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Publishing engine is right on track

Publishing on the plains

Man guides niche press business through 20 years of books on railroad history

By Joe Duggan
Lincoln Journal Star
Nov. 24, 2002

DAVID CITY -- By all rights, he ought to be farming.

James Reisdorff grew up five miles north of David City on a grain farm settled a century before by his great-grandfather. Like about every other kid he knew growing up in the 1960s, he milked cows, collected eggs, cultivated fields and fed livestock.

He cherished the winter, because it gave him more time to stay inside and play with his model railroads. And the best part of the summer was lying in bed at night with the window open. The Union Pacific running eight miles away in Schuyler; the CB&Q just six miles away in Bellwood.

"Depending upon how much moisture was in the air, you could hear the train whistles," he said.

Those faint whistles tugged a young boy's imagination like a prairie locomotive pulling a long line of cars. And his imagination still hasn't left the tracks.

This year, Reisdorff's South Platte Press marked 20 years in business. The press celebrated by publishing its 45th title, "Ghost Railroads of Nebraska -- A Pictorial," co-authored by Reisdorff and Lincoln railroad historian Michael Bartels.

Reisdorff calls his business a niche press. It publishes mostly soft-cover books that feature lots of historical photos from the halcyon days of railroads in the Great Plains. Topics range from powerhouse railroads such as UP and Burlington Northern Santa Fe to more obscure examinations of the rise and fall of slim-gauge railroads in Kansas.

Priced between $7.95 and $24.95, the books are geared for both casual and hardboiled railfans. But don't look for them on the New York Times best-seller list.

Reisdorff's top seller, "The North Platte Canteen," has moved about 3,500 copies. While he'd love to pay his authors cash royalties, mostly their compensation comes in the form of copies of their books.

But modest sales don't compromise Reisdorff's role in preserving Plains railroad history, said Rob McGonigal, editor of Classic Trains magazine in Milwaukee. McGonigal has reviewed several South Platte Press titles over the years.

"If it weren't for outfits like South Platte Press, those stories wouldn't get told," he said.

Reisdorff's journey into railroad publishing really started after he graduated from Creighton University in 1978 with a journalism degree. After working as a correspondent for several years with the Lincoln Journal and the Columbus Telegram, Reisdorff thought of a way to combine his journalism training with his railroad passion.

He made a proposal to the Nebraska State Historical Society to document train stations, which were disappearing at a rapid rate in the state. The society agreed to supply him with film and pay him a mileage reimbursement, and Reisdorff spent the next three years documenting stations.

His research showed that at railroading's peak year of 1916, there were some 85,000 stations nationwide. Nebraska reached its mileage apex in 1926, with 6,249 miles of track. About 750 stations stood along those miles of track.

Among his shelves of books, photocopies and historical photos, Reisdorff still has the worn, three-ring binder that contains the field notes from his station project. He located many that had been abandoned by railroads and turned into storage buildings, duplexes and museums. He even found one in Wayne that housed a Godfather's Pizza restaurant.

After turning over his notes and film to the historical society, he felt compelled to write it all down. But rather than struggle to find someone to publish the book, he decided to publish it himself with the help of a private press in Texas.

"I guess there was enough farmer in me to strike out on my own," he said.

"Railroad Stations in Nebraska," co-written with Bartels, was published in 1982. Like 33 other titles published by South Platte Press, the book is now out of print.

Reisdorff recruited other regional authors to write books on railroad subjects. He often edited the manuscripts, researched photographs and worked with contract presses on layout and design.

"I don't consider myself a railroad historian," he said. "I publish for railroad historians."

Once the books were done, he switched from publisher to salesman. He submitted review copies to railroad magazines and he rented booths at railroad memorabilia shows and swap meets. A couple years ago, he started a Web site where the books can be ordered.

In 1996, Reisdorff got his first office manager when he married Sharon Krepel after a three-year courtship. They honeymooned by following the UP route west to Wyoming. Although Shari said she wasn't a railroad buff before, she is now. She enjoys going to the shows and riding excursion trains on vacations.

In some ways, the Reisdorffs missed their era. Not even 80 years ago, you could stand anywhere east of Grand Island and be no further than 25 miles from an active railroad. The people who know about those times are disappearing by the day.

"People contact Jim about their life on the railroad and want to know how they can put it on paper," she said.

Tapping personal knowledge that would otherwise be lost helps give his work value that can't be measured on best-seller lists. Just like the Homestead Act, agriculture and European immigration, the railroads played a critical role in the history of Nebraska. Whether you were a Native who lamented the loss of land and life symbolized by the railroad, or the settler who considered it the only link to the outside world, trains had a monumental effect.

"And there just the romance and lore of the Iron Horse that allowed a small-town kid to dream about going to far-away places," Reisdorff said. "Especially when he was hearing a lonely whistle at night."

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