Robert A. Kishpaugh: Making Local History

Robert A. Kishpaugh: Making Local History

The recent placement of Fredericksburg on Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of “The Fifty Best Cities for Entrepreneurs” would have come as no surprise to businessman and longtime resident of 1201 Prince Edward St. Robert A. Kishpaugh, who owned and operated a thriving local printing and stationery shop throughout the first half of the twentieth century. At the age of 16, Kishpaugh (1878-1965) parlayed a $10 down payment on a printing press into a business that would one day adopt the slogan “oldest under original management in Fredericksburg.”  The successful run of Kishpaugh’s Stationery Store, originally located at 918 Main St. (Caroline Street today) and later at 214 William St., was bookended by significant ties to local history—the dedication of the Mary Washington Monument in 1894 and the publication of Kishpaugh’s own Fifty Years of Service in the Printing Business, a compendium of facts and important dates of events that occurred during the time he was in business.

At the outset of Kishpaugh’s enterprise, Fredericksburg was a city at a crossroads. In 1894, at long last recovering from the gaping gashes the bloody Civil War’s Battle of Fredericksburg had inflicted, the local population was delighted to welcome America’s most illustrious citizens to town for the dedication of the recently completed Mary Washington Monument. The local newspaper, the Free Lance, declared on its front page in April 1894 that “the celebration on the 10th of May in connection with the dedication ceremonies of the Mary Washington Monument promises to be the most successful affair that has ever taken place in Fredericksburg.” President Grover Cleveland, all the justices of the United States Supreme Court, Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont,  the rest of the president’s cabinet, and Virginia Governor Charles O’Ferrall topped the long list of dignitaries who joined throngs of citizens from all over the region for the dedication. Kishpaugh saw an opportunity to capitalize on the largest influx of people into the city since the tragic battle three decades earlier. The initial $10 investment for his printing press turned out to be highly profitable; one of the first jobs he printed—souvenir badges for the dedication ceremony—netted Kishpaugh a profit of over $100 (in 2016 dollars, that would be a profit of around $3000). Kishpaugh’s business was off and running, fueled by a business acumen that belied his young age and by the changing fortunes of Fredericksburg at the close of the nineteenth century.

As the decades progressed, Kishpaugh’s Stationery Store evolved with the times. According to a profile in the October 1944 edition of Argus Camera magazine, Kishpaugh followed his initial success by experimenting with the “then new field of mail-order printing and kept up a veritable barrage of blotters and samples going out to prospects through the mail.”  By 1903, the company had diversified, “selling photographic supplies . . ., Victor talking machines and bicycle tires.” In 1916, Walden’s Stationer and Printer, a New York-based trade publication, described the business:

Mr. Kishpaugh not only handles a complete line of up-to-date stationery, but runs in conjunction a printing plant, with five Chandler and Price presses and the latest type faces. A large mail order business is done through the surrounding towns, orders being received from points all over the state as well as in North Carolina. Mr. Kishpaugh expects shortly to start work on a new building in which he will house an enlarged printing department.                         

Kishpaugh’s success enabled him to buy the first locally owned automobile in 1906 and to make several crossings of the Atlantic by ocean liner for visits to Europe in 1931, 1937 and in 1950, when he made the trip on the Queen Elizabeth.

In 1944, Kishpaugh commemorated fifty years in business by publishing a book illustrating notable dates in local history. The book, appropriately titled Fifty Years of Service in the Printing Business, has become an essential document of Fredericksburg history and is the descendant of a 1912 publication by Kishpaugh—Fredericksburg and Its Many Points of Interest—that served as both a history and an advertisement for Fredericksburg’s virtues as a tourist destination. The 1944 book is a quirky and entertaining list of events, some mundane (February 11, 1902: Ice on the Rappahannock, no boats for a week), some quaint (August 16, 1918: Airplane passes over city, creating lots of attention), and some that provide a local viewpoint on national events (May 6, 1935: Fredericksburg leads state through Depression. Only city in Virginia that shows rise in both wages and number of employees). Along with dozens of postcards Kishpaugh printed commemorating local history and architecture, his books provide a rich and expressive picture of 19th, and early 20th century Fredericksburg.

Life proved to be so busy for Kishpaugh, that he did not find time to marry until 1954 when he was 75 years old. He would go on to outlive his bride, Mabel B. Boteler Brown, who was 20 years younger than he.

Kishpaugh’s business would continue to thrive throughout the 1950s, briefly owned by E.C. Creal until Kishpaugh bought it back. He then sold it for the last time to Mr. and Mrs. Herbert C. Dagg several months before his April 1965 death. According to the Fredericksburg City Directory, Kishpaugh’s Stationery was still in operation under its founder’s name as late as 1976.

Robert A. Kishpaugh’s story could well be echoed by successful Fredericksburg entrepreneurs in 2016, but it is hard to imagine another success story could be as intertwined with local history as his was. Not only did he profit from and preserve local history, he became a part of it.

Photo Credits:
Image of Robert A. Kishpaugh from his book, Fifty Years of Service in the Printing Business
A Souvenir of the Mary Washington Monument Dedication, printed by Robert A. Kishpaugh. From Central Rappahannock Regional Library's collection.
Kishpaugh Battlefield Map Image from The Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Burying Federal Dead Back of 'Sentry Box' in Fredericksburg, after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Colorized and printed by Robert A. Kishpaugh. From Noel Harrison's A Quarter Century of Researching Fredericksburg’s Burial-of-the-Dead Photographs, pt. 1