Kingsport Press was a powerful Tennessee presence in the publishing world for fifty years. The press was initially established in 1922 by Blair and Company, the New York bankers who financed the Clinchfield Railway and the Kingsport town site, with John B. Dennis as chairman of the board of Kingsport Press, Incorporated. As an integral component in fulfilling the interlocking concept of industry upon which Kingsport’s founders created the planned industrial community, Kingsport Press served as a catalyst for the development and expansion of related industries such as Mead Paper Company.
The company began in four unused concrete structures acquired from Grant Leather Company. The initial company president was Louis Adams, who secured the company’s first contract with the Woolworth chain for the mass production of a miniature clothbound series of the classics. When Colonel Elbridge Woodman Palmer (1886-1953), former president of the bindery of J. F. Tapley Company, was recruited as president in 1925, he systematically restructured Kingsport Press by remodeling the plant, retraining and increasing the labor force, and creating a sales department. Walter F. Smith, a subsequent company president, observed that Palmer understood that books needed to be made, but also needed to be marketed, and needed to reach their intended audience for the press to be successful. Palmer diversified the press’s fields of publications to include textbooks and encyclopedias, increased company floor space from a few hundred square feet to 12.5 acres, and added additional shifts, making the press operational twenty-four hours a day.
Palmer served as president for twenty-nine years and quickly became a nationally and internationally known industrialist and civic leader. Serving as president of the Tennessee Society of Crippled Children and Adults for eighteen years, he also was president, trustee, and treasurer of the national Society for Crippled Children and Adults. Locally, Palmer was founder of the Kingsport Building and Loan Association, an original incorporator of the Holston Valley Community Hospital, and a supporter of the Kingsport Public Library.
During World War II Palmer was deputy director of the War Production Board’s Printing and Publishing Division, which produced such materials as Bibles and equipment instruction manuals for U.S. troops. In 1943 he received the honorary rank of colonel for his work in the Adjutant General’s Department, where he served until 1945. After the war, he received the Legion of Merit for his distinguished service.
Chemist Walter F. Smith succeeded Palmer as president in 1953, and in his first year as president Smith developed new methods of cloth manufacture and gold stamping. Under his direction the company enjoyed continued growth, with 1961 marking a major expansion of the company’s facilities. Elected chairman of the board in 1961, Edward J. Triebe was the fourth company president. He guided the press through a period of rapid technological change as well as another expansion that included the construction and start-up of a second plant–a highly automated operation in Hawkins County twelve miles from Kingsport. Triebe also oversaw a major transition in printing emphasis from letterpress to offset lithography. Kingsport Press during his tenure had 2,500 employees.
One of the nation’s longest strikes occurred at Kingsport Press from March 11, 1963, continuing into the spring of 1967. National union officials and federal labor mediators were unable to resolve the situation, and as negotiations broke down, picket lines went up, accompanied by vandalism and violence. In 1964 over five thousand people applied for press jobs, and by April 28, 1967, both new and returning company employees rejected the unions.
In 1969 Kingsport Press merged with Arcata National Corporation, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the graphics, communication, and information services company. When Triebe was elected chairman of the board of Kingsport Press in 1969, G. Robert Evans left U.S. Gypsum to become the fifth company president. Two years after the merger of Kingsport Press and Arcata National, Evans was selected to direct the newly created Arcata Graphic Services Group. In 1971 Hugh F. Swaney came to Kingsport from the Mexican operations of U.S. Gypsum to serve as the press’s president.
Quebecor World, a company that began in Montreal, Canada, in 1954, become owner of the former Kingsport Press, having acquired it when it purchased Arcata Graphics in the 1990s. In 1999 Quebecor Printing merged with World Color Press, creating Quebecor World. It ranked as one of the largest bookmaking companies in the world. The company’s customers included the leading international publishers, and it produced all types of hardbound and softcover books. Products of this graphic communications industry included elementary, high school, and college textbooks and workbooks; reference sets; book club selections; Bibles and hymnals; blank books and specialty binders; juvenile books; university press books; dictionaries; and school yearbook covers.
In April 2006, Quebecor World announced that it would close the Kingsport Press plant by the third quarter of that year. Tony Ross, director of communications, stated, “The decision to close the Kingsport facility was based on many factors, including the changing needs of the publishing industry.” Quebecor had reduced staffing over the prior three years; 425 employees were at the plant at the time it closed.
By 2012, the Kingsport Press site had become a hub of downtown activity designed to implement the goals of the 1999 Kingsport Economic Summit.