VILAS — Newspapers from generations past can be considered historical artifacts, but it’s now considered a true rarity to obtain the original ink plates the news was once printed on.
J.D. Copeland, a High Country visitor from Charlotte, discovered 20 to 30 aluminum Watauga Democrat printing plates from the late 1960s in a barn on his vacation home property in Vilas. The property was formerly owned by Maston Hodges, who died in 2014.
Copeland believes the house was built in 1911, and is trying to discover the mystery as to why Hodges owned the old plates.
“We bought the whole four acres, which included two barns and the house, but we never got to meet (Hodges),” said Copeland. “It’s just neat to look at these things — they are now 50 years old. It’s a part of our history here.”
In basic terms, according to Mountain Times Publications pressroom manager Bo Cornell, a newspaper plate is a sheet of aluminum that contains the image of a newspaper page on it. Each page requires an individual plate that is sent through a large machine resembling a printer. This machine burns the image into a sheet of aluminum the same size as the printed page of the newspaper.
The plate is then wrapped around a large roller on one unit of the printing press, which has multiple units all with their own rollers and plates. When the pressman starts the machine, the rollers with the plates attached begin turning, picking up ink where the image was burned, transferring it to a sheet of newsprint.
Cornell started working part time with Mountain Times Publications in 1981, and has worked in the pressroom full time since December of 1983.
“In the old days, we did everything by hand,” he said. “Now everything is done on computers.”
Cornell said the plates used to be readable, and were commonly used as gifts and collectors items, and it was even common for plates to serve as insulation in homes.
“The plates had to be readable since they were being developed by hand,” he said. “Now it’s not necessary with new technology.”
Readable plates are now obsolete, as the images burned onto them today are nearly invisible to the naked eye, representing what essentially looks like a bare sheet of aluminum.
In Copeland’s case, he said he nailed up the plates to cover walls in an unfinished basement, but always knew they held some form of significance, especially based on visitor’s reactions.
“We already knew about the Blowing Rocket, Mountain Times and Watauga Democrat, but anytime somebody comes by, they walk downstairs and always sit there and say, ‘How did you get this?’ It is really fascinating to me,” Copeland said.
Copeland was kind enough to donate two plates to Mountain Times Publications. Both pages, one from the Watauga Democrat and one from the Blowing Rocket, are dated Oct. 19, 1967.