The beautiful Victorian castle above Colorado Springs where blue-collar bluebloods live out their final days proves that highly skilled manual labor can produce stunning results. But as the people inside the castle can testify, even the finest craftwork doesn't last forever.

Since 1892 the Union Printers Home has been a snug harbor for infirm or retired members of the International Typographical Union, until a few years ago America's oldest surviving national trade union. Meticulously designed and built, the home's a fitting place for people who spent their working lives meticulously designing and building pages of metal type, making sure that little pieces of lead fit together well enough to withstand the immense force of printing presses.

Life no longer fits together so neatly for printers. Computers delivered a crushing blow to their trade, unions are about as popular as lizards, and the ITU, founded in the 1850s, has been swallowed up by another organization. Stories about the 500-year history of movable type are now produced without movable type.

Inside the castle, up on the fourth floor, printer Elmo U. Collins has a fine view of Pike's Peak. He usually faces the other way, however, sitting at his computer writing Aristocrats of Labor, his history of the ITU. When he finishes a chapter, all he has to do is press some buttons and his Hewlett-Packard laser printer spits out the pages. The 68-year-old Collins, who has lived in the Printers Home off and on since 1989, needs the new technology. After years of working at a trade that demanded strong, steady hands, he is increasingly afflicted with the tremors and short circuits of Parkinson's disease. He spent a career soaking up others' words. Now, with a stubbornness typical of printers, he tries to get the word out about his beloved union before he seizes up permanently.

"Why the hell should you sit up here and do nothing, watch out the window as the world goes by?" Collins says. Information doesn't do much good unless it's shared, he believes, but "if you spread knowledge over a number of people, you'll never lose it."

Back in Ohio, Collins worked for the Toledo Blade, where he became deeply involved in the ITU as chief contract negotiator with the newspaper's management and as chairman of his chapel (the ITU's term for each shop's membership). Collins's heyday corresponded with that of his beloved union, in the Fifties and Sixties. A decade later he decided to quit the Blade and run his own union shop, but outside forces started wrecking his life--and the ITU's--shortly thereafter. Collins cries as he talks about his wife's battle with Alzheimer's and cancer, and the twenty-month coma from which she never emerged. His doctor told him thirteen years ago that he'd be dead by now, but he's still trying to get some work done. "If you feel worthless, you're in trouble," says Collins, "and that's what I think the problem is today, that people don't think they have any merit or value. I feel mine's limited, but I still can contribute something."

For as long as he physically could, Collins traveled to Boulder and visited the University of Colorado archives, which contain a mountain of ITU records and memorabilia. Much of the material from America's first national trade union still sits in moving boxes in the Norlin Library basement, awaiting cataloguing. Collins wanted to be the one to sort through his union's history, but Parkinson's won't let him. So he searches for someone else or some other way to help uncover the tales of tramp printers and strike-breaking rats, of constant labor battles that eventually resulted in such breakthroughs as eight-hour workdays, and of an arrogant breed of skilled workers who've been a pain in the butt to management and other people in authority since before the country was founded.

One afternoon about eighty years ago in Neenah, Wisconsin, a girl named Lucy happened to glance through a window as she walked past the local newspaper office and fell in love with a Linotype, a spidery contraption about six feet tall.

The memory makes Lucy Zylkowski, now 86, put down her fork during dinner at the Printers Home and blush with delight: "I saw this machine, and it was so neat! That machine really fascinated me. I'd stop and look at it on my way home, and I'd always get scolded for being late."

At age seventeen, she wound up meeting a printer at the paper while ice skating, and he showed her how to set type. She married the guy, became a printer herself and eventually wound up at the Chicago Tribune, where she spent almost 25 years before retiring.

From the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century until well into the nineteenth, printers had set type by hand, one letter at a time. A skilled printer could set 45 lines of a newspaper column in an hour's time. By the late 1800s, though, rapidly industrializing countries were hungry for information, and inventors raced to devise a typesetting machine. There were numerous harebrained schemes--Mark Twain lost a fortune backing one loser--until a German-born Baltimore mechanic named Ottmar Mergenthaler built the Linotype in the 1880s. Its speed--at least four to five times faster than hand composition--revolutionized the publishing business and created thousands of new jobs for printers. Many people, Zylkowski included, took grand rides aboard the loopy Linotype. "In all the days I worked," she says, "I never had a day I didn't want to go to work. You did the same type of work every day, but the news was different. I just loved it."

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