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Writers of the Purple Sage 

by Sheri Boggs


Grab your pencils, it's time for a Western American history pop quiz: What do the sinking of an 1850s gold steamer, the last Spanish exploration of the Northwest coast and the long-unsolved murder of a Pend Oreille county marshall have in common? Besides being big events of their time and place, all three are also books published by Spokane's own Arthur H. Clark Company. Longtime publishers of well-researched, well-put-together books of the Old West, the Arthur Clark Company celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and its story often parallels the westward migration chronicled by so many of its titles.


"We publish books for serious students of the history of the American frontier, and we've done so since the beginning," says Robert Clark, grandson of Arthur Clark and current publisher and editor-in-chief. "To be successful in publishing you have to have a niche, and once you find that, you just keep working in that area."


The Arthur Clark Company was launched in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1902. Its founder, a 34-year-old former Londoner, had paid his dues apprenticing with publishers and booksellers all over Chicago before going into business for himself. Even then, the fledgling company specialized in rare and antiquarian titles, and it wasn't long before the company had to move, many times over. It changed locations a few times in Cleveland before moving to Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1930. In 1947, Clark retired, handing over the reins to his son Arthur Clark, Jr., and his business partner Paul Galleher. Robert Clark joined the firm in 1972 after graduating from college, finally taking over the company in 1986. The company moved to Spokane in 1989, where rent and production costs were considerably cheaper than in Glendale.


Taking up residence in the friendly business district of Millwood (right around the corner from the Rocket on Argonne), the Arthur Clark Company continued to publish books on the history of the frontier, sometimes with a strong local emphasis. In 1990, the company published Sheriffs, by former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte. While still in law enforcement, Bamonte cracked a 54-year-old unsolved murder case as he sifted through research for his master's thesis, a history of the 10 previous sheriffs of Pend Oreille County. Bamonte's solving of the crime and the dissolution of decades of secrecy was chronicled in Timothy Egan's Breaking Blue, and Bamonte's thesis was later published as Sheriffs. As compelling as Bamonte's story was, Sheriffs was surprisingly not the company's best selling book.


"Sheriffs did pretty well -- we did two editions of that -- but our most successful book was on John D. Lee and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in the mid-1850s," explains Clark. "There was a wagon party of 145 people going through southern Utah on their way to California, and they were all wiped out except for 17 children under the age of three. At the time it was blamed on the Indians. But John D. Lee was eventually scapegoated for the whole thing and executed by the U.S. Army right there, only to find out later it was the Mormons who had been responsible."


Other popular books in the Arthur Clark catalog include The Last Voyage of the Central America, the story of a steamship carrying California gold and 491 passengers when it was struck by a hurricane in 1857, and The Voyage of Sutil and Mexicana, 1792, the last Spanish exploration of the Pacific Northwest coast. Their publishing efforts again take on a more local angle with the publication of Recollections from the Colville Indian Agency, 1886-1889 by Major Rickard D. Gwydir. The book, which debuts at Auntie's Bookstore tonight, was one of the last wishes of its author, a former U.S. agent overseeing the tribes of the Spokane, Colville and Coeur d'Alene reservations. Gwydir, whose recollections of tribal leaders such as Chief Joseph, Chief Garry and Chief Skolaskin are included in the book, asked his grandson to publish his memoirs.


"His grandson, Rick Gwydir, came to me with all this material and said, 'It's pretty rough stuff, but I'm supposed to get it published, that's what my grandfather wanted,' " says Clark. "We found a scholar at the University of New Mexico, Kevin Dye, who organized it and wrote a foreword."


With a small run of 500 copies, Recollections from the Colville Indian Agency isn't likely to fill the Arthur Clark Company's coffers to overflowing. Still, the close personal relationships between publisher, writer and readers, as well as their keen attention to detail, will help keep the company afloat for decades to come.


"There's no money in publishing, but there's a certain satisfaction to dealing with this form of entertainment," says Clark. "The people -- both customers and employees -- you couldn't ask for more honest or fair-dealing people."

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