I've undoubtedly passed by this building thousands of times. And I know that's a cliche', but the very idea of such a perfect sampling of 20th century American history going unnoticed, day after day, is staggering. Smith & Watson Printing was founded in 1891 in Macon GA, and was purchased by Mat Sires' great-grandfather, M. J. Sires, on September 16, 1919. The company has been family owned since then, and operated in this location since the mid-'50s.
A couple of weeks ago, Kirt Barnes, Lee Purvis, and I were out with two other young photographers downtown, and happened to have settled on the adjacent alley to Smith & Watson for our session. As we were shooting, Mat drove up and asked politely what we were doing in the area. He had first thought that we were part of one of the local camera crews that had been filming in Macon recently for the various larger budget movie projects. We weren't, but we convinced him that we weren't up to any mischief, and after a few minutes of chatting, he invited us inside to check out his print shop.
My experience with professional printing is largely nil. In my dealings with Sticker Shark for Average Squad merchandise, I have a surface-level understanding of how some modern methods work, but I certainly didn't expect what I was about to see inside of Smith & Watson. The sheer amount of "stuff" that awaits you when you walk into the shop area is honestly quite daunting. I won't dare say that any of it was unorganized, but the combination of machinery, tools, works-in-progress, materials, and scraps from seemingly every decade of the past century was a sensory overload.
The workhorses of the shop are the Kluge letter presses that the Sires family purchased in the mid-1940s. Mat informed us that although the machines are now obsolete, and that the company will no longer produce any parts, he will never stop using them. He does all of the repairs himself on the presses, and fabricates any parts that are needed in his home machine shop. Witnessing this machine operate is a visceral experience, as cast iron parts whirl, jolt, and clank into action, eventually settling into an entrancing mechanical rhythm as paper is fed in and manipulated into high-quality finished products.
On my first visit, I only had my 80-200 lens, an inconvenient partner in the close confines of the work space. I knew that I had to come back to do a full feature, but I wanted something more for this place and this family; to really share it with the community. Mat admits to operating "behind-the-scenes" and perhaps that's why this place seems to have been forgotten about in lists and stories of Macon's oldest family businesses. That evening, I had dinner with my friends Ben Smith and Tyler Shores, shared my experience with them, and they were as blown away by this place as I was. Tyler, almost immediately, offered to do a video. Mat was kind enough to welcome us back in, and give us another full tour.
Looking back on the experience, I think that I am most struck with Mat's love and respect for his equipment. We are in somewhat of a revival of historic processes, as more and more artists, professionals, and consumers turn away from the planned obsolescence built into the machines of the 1990s and 2000s. They are no longer necessarily willing to accept convenience, connectivity, and cost at the expense of quality. The revival of the craftsman necessitates the rediscovery of the tools that were traded in for white plastic boxes in the digital era. But Mat never made that exchange. He uses the machines he inherited from his father, machines that already had three generations of experience before that, machines with handles polished by 125 years of manual operation.
Macon is an undoubtedly a city that is proud of her history. Between the well-preserved antebellum homes, the ties to the Civil rights movement, the musical legacy, and a multitude of businesses that have operated in three different centuries, there are plenty of things to explore here. And perhaps, that's why Smith & Watson has stayed behind the scenes all of these years. Mat Sires is certainly not the type to seek attention. His tours of the shop were completely without pretense. But he is proud of his shop, proud of his equipment, proud of his work, and proud of his family's legacy. Make no mistake, Smith & Watson may very well be one of the best museums in Macon, if not for the fact that it is an active, operating business.
Mat wants to share Smith & Watson with whoever is interested in learning more about the historic printing processes and equipment. He encouraged us to tell others to reach out to him. He is open to being a resource for the community. Please, please take him up on that offer.
Smith & Watson Inc.
Macon, GA 31201
Please visit James Tyler Shores Creative