In the shadow of Long’s Run Presbyterian Church, beneath an epitaph that the elements have rendered illegible, lies the body of printer John Spear. His life began on a cool August day in Philadelphia in the third year of the American Revolution. It ended, 64 years later and 350 miles away, in a forgotten settlement in the valley of Little Beaver Creek known as Spear’s Mills. This is his story.
John Spear sat at his desk, put on his gold-rimmed spectacles, and began writing his will. It was April and there was a fresh, earthy smell in the air. As he wrote instructions for the disposal of his property, Spear realized he would need only one sheet of paper, for his possessions were few. A well-worn silver watch kept time in his pocket. His furniture consisted of an old bureau, two armchairs, and a featherbed. Nearby were books by Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. He did, however, own several hundred acres of land and a thriving gristmill under the management of R. C. Holmes, who lived with Spear. There was a well-stocked store adjacent to the mill, where the romantically minded pioneer couple could purchase a bearskin, liniment, and licorice balls. Nearby, one could experience the stench of a tan yard and the noise of a blacksmith shop and sawmill. Twenty houses, homes for the workers, were scattered throughout the settlement. It was a bustling place and only the Franklin Paper Mill, built in 1813, was silent. And yet, despite his considerable property, despite the industry, and despite the activity, John Spear’s estate was worth a mere $65,000 in today’s money.
When he had finished writing, Spear laid his pen on the desk and began to reminisce. He thought of his first sight of Pittsburgh at the turn of the century and his good fortune at finding employment as an apprentice printer under energetic Quaker Zadok Cramer, whose bookstore, printshop, and bindery at the “Sign of the Franklin Head” on Market Street was fast becoming a Pittsburgh institution. Spear remembered the pride he had felt in 1808 as he pulled a sheet from the press bed, the ink still wet, and first read the imprint, Cramer & Spear, his name beside that of his former master, now his partner.
It seemed so long ago. Cramer, who had written of the “uprightness and integrity” of Spear’s character, lay in an unmarked grave near Pensacola, Florida, a victim of the “white death” at age thirty-nine. Another partner, William Eichbaum, had left the firm in 1817. Cramer’s widow, Elizabeth, who became Spear’s partner after her husband’s death, had followed Zadok Cramer to the grave in 1818, the same year the Sign of the Franklin Head would move from Market to Wood Street. Spear remembered leaving the noise of the city and relocating to quiet Ohio, where he supervised the paper and grist mills while Susan, Cramer’s daughter, attended to the business in Pittsburgh. So many things had changed. Only Susan was left. She had been Spear’s last business partner. She would remain his dearest friend.
Spear’s thoughts turned to the many books the firm had printed, some of them still for sale in the store by the mill,their pages beginning to brown and fox. His life’s work had been to take paper, type, and ink and create the printed word, something of far greater worth than its constituent parts. Cramer’s Ohio and Mississippi Navigator, a guide to the western rivers that was as essential to the emigrant as the Bible, corn whiskey, and a sharp axe. Cramer’s Pittsburgh Almanac, the farmer’s guide that provided moon phases, weather predictions, and helpful hints to cure pests and diseases, all of it essential information for a primarily agrarian society. Brown’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible, the first illustrated book printed west of the Alleghenies. The first printed account of the Lewis & Clark expedition; ubiquitous school books such as the United States Speller and Murray’s English Reader; canonic titles such as Robinson Crusoe and the Vicar of Wakefield; biographies of Washington, Columbus, and Franklin; the Holy Bible; a book of hymns; other religious books; and even such esoteric titles as A Report of the Trial of the Journeyman Shoemakers, unfortunately now out of print. There were many more, now forgotten.
Spear felt sadness as he thought of the day in 1832 when the “Sign of the Franklin Head” was sold to M. P. O’Hern and the firm of Cramer & Spear had ceased to exist. Unable to sell the Ohio property, he had tried to rent the paper mill, without success. Several years later, Spear’s Mills was for sale again. Once more, he had failed to find a buyer. Spear had decided to stay, leaving everything to Susan, his “old and valued friend” George Cochran, and young Holmes, who would inherit the store and gristmill.
Spear arose from his desk to attend to the farm. Although he sensed that his time was short, he was satisfied, for he understood that he would outlive his own memory. Through his books he had helped to improve the lives of countless people. He had instructed them in their youth, he had taught them in their adolescence, he had strengthened their faith, and he had guided them on their way to a better life. For a man who would soon be forgotten, it was quite a bequest.
That autumn, on October 12, John Spear died and was buried, according to his wishes, in the “nearest Presbyterian burial ground.” Seven years later, stonecutter John Jackson would erect a chest tomb over the grave and carve these words on the sandstone slab:
“In Memory of John Spear, Printer and Book Publisher…
Oh! Never did a purer spirit rise
More meekly firm, more innocently gay
More humbly good, or charitably wise.”
This article first appeared in the East Liverpool Review, Sunday, 1 November 2015.
This map from the 1821 edition of Cramer’s Navigator shows the Ohio River in the tri-state area. Both Little Beaver Creek, opposite Georgetown, and Yellow Creek, lower left, are unnamed. [author’s collection]