By Barry Penhale
Photos courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County
With thousands of newcomers becoming part of our great country this article recalling two remarkable individuals long identified with Hastings County seems especially timely. The achievements of Nick and Helma Mika are monumental and lasting. As an immigrant to Belleville who arrived in Canada under a work-project program, Nick Mika quickly settled into the lifestyle of the eastern Ontario city that was to become home and to a community he served wholeheartedly until his death at 86 in 1997.
Born in the Ukraine, Nick Mika lived for a period of time in Poland and Germany and it is believed that his publishing skills were honed there well in advance of his arrival in Canada. His early Hastings County jobs involved farm labour, casual work at the former House of Refuge on Dundas Street East in Belleville and ultimately employment with the well-known at that time Bakelite plant. There, according to contradictory newspaper accounts, he was either a chemist or draftsman or both.
It appears that income stability during the early 1950s permitted his arranging for passage to Canada of his girlfriend Helma. Soon after her arrival in 1952 the couple was married at Bridge Street United Church. It was at this time that they began operating a silkscreen business, working on a “shoestring” out of their Victoria Avenue home. Here, they courageously made their entry into the field of Canadian book publishing, working side-by-side until Helma’s passing in 1995.
It is generally known that book publishing in Canada is more than merely challenging. As a veteran of the book trade, I am all too familiar with industry jokes with more than just a half truth about them. “Show me a publisher with a small fortune,” goes the line, “and I’ll show you someone who once had a big fortune.” The Mikas did not start out with a fortune and one has to admire their courage and tenacity when reflecting upon the obstacles directly ahead once they began to publish local history books written by less than big-name authors.
By far the majority of the book-publishing houses of that era were located in large centres, notably Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. In many cases these were the big players often long-established and boasting an impressive house list of famous literary icons under contract —big-name authors of the day, all considered “bankable.” The city of Belleville was certainly not the hub of publishing but it was home base for Nick, Helma, and their fledgling Mika Publishing Company, eventually headquartered in a book-friendly building located at 200 Stanley Street. The site would become a home-away-from-home for eastern Ontario writers of non-fiction.
In publishing jargon the Mikas would be labelled small-press publishers, sitting on a sizeable niche market in eastern Ontario just waiting to be served. Local history, though abundant, was seldom the stuff of books until Nick and Helma came along. They not only realized that Belleville and environs had important stories to tell but also quickly discovered local writers and historians well worth publishing and anxious to get into print.
One of the most respected author/historians in the Quinte region, Gerry Boyce knew Nick and Helma well and has often gone on record lauding the couple for their many publications focusing on different aspects of Canadian history, not the least being titles of specific interest to historical/heritage groups within Hastings County. Boyce, having on several occasions served as president of the Hastings Historical Society, championed the initiative that led to Nick Mika being awarded, in November, 1996, the Ontario Historical Society’s coveted Carnochan Award in recognition of his and Helma’s services to the province through their publishing accomplishments. Other recognition related to their community involvement came over time from the City of Belleville, along with Rotary Club Honours and plaudits from the Quinte Humane Society.
At the time of Nick’s death area newspapers had a different take on the total number of books published under the Mika imprint, the numbers ranging from 100 to 300 titles. The greater figure may be correct, but what was published during their time in business is what really counts, starting with Mosaic of Belleville (1962). Increased book buying during Canada’s Centennial Year in 1967, prompted by renewed interest in our nation’s history, proved a boon to Mika Publishing. Greatly encouraged, they forged ahead not only with such new works as Historic Mills of Ontario (with Larry Turner), but also reprinted many neglected and out-of-print titles, including fascimile editions of early county atlases. Perhaps as we gear ourselves up for Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations next year, it may not be any too soon to consider some form of recognition of Nick and Helma Mika — the small press publishers who so impressively punched above their weight! Possibly a retrospective of Mika titles would be in order.
Meanwhile, we watch with interest the publishing activities of Kirby Books of Bancroft, the Hastings County Historical Society, and Wallbridge House Publishing, Belleville, under the direction of Orland and Sylvia French, as they follow in the footsteps of Nick and Helma Mika, trailblazers in their field and in their chosen land.
The assistance of Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County archivist Amanda Hill is gratefully acknowledged.