The Decker Press - Article by John Hallwas

Last updated May 2002
(This article was published in Macomb Daily Journal, 15 Feb 1981)


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 magazine.

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 basis.

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 finished.

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 American poetry.

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.

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