More than eight decades after it made the first Haywood County rounds, can we grasp how exciting it was, to have a bookmobile deliver books to upper Fines Creek, to Cruso or Cove Creek?
Today, when technology puts the world in a computerized phone, giving us finger-tip access, how can we grasp the anticipation of children who wanted to read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” or the “Blue Fairy Book” and finally had the opportunity, children who would literally run to meet the bookmobile when it reached their community.
Today it takes about 25 minutes to get from Fines Creek to Waynesville. In the late 1930s, some children might make the trip two or three times a year. To use a library was almost unthinkable — until the bookmobile.
The traveling library first rumbled over Haywood roads in June of 1938, as part of a demonstration funded by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the State Library Commission. It was immensely popular, returning the next summer for another month. World War II interrupted hopes for a year-round bookmobile. But once the war was over, and the community was recovering, supporters raised the funds to purchase and remodel a truck, and the bookmobile became a regular and welcome sight for country folks beginning in 1948.
For the next 50 years a bookmobile would deliver the world of literature to those living in some of Haywood County’s more remote areas.
As roads improved, the clients using the bookmobile changed. Once it was almost everyone in the rural communities. As more families purchased vehicles, it became the wives, mothers and children who were often at home when the men drove to work. And in later years, when women and children also had easier access to the library branches in Waynesville and Canton and later Maggie Valley, the bookmobile had a particular appeal to senior citizens who no longer drove but who wanted to continue seeing the world through the books they read.
Many people remember the appeal and excitement of a bookmobile’s scheduled visit (see sidebar). Perhaps that excitement was never higher than in the summers of 1938 and 1939, when for a glorious month, the vehicle carried worlds of reading into Haywood County.
“During the month of June, library books will virtually be brought to every doorstep of Haywood County,” the Waynesville Mountaineer declared in May of 1938. The Waynesville library board had asked the State Library Commission to bring its bookmobile to Haywood County and agreed to allow the bookmobile to use its own books as well as those it carried from county to county. The half-ton truck with shelves inside could carry about 460 books. The first two days it operated in Haywood County, readers checked out 450 books.
“On Monday the truck visited Allens Creek, Saunook, Ratcliff Cove, Lake Junaluska and Clyde,” the newspaper reported. “In each place where the truck stopped, crowds gathered about, and 200 books were checked out the first day to be read during the week. The truck will return in that length of time to collect loaned books and give the people an opportunity to read other volumes.”
At the end of the demonstration month, 3,000 books had been borrowed from the “traveling library.”
Writer Hilda Way Gwynn rode along on one of the last runs and wrote some of the comments she heard. From her report came these comments:
“Well, did you bring me that Robinson Crusoe?” asked a man in his 70s.
“I can’t read but I got a big brother who can,” said a 5-year-old boy. “But next year, if you will have this book truck, I can read, for I’m going to the rock school house, up at Cruso ...”
“You remember Miss Medford, that old lady I told you about and got a book for last time? Well, she wants a good love story,” said a young woman on Dix Creek.
“I saw you go down, I was plowing in that field over there, but I knew I could stop long enough when you came back this way to run to the house and get my books. I want two more to read,” a teenage boy told the librarian.
Not a single one damaged
“How they have taken care of those books during the weeks of bookmobile services might help others to be more careful,” Gwynn commented. “Not one book has been damaged. One that was loaned to a little boy with a torn page was returned with the page mended.”
The adults read books on “mining, interior decoration, religion, taxation, government, fiction, psychology and foods,” she added. “In a number of cases, one book had been read by several people in the community before the bookmobile returned on the route.”
The WPA bookmobile returned in mid-June of 1939 for a month’s service, with county commissioners again agreeing to pay for operating expenses. This year, it was shared with Buncombe County.
Again the bookmobile was wildly popular — except, perhaps realizing the service would not return for at least another year, many books were not returned. In February of 1940, the bookmobile made a special return visit to Haywood County — to collect several hundred books that were still “checked out.” The list of missing books give a clue to Haywood County reading preferences — at least among those reluctant to return them. The great majority were children’s books, among them “Mary Poppins,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Bucky and Betty on the Farm,” and “Chinky Joins the Circus.”
Editorials and a weekly library column by library director Margaret Johnston advocated purchase of a bookmobile for Haywood County. But the dreams of a bookmobile took a back seat to World War II until January 1948. Then Waynesville Library Board and William Medford began a drive to raise $3,000 to purchase a truck and have it converted into a mobile library.
Over the next six months, 48 clubs, many of them Home Demonstration groups, held events to raise money. Schoolchildren took on the project, as did businesses. Efforts included tea parties, cake walks, square dances, box suppers, ball games and used clothing sales. When more than $2,700 was raised, a half-ton Chevrolet panel truck was ordered. Fundraising continued for the renovations and to purchase books.
Johnston, the librarian, wrote about the first outing with the new bookmobile.
“It is impossible to picture for you the response of the people and the fun (work, too) of the bookmobile service,” she stated in her Nov. 9 column. “On the first coverage of the county, 1,057 books were checked off the truck — more could have been, but we asked the borrowers not to take more than they needed for three weeks. Even then we had a hard time making the children’s books stretch enough to reach the different sections.”
One child told Johnston, “I got fifty cents in the truck. I sure am going to get me a book.”
Reaching the most remote
Four years later, in 1952, Frances Jones Patrick became the operator of the bookmobile, a position she would hold for almost 10 years. Because she held the job so long, and for the time she did, she became the bookmobile librarian multitudes of Haywood County citizens remember from their childhood. Her first year, according to The Mountaineer, just shy of 30,000 volumes were checked out through the bookmobile. In 1961, her last full year on the job, 86,777 books were checked out through the service.
In a 1995 feature story, Patrick, who died in 2004, remembered the early challenges of figuring out the county’s most remote routes.
“I knew the communities pretty well, but some of the smaller places where we delivered books were pretty remote,” she said. “I had to stop along the side of the road and ask directions several times before I’d find the road or house I was looking for. Sometimes it was just as hard to find somebody to ask … You would wind as far as you could around a mountain and suddenly another road would take off straight up.”
Sometimes, she said, the roads were so narrow that the only way to leave would be to back out.
“The children and the adults really needed the bookmobile,” she said. “Some of them were home-bound, and they couldn’t get out of their houses at all. The bookmobile was their way out.”
When Patrick heard residents say they often forgot the bookmobile schedule, she contacted radio deejay Reed Wilson, with WNCW in Asheville, who agreed to broadcast the bookmobile’s daily route each morning.
Patrick’s first bookmobile was small enough that the only ones who could get inside without stooping were the children, she said. She often had to climb in on her hands and knees to get books for her readers.
Perhaps the most enduring bookmobile was the 1968 Gerstenslager, which ran for almost 20 years and went through four engines before its retirement in 1986. Library staff was likely glad to get the new bookmobile, which featured an automatic transmission, an AM-FM radio and air conditioning. The first bookmobile cost the library and its supporters about $3,000. The 1986 edition cost $43,898, but a little over $17,000 was covered by a federal grant.
In 1995, facing budget challenges and believing improved roads gave most people access to library branch offices, county commissioners tried to cut bookmobile funding from the budget. The move was so controversial that the board funded the bookmobile for another year, but in 1996, the money was cut. The bookmobile service as Haywood County had known it came to a halt. Its legacy continued, however, as the library organized mini-bookmobiles to serve day-care and senior citizen centers.
Haywood County, at least through the early 1990s, consistently ranked in the top counties of North Carolina in per-capita library use, often being at the very top — perhaps a legacy that lingered from those early days of the bookmobile, which brought the joys of reading to its remote communities.