One of the most widely known businesses in the history of western Illinois
was a publishing company, a poetry press, that received national attention
in the 1940's, ended with violence, and since has been all but forgotten
by regional residents.
The owner of the press was James Decker, who was born in Prairie City in
1917. He was the son of Arthur Decker, a clerk in the Eldon James drug
store, operated by his father-in-law. Young Decker graduated from Prairie
City High School 1934 and then attended Park College, near Kansas City,
for two years. A lover of poetry who also was keenly interested in
printing, Decker returned to Prairie City in 1936, determined to make a
contribution to American culture.
In the following year, he obtained a second hand job press and a few case of foundry type and started The Decker Press. It was devoted entirely to the publishing of poetry volumes - perhaps the most difficult kind of book to sell because the market was thin, scattered, and undependable. The combination editorial office and printshop was located in the back of grandfather James's drug store, where Decker set the type and ran the press, with the help of his sister Dorothy.
The first book produced by the press was The Ship of Gold by
Warren L. Van Dine of Hancock County, which appeared in 1937. Van Dine still
resides in that county, and although he remembers Decker as a young man of
much talent and energy, he claims that the 20-year-old printer mistakenly
published his book under the wrong title. It should have been The Golden
Years Immortalized in Verse.
In spite of that inauspicious beginning, the press soon became well known,
for Decker began to produce books at a rapid rate. In less than five years,
more than 50 slim volumes of poetry were published - usually in printings
of a few hundred copies. Moreover, he convinced Edgar Lee Masters to let
him print two collections of the poet's later lyrics, Illinois Poems (1941)
and Along the Illinois (1942). This association with the famous
Spoon River poet brought him to the attention of many book reviewers and
Newsweek magazine, which carried an article on Decker in 1942. The press
was also frequently mentioned in the pages of Chicago's famous Poetry
By that time, poets hungry for publication were streaming to Prairie City,
which then, as now, had a population of only 5 or 6 hundred people. Although
Decker never developed a successful method of martketing his books, he did
recogize that poets were a vast source of publishable material that could be
had for the asking. By the mid 1940's he had published well over 100 titles.
More importantly, included in the list of Decker Press poets were such
talented men as Hubert Creekmore, August Derleth, William Everson (Brother
Antonius), David Ignatow, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis
Zukofsky. At that time, the young printer claimed that his company was
"the largest publising house in America devoted exclusively to putting out
poetry" - and he was right.
In the beginning Decker was not a vanity publisher, and so he was continually
faced with the problem of selling his books - to poets, scholars, and libraries.
He couldn't afford to advertise, and as a result, he frequently lost money on
the titles he printed. He soon began to require subsidies from the authors
he dealt with, but still, his business was never on a very sound financial
The press was in serious trouble by 1947, when Decker sold it to a local
lumber dealer, Harry M. Denman - who in turn sold it several months later
to Ervin Tax. The latter was a poet from Chicago who first became interested
in running the press when Decker contracted a print a volume of his poems
but failed to bring it out. By the time Tax came to Prairie City to
expedite the matter, the press had been sold to Denman - so Tax bought the
press and printed his own volume.
The Deckers worked for the new owner, as they had for Harry Denman, but
financial problems remained. During this period when the press was sold and
resold, Decker mishandled some funds and, under pressure from Tax in 1949,
confessed to embezzlement.
He left town that year, but Dorothy Decker remained. The shy and rather
unattractive young woman, for whom Prairie City offered few opportunities
to develop relationships with men, had fallen in love with Erwin Tax.
The latter continued his effort to make the publishing house into an
efficient, profitable business. He bought new presses and binding equipment,
and then hired an artist, a sales promoter, and other employees. Soon, Tax
was putting out three titles a week.
But meanwhile, his relationship with Dorothy Decker deteriorated. In May of
1950, after Tax had been trying to avoid Dorothy for some months, she shot
him in the head with a rifle, and then killed herself. The Decker Press was
While the people of Prairie City regarded the murder-suicide as a tragic
event in the life of the town, a correspondent for Poetry magazine
viewed the whole episode as another kind of tragedy as well : "It is tragic
that after all Ervin Tax's labor to assemble one of the best equipped
printing and binding shops in the country, it must go under the hammer - but
more tragic that James Decker, after frustrating and profitless years of
publishing good books, had to give up the business because of financial
difficulties." In short, the end of The Decker Press was a notable loss to
It is remarkable that a place like Prairie City - a real-life version of
such culture-starved villages as Master's Spoon River and Sherwood
Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio - could be, even for a few years, of significant
value to literary expression in America. It is remarkable too that a
business which attracted so much attention beyond the borders of western
Illinois could be so soon forgotten within the region. When the modern
history of McDonough County was published, less than twenty years later,
The Decker Press was not even mentioned.