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A rare press, an art space, a small town where creativity thrives

The front of the Mancos Common Press Building, which still bears the name of its former inhabitants. In the background, construction of the Mancos Commons building is just beginning, in summer of 2023. (Ilana Newman/The Daily Yonder)
In Mancos, a community art space illustrates the potential of rural communities as artistic and creative hubs

In rural news and analysis, there's a lot of talk about what happens when a small town's newspaper goes out of business. But what about when a town's former newspaper building is repurposed to bring a hub of art and media – and affordable housing – to its small Western community?

The Mancos Times-Tribune was printed in a small building on Grand Avenue in Mancos from 1910 until the late 1960s, when printing was moved to the Cortez Journal. Coverage of Mancos continued with the Cortez Journal, and the building was closed until 2013, when 100 years of old newspapers were discovered, along with a Cranston press.

Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Mancos Times-Tribune from April 28, 1893, is propped up on a cabinet that holds letters and symbols that artists now use to make art. (Ilana Newman/The Daily Yonder)
Cynthia Sadler, an artist at the Mancos Common Press, mixes ink to get her shade of peachy orange for the next layer of printing on her current project. (Ilana Newman/The Daily Yonder)
Using one of the original presses from the Mancos Times-Tribune building, Cynthia Sadler prints her lino block. (Ilana Newman/The Daily Yonder)
Ink sits ready to be mixed and applied to the lino block in the foreground. (Ilana Newman/The Daily Yonder)
Tris Downer, a Mancos Common Press artist, works on carving a lino block for a new printing project inspired by a recent trip she took. (Ilana Newman/The Daily Yonder)
The Mancos Commons Project has constructed a mixed-use building in the lot adjacent to the Common Press building. The two-story building includes three housing units a and a large workshop space below. (Courtesy Mancos Commons Press)

The Cranston press is a newspaper press built in the late 1800s that was popular with small-town newspapers across the country into the 20th century. Today other functional Cranstons are rare, if not non-existent, and a group of community members wanted to resurrect the old printing press. So they started a nonprofit and began restoring the building and the press to create a space to tell stories through art that reflects the history and culture of the town. They called it the Mancos Common Press.

“People tend to overlook the potential of rural communities as places for artists and for creativity,” said Tami Graham, president of the board and one of the founding members of the Mancos Common Press.

One of the first people to identify the Cranston press was Frank Matero, a professor of Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. Matero had spent summers working in the Mesa Verde region and saw potential in the old Mancos Times-Tribune building and the then-defunct press. The building and all its contents were donated to the nonprofit by the Ballantine Family, who currently owns The Durango Herald and the The Journal in Cortez – the main publications for the region.

Matero began a collaboration between Mancos and the University of Pennsylvania, with the additional support of Matt Neff, founder of the Common Press, a letterpress studio at the University of Pennsylvania. Neff helped with the actual restoration of the Cranston press. The old newspaper building was also restored to look exactly like it did in the early 1900s, according to photos, from the tin ceiling to the color of the walls.

In 2019, Mancos Common Press opened its doors as a letterpress studio and arts center. The pandemic threw a wrench in plans to have classes, but in 2021 they finally hosted the first of many Letterpress 101 classes and started building an artist community.

“Small-town newspapers were incredible in that they were the means of letting people know what's going on, just like they are today. But also [they would] perpetuate all these stereotypes and the colonization of the West… [the Mancos Common Press] can now be used to tell maybe a different history than was shared at the time,” said Graham.

Artists at Mancos Common Press explore this alternate history in a variety of ways, including a project called Herstory, a collective of women printmakers creating art around underrepresented women in the Four Corners. Another project recently supported by Mancos Common Press featured Rosie Carter, who works at Mancos Common Press, in an art exhibit called buffalo soldiers: reVision. This show examined the complicated legacy of the all-Black army regiment known as Buffalo Soldiers around the West.

An endeavor like Mancos Common Press fits naturally in Mancos, which is a hotbed for creative development in Southwest Colorado. In 2015, the town became a certified Colorado Creative District, a program under the Colorado Office of Economic Development.

Mancos Creative District has transformed what used to be a quiet downtown with “tumbleweed rolling down the street,” said the Creative District’s Executive Director, Chelsea Lunders. Now, galleries, restaurants, and studios like Mancos Common Press line the handful of blocks that comprise downtown Mancos.

In May 2024, the newest project connected to Mancos Common Press will open its doors. The brand new Mancos Commons is a 3,700 square foot two-story building that will provide a light-filled studio space to expand the Press. New printing presses, a darkroom, and lots of table space will allow for more classes and more artists to use the Mancos Common Press space. Upstairs, three one-bedroom apartments will provide affordable housing for people who currently work in the small town.

“We raised $2.5 million here in maybe, at the most, three years for this project in this tiny little town in western Colorado,” said Graham. Funders included Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, Colorado Division of Housing, El Pomar, and Colorado Creative Industries. Construction began in June 2023 and the building will be available for use in May 2024.

Mancos Common Press brings people from around the region to visit the studio as artists-in-residence or for classes, and they want to continue to be a hub for art and community for the Mountain Southwest. “There's just so much great potential for this community continuing to grow and evolve in a really sustainable way through arts and culture,” said Graham.