By Don McAlavy: CNJ Columnist
In 1902 “Big Mama” Whiteman, a widow, left Clarksville, Texas, and homesteaded southwest of Portales. At this time Levi J. Whiteman was 15 years old, one of four children. A good friend of Levi’s, Gilbert Terry back in Texas, talked Levi into going into the mail-order business.
Yes, two 15-year-old kids.
“The mail-order business,” said Levi, “would need a lot of printed material, so according to Gilbert’s scheme, I was to do the printing, and he would head the merchandising department.
He gave me a catalog of printing equipment and told me about companies that would furnish merchandise and a catalog to get us started. It all sounded fine to me, so as soon as I could raise the money, I ordered a 3-by-5 inch (inside chase measure) hand press, along with a small assortment of type, some cards, a few strip leads, ink, and other necessities, from the Kelsey Press Co., Meriden, Conn. — all for $8.
“I received my ‘print shop.’ It came by ship to Galveston, Texas, thence by rail to Portales. The rail charges were quite a bit more than the shipping charges.
“All I knew about printing was what I learned by tinkering with rubber type, with a three or four line holder and a stamp pad, but I took to that little outfit ‘like duck takes to water.’
And this is how Levi J. Whiteman started his lifelong career as a printer. He began working at the weekly Portales Times in 1907 and went on to being a tramp printer traveling by foot or hopping a freight down into Texas, seeking work as a printer, even after he was married to Katherine Greathouse, and trying to help raise three children. One of them was Ridgley Whiteman who found the Clovis Man Site near Portales in 1929.
In the 1920s Whiteman came to work as a printer in Clovis, and by 1929 had his own print shop, the Whiteman Printing Co., at 117 East Fifth Street. He sold out to Chick Taylor Sr. in 1939.
Whiteman then went to work for the Clovis Printing Company and that is where I met him when I was hired by L. W. Oswald in 1948 to clean up the print shop after school, melt lead for the linotype on Saturdays, and other chores.
Whiteman taught me how to hand spike type going from wooden drawers to wooden drawers with different type fonts. He taught me how to operate the linotype and how to handle a foot-operated press. In 1955 I went to City Printing on West Grand Avenue and later Whiteman worked at the printing company part-time, even for a while after the transition from hot metal printing to offset occurred, with a few jobs still done by letterpress. He was let go before I became a boss, and he finished out his days as a printer working part-time for Chick Taylor Press, for some two years.
In later years he would take me and any other boys to camp out in the brakes, or over at Alamogordo Lake, even to Devil’s Well near Dunlap, and to Durfee Canyon southwest of House. Then I fell in love with his granddaughter, Kathy Whiteman and we were married in California in 1969.
My good friend, Levi J. Whiteman, was like a father to me. He died May 2, 1972, at Memorial Hospital with his daughter-in-law Merie and I holding his hands.
He’ll never be forgotten.
Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: