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Marie Helmey, The Last Of The Hot Lead Typesetters

Marie the mystery woman was so much the mystery woman it was hard to find out her last name, but it was Helmey, Marie Helmey, the older lady in the long black coat with a bemused little smile on her taut features as if everything around her was amusing. Marie lived out her days in a tiny apartment in the Mannix Building, which she left every afternoon to walk down the street to the Boonville Lodge for one small beer.

Mannix Building, Boonville (destroyed in a fire in the early 1990s)

She lived in Boonville for a long time, maybe for as long a time as 20 years, which is a long time in a transient little town in a transient time. Before Boonville, Marie lived in Ukiah. She was a hot lead typesetter and linotype operator from the old days of newspapers when typesetters plucked each letter of each word out of overhead cases containing all the letters of the alphabet in many typefaces and sizes to make every word that went onto every page of the newspaper, when newspapers were composed by hand, one letter at a time. 

When the Ukiah paper went from hot lead to cold type technology in the 1960s, Marie moved to Boonville where Homer Mannix continued to make his paper the old fashioned hot lead way — one letter, one word, one page at a time. Homer’s handcrafted weekly would have been impossible without Marie Helmey, the last working hot lead typesetter in California, maybe the last hot lead press operator in the United States.

Homer Mannix worked out a deal with Marie to move from Ukiah to Boonville. She would live upstairs in one of his apartments and work downstairs every Tuesday when Homer’s Advertiser was put together on an antique hot lead linotype machine. The deal was good for more than twenty years.

From the service counter on paper days you could see a dim figure moving very fast from task to task in the rear of the shop, the ancient machinery wheezing and clanking around the mysterious dervish whirling at its center. Stepping behind the counter and peering into the mechanical murk, there was Marie in her long, black coat, fingers flying at hummingbird speed, blindly but unerringly plucking letters from their overhead cases, placing them exactly where they had to go to make a word, then a sentence, then a complete story, then a full page of stories.

Boonville people who didn’t know how the paper was produced every week, only remember Marie as the tall-ish, spare, spry elderly woman who always wore that long, black dress coat even if it was a hundred degrees outside, one-ten inside. Most people also knew Marie had some sort of function at the newspaper, although they didn’t know what that function was. And they knew she lived upstairs in the Mannix Building, quiet and to herself among rotating, often raucous, tenants.

Vivid in her interminable black coat, Marie was part of Boonville’s human panorama, as eccentric as the rambling, pre-code Mannix Building itself. She walked like a bird, a few quick head-down steps, pause, look around, smile, then a few more quick steps, gingerly, haltingly but somehow briskly making her way to the Boonville Lodge or the Horn of Zeese where she took most of her meals.

Marie had no family that anybody knew of, no friends, belonged to no associations, never ever was seen at community events. But up close, Marie always looked amused, happy even, her eyes twinkling. She got along just fine outside the social ramble.

At the Lodge where she stopped in every day, Marie would linger over her one short late-afternoon beer, smiling to herself, nodding to the regulars who greeted her. She was locally famous for continuing to sip her Miller’s the day a woman was shot to death a few stools down by a jealous husband. 

Marie had looked on impassively, finished up her drink and walked her stutter-stepping blackbird’s walk on home to her front bedroom in the Mannix Building, bathroom down the hall. Nothing got in the way of Marie’s daily beer, and the Lodge in those days, even before nightfall when it could become positively thrilling if not life-threatening, could be an extremely distracting establishment. It was no place for a lady, and certainly no place for a senior citizen lady, not that there weren’t ladies, senior and junior, among the bar’s regular customers. But the Lodge wouldn’t ever be confused with the Unity Club whatever the gentility quotient among its female patrons.

The occasional afternoon mayhem never bothered Marie. On another ultra-violent afternoon she was downing her daily mini-Miller’s when a little guy broke off a cue stick and stabbed it deep in a big guy’s back. The matador then ran for his life out onto the middle of Highway 128 where he pivoted south and kept on running towards Cloverdale, the wounded bull right behind him, the shattered cue stick sticking out of his back, blood running down into his Levis.

Unfazed, Marie would be back the next afternoon right about four. If the venue got a little rough sometimes, so what? There she was every afternoon except paper day, the day her flying fingers worked their obsolete hot lead press magic in Homer Mannix’s living history newspaper museum, Boonville, California.

Marie spent her long Boonville life in that austere upstairs room in the Mannix Building where she was the beneficiary of many kindnesses from the Mannix family. Homer’s wife Bea gave Marie clothes because Marie spent very little money on herself and always refused the raises Homer tried to give her because she was afraid the extra money would reduce her pension and social security income. She had a lot of money salted away, it was said, as it’s always said about reclusive, mysterious figures.

Marie’s one-day-a-week job with Homer’s Advertiser ended with the sale of the paper and the technology upgrade brought to the operation by the new owners, although Marie went on living in her room upstairs over the print shop, went on walking down the pitted margins of Highway 128 to the Horn of Zeese and, every afternoon, to the Boonville Lodge, for her one beer. When she began to fail, a nephew appeared from somewhere and took Marie away, and Marie left town like she’d arrived — not a word to anybody.

Mike Mannix, Homer’s nephew, remembers Marie this way:

“She was about the same age as the old linotype machine. I had the impression that she drank a lot. All week long nobody saw her, but she’d come down on paper night and work her miracle with that cranky old Merganthaler, c. 1898, and make it happen. Things would start sparking and arcing and jamming up, but she never lost her cool. She always wore that long, black coat. Homer would say to me, ‘Just stay away from it. She can make it happen.’ I remember her fingers flying in and out of the type boxes. When something happened, something went wrong, Marie would know just what to do. She didn’t seem to have a life other than those Tuesday production nights. Now that you mention it, she was dark like an Indian, with a sharp-featured, angular face.”

The one time I tried to talk to Marie in the Lodge she’d said, “Sorry, gotta go,” and got up and went. Someone told me that Marie was an Indian, not that that was a question I would have asked her. But I was hoping to get to know her a little bit so she’d volunteer some personal bona fides. Nope. Sorry, I gotta go, she’d said, making it clear that she’d always gotta be going if I should ever try to get to know her again.

I knew an Indian in Covelo named Geno Jamison who’d been trained as a hot lead printer at an Indian school in the 1940s. He told me that Mendocino County Indians were often taken away to Indian schools up through the 1950s to get them out of their Indian-ness; the government viewed Indian-ness as incompatible with consumer capitalism. These abductees, my Covelo friend told me, often took advantage of the Indian school’s vocational emphasis on the print technology of those times. I thought maybe Marie had learned her amazing trade at an Indian school. Because she looked like an Indian I thought she probably was one.

With the help of a San Francisco researcher, I was able to track the mystery woman to Wayland, Michigan, where she died, at age 85, on December 16th, 1989; her date of birth was listed as February 3 1904.

Irvin and Helen Helmey owned and operated the Wayland Globe, a weekly newspaper, until 1986. It had been founded by the Helmey family in 1884. It is safe to say that the Helmeys were also Marie Helmey’s family.

“My great uncle, Irv Helmey,” writes Lisa Dye, “owned the Wayland Globe, a weekly newspaper in Wayland, Michigan. He had a sister named Marie. He also had a sister named Audrey, who was my grandmother. I never knew Marie, but she was a favorite of my dad’s. My name is Lisa Marie in honor of Aunt Marie. I don’t know if this is the Marie Helmey you are looking for, but it makes sense that she may have come back to live with her brother, my great uncle, Irv Helmey, before she died. I think Marie was a single lady; I vaguely recall that she was considered adventuresome and somewhat eccentric. She’d had mental problems, and had been put away when she was a young woman for a few years. There was talk of her running naked through the streets, a great scandal for that time. The family never talked about it, and when she went out to California, life in Wayland went on without her. My people on Marie’s side immigrated from Norway to settle originally in the Dakotas. My grandmother was reportedly born in a ‘soddy,’ in a sod hut the settlers built for lack of lumber. I wish I had been older when this generation was lost. I’d love to know more about them.”

The hot lead Anderson Valley Advertiser, publisher Homer Mannix, Marie, the Mannix Building, and all the museum-quality equipment used to publish the paper are gone, as is much of old Boonville, a distinct place with vivid personalities to match, a town now so changed, so blanded down, it’s as if there’s been a population transplant and the history of the place destroyed.

Pretty soon we’ll be gone too, but this beguiling place of big trees and sea shore, golden hills and ghost dances, will go on, its laughter and its great sorrows all the way back to the first people, folded into its beauty as if none of it had ever happened.


  1. Mike Geniella May 23, 2023

    Excellent piece about a classic Anderson Valley personality. For better or worse, we who live in Mendo Land are blessed with the cast of characters this remote and beautiful place attracts.

  2. Lewis Cody (late of Burlington, Colorado) May 23, 2023

    The background and history of the Anderson Valley Advertiser’s personnel fascinates so many of us, long-time subscribers. The Paper ought to consider publishing future editions entirely in Booneville’s own language. This would shelter the innocent children from the lurid and tall tales of immigration from the traitorous states of the so-called Confederacy or the wild tales of the Navarro River running clear and filled with salmon runs. Lastly, Anderson Valley High School’s name ought to be immediately changed to General Fremont Institute.
    with kind regards, I remain your humble and obd’t servant,

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