goss Community offset press, said Ammermann.
“We've printed in this location for the past 40 years,” he said.
“The closing of our print facility has nothing to do with the condition of our equipment or the work performed every night by our hard-working and loyal employees in the pressroom and mailroom,” he said.
“They kept the presses rolling every day, year after year. In my 39 years here, I can't remember a day we ever failed to get a newspaper out.”
Economic hardships caused by COVID-19 and new technology are the reasons Ammermann cited for the company’s decision to print the Tribune and the Reminder at one of Forum Communication Company’s regional printing plants in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The change means lower production costs, said Ammermann.
“The mission to report and inform readers is still local, but the printing won't be, and that comes with sadness,” he said.
“To the end of its final run on Friday night, the pressroom stood apart as iconic, timeless and a fascination to employees and visitors,” Ammermann said. “It was the engine room of the operation where the paper was forged.”
Like a friend
Peterson has worked in the pressroom for 22 years, tending to the needs of the Goss Community press.
“I call it backwards and upside down when you’re printing,” he said. “The plates are hung and the images are upside down. You have to learn to do everything in reverse when you’re printing, at least on this particular press.”
Making it work well is a “learned skill,” he said. “You can’t get anybody off the street to do it.”
John Johannsen has worked in the pressroom for 15 years. “Best job I ever had,” he said. “I’m going to miss a lot of it. I wish it could’ve hung on a little longer. It’s pretty hard.”
Kyle Augustson, a grandson of O.B. Augustson, who was publisher for the West Central Tribune from 1940-1979, has been the warehouse coordinator for the last five years.
“It’s pretty neat being the third generation Augustson to work here,” said Augustson, who remembers being in his grandfather’s office when he was a kid.
Augustson’s job is being eliminated because of the change. “It’s going to be tough. I’ve had nothing but good times working here,” he said. “I enjoyed the people I work with. It’s just going to be sad to leave.”
Peterson said the massive printing press is like a reliable, hard-working friend with “little quirks” and it’s own “character” that has never let the Tribune down.
“It’s quite the industrial machine,” he said. “And there’s probably another 10 or 15 years in it, I bet.”
Unfortunately, the press will have a premature death. It will be decommissioned and parts may be sold to another print facility, said Ammermann.
When asked what it’ll be like when he shuts down the press for the last time Friday night Peterson quickly grew quiet.
With hands in his pockets and rocking gently back-and-forth on his feet, Peterson’s eyes were rimmed with tears.
“A little sad,” he said, turning away.
“It’s the end of an era.”