Eliza (Bessie) Catherine Layton McKay Smith: Co-founder of Smith & McKay Printing, 1919

Originally published in The Trailblazer (Quarterly Bulletin of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County), Volume 39, Number 3, September, 1998

Bessie Layton’s mother, Annelia Barter, born March 5, 1852, had emigrated overland at the age of one year with her parents, William and Catherine J. Coorad Barter from Mt. Vernon, Indiana. They came over the Oregon-California Trail, passing Lake Tahoe and arriving in Hangtown in September of 1853. Their wagon was made by Barter’s Blacksmith and Wagon Shop in Mt. Vernon, Indiana. Her father was a wagon maker and farmer who settled in Penryn, east of Roseville. Three years later, in 1856, Catherine Barter died of consumption in Steuarts Flat, Placer County and 4 year old Annelia was placed with a group of Catholic Sisters in Sacramento, although her father was Protestant.

Annelia married Leonard Layton when she was 15 on June 28, 1867, and at 16, had twin boys followed by the birth of eight other children, 10 in all, born between 1867 and 1894. Eliza Catherine Layton, born on June 24, 1877 was number 6. She was born at the ranch homesteaded by her father and his two older bachelor brothers in Clover Valley, just north of Rocklin, California. The Valley was 6 miles long and about half a mile wide and is now the Sunset Whitney Country Club development. The school was 4 miles away and Bessie, as she was called, was the one who rode the horse or drove the young Laytons in the wagons or buggy. In all of the early pictures of the family in wagon, buggy or car, Bessie was always in the driver’s seat.

During the hot Sacramento Valley summers, the family sometimes escaped to Santa Cruz for a few weeks to cool off. It was in Santa Cruz that Bessie met and at the age of 20 in 1897, married Neil McKay, a printer. Neil was from a family of printers who had come to Santa Cruz in 1878 from Michigan. Neil taught his young wife the art of typesetting, a job often done by women because of the patience and dexterity before the advent of the linotype machine. Leonard M. McKay, Sr. was born to this union on September 30, 1898, but the two were divorced in 1910 when the extended McKay family packed up to move to Yerrington, Nevada to publish and print the local newspaper in this copper mining town.

Bessie Layton McKay took her young son, Leonard to San Francisco where she continued to work in the printing trade in a job shop. When he got old enough, Leonard, too, learned the printing trade and while a young teen-ager, he caught his left hand in a die cutting printing press, cutting off his left thumb and a portion of his third finger. He graduated from high school by attending night school while working days. When World War I came along, he was ineligible for military service because of his missing fingers, so he went to work for an oil pumping company in Gustine. He saved a considerable amount of money which was the capital used to start Smith & McKay Printing Company in 1919.

Meanwhile, Bessie met Clifford Smith, a promoter and fast talker. He became one of the three partners in the Smith & McKay Printing Company, Clifford Smith, Bessie Smith and Leonard McKay. Few partnerships are successful and a three way is nearly impossible. Although it was Leonard McKay’s money that bought the used equipment of the Slovian newspaper, Sokol, in San Jose, he was never consulted regarding business decisions.

In 1924, the name became Smith and Smith as Clifford was bent on becoming the largest and dominant printer in San Jose. To this end, he added many pieces of equipment, all purchased with bank loans. In 1928 he took all of the company cash and left town with another woman, leaving large debts and mortgaged equipment which was soon reclaimed by the banks. When the stock market crashed in 1929, it was dubious whether the business could survive. Bessie surrendered her large house off the fashionable Alameda at 782 Morris Street because she could not make the payments and moved into a room built for her inside the printshop on St. John Street. She lived there throughout the early 1930’s. Leonard McKay, Sr. lived with his wife and family at 175 Loma Alta Avenue, Los Gatos where they had moved for Leonard, Junior’s health, as he was an asthmatic child, not expected to live to adulthood. St. John Street was very near several historic events in San Jose including the disastrous Court House Fire just 100 yards away in 1931 and the infamous lynching in St. James Park in 1933.

Bessie continued to be a prominent figure in San Jose as she was elected President of the Business and Professional Women’ Association, Matron of the Fraternity, later Jarman Chaper of Eastern Star, and she continued to ride a horse in the Sheriff’s Posse of the many Fiesta de las Roses Parades.

The Depression era was an especially difficult time for a woman to run a business since much was done of the barter system. When the company printed the daily menus for the American Grill, it was expected that you would eat out your bill. Printing was done for Andy Saso of the Fox Theatre chain in exchange for movie tickets. Bessie, with Leonard at her side, survived, neither making as much as their workers. She had favorite customers who fell into three groupings: the petty gamblers were most common and prominent. They needed raffle and lottery tickets printed, were not fussy about quality, didn’t want receipts and paid in cash.

The second group were the Catholic Priests, particularly the Jesuits from the University of Santa Clara and Bellarmine and St. Mary’s Church. Bessie held them in high regard because of their intelligence and high moral qualities. In 1929, Smith Printing printed the program for the Passion Play which was the start of a major account that saved the business.

The third group were the construction men in the valley starting with Earl Heple and after his death, Lou Jones Construction, Elmo Pardini, L.C. Pardini, Rosendin Electric and many others. A smaller portion of the business was book printing. Some of them still survive today such as the 1933 History of San Jose by McMurry/James, many books of poems and some science fiction works.

When World War II came along, it was a terrific struggle to continue business, as all of the young men left for the service and many of the women were employed in defense industries. Supplies were very difficult to obtain and new machinery was impossible. One way or another, the company kept the old equipment going and kept printing, doing defense contract work for Permanente Cement, Pittsburgh Steel and others.

Once the war was over, there was a period of limited expansion, as young men returned seeking employment. Smith Printing had always done letterpress printing (printing directly from the type) but improvements after the war included the advent of lithography, using thin aluminum plates. The early process left much to be desired and nearly broke the business again.

Leonard McKay, Jr. returned from the European theater of war with one year of college to finish. While completing his education, he worked full time at the printing company, while his father’s health faded. Leonard, Dr. did not want him to go into the printing business as he felt there was more work than reward in it. Upon graduation, he went to work with Pan American Airways in the passenger traffic department and asked for foreign assignment which took him to San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Guam. The Orient was in chaos with Communism running rampant and after nearly seven years with the airline, he resigned in 1953 and retuned to San Jose. In 1954, Leonard Senior died but the “Boss” remained – Bessie Smith at age 77.

Two years later, in 1956, Leonard, Jr. and his grandmother Bessie agreed to return the name of the company to its original Smith and McKay Printing Co. He would buy the business from her and she retired in 1956 at age 79, going to live with a younger sister in Washington state until her death in 1962 at 85. She is buried in the Los Gatos Cemetery.

Bessie Smith, Pioneer Printer and Proprietor of Smith and McKay Printing Company and Smith and Smith for a total of 37 years, 1919-1956, was respected for her honest dealings and quality printing. She survived 85 years through much of California’s history, leaving her indelible imprint on the local scene.

Category: Newspaper Articles
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