by MaryAnne Block
by MaryAnne Block
It took Ernst Schaefer years and a roundabout way to get from Germany to California to St. Joseph. He was glad he finally got here, getting the chance to work on a vintage printing press, which is now his specialty.
Schaefer was born and raised in Germany. He emigrated with his American wife to the United States in 2005 at the age of 50. He arrived with his wallet, credit cards, one small suitcase and two pallets of large older Italian espresso machines in need of repair. Fixing machines was what he enjoyed and did well, so he planned to provide a living doing repairs and restoration. He and his wife settled in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Schaefer always enjoyed working on and restoring anything mechanical. His first major restoration as a young man was a World War II Jeep. He was always tinkering on something even though his “real” job was in sales and marketing. In California, he turned to fixing and maintaining various machines.
After awhile, he grew tired of repairing “big stuff,” so he became interested in table-top printing presses. He had never worked with printing presses or related equipment in Germany, so this was a new endeavor. As he received more requests for repairs, his reputation grew. He started to find people online who knew about printing presses and found Mary Bruno, who owns a print shop in St. Joseph.
“She is a celebrity in working with printing presses,” Schaefer said. “Her specialty is lino-cut reduction prints, and she does excellent work. I followed her work several years through online media, then in late 2022 I took a virtual zoom class that she presented.”
Then, Schaefer met Bruno in person in the spring of 2023 when she went to Berkeley, Calif. to present some classes. Their budding friendship and mutual respect for each other’s craft grew.
After attending a special conference in Wisconsin in October, Schaefer came to St. Joseph to do some work on Bruno’s vintage press.
“I use simple tools, like screwdrivers and a wrench,” he said. “The main thing is that the process takes time to take the machine apart, clean, replace or repair, and then put it all back together. But that is the type of work I truly enjoy.”
Schaefer noted there is a world of difference between digital printing and vintage printing presses.
“Using the printing press is very artful, very hands on,” he explained. “Printing is done in small batches, with a lot of care and attention to details. Every letter is selected individually and placed on a ‘stick’ which will then be placed to accept ink.”
Schaefer would be very pleased to teach others how to do his work, but he laments that many younger people have no experience in using even the most basic of tools that normally are used in any home. He looks for students who want to work with their hands, love and pay attention to details, work carefully and complete a job in the best way they possibly can.
“In Germany,” he said, “we have a dual education system, where half of our time is learning various trades, and the other half is the usual learning of history and math and such. I do not think it is a good thing to spend so much time only on the computer and not work with the hands. Working with your hands in anything – baking, printing, fixing, creating art, music – anything with your hands becomes creative and brings so much satisfaction.”
Schaefer was thrilled with his time spent in St. Joseph. During the days he worked. Evenings included restaurants and gathering at local bars and meeting new friends. Two local professors gave a personal tour of the St. John’s University student library with its amazing architecture and the Hill Museum and Manuscript library. Some manuscripts date back to 1500 A.D.
Since Schaefer always enjoyed and appreciated manufacturing, he truly enjoyed a two-hour tour of Park Industries in St. Cloud.
During a visit to The Middy, a bar on St. Joseph’s main street, he was surprised to find that Will Whitrock, The Middy’s owner, spoke German, which delighted him.
“I really, really enjoyed the people and my time in St. Joseph,” he said. “People and the things we did were so very good. It was a very enjoyable, worthwhile time in Minnesota.”