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Spreading access to books across Menominee County

Courtesy photo The new mini-library in the Stephenson drug store, 1920.

As part of the Menominee County Library’s centennial celebration this year, the Friends of the Menominee County Library are sponsoring a look back over a full century of outstanding service to its patrons.

Today it’s quite easy to stop at one of the county libraries to check out a book… well, pretty much any book. If the library doesn’t have a copy of the particular volume you’re looking for, someone on the staff will do their best to secure a copy for you from another library in the state. Of course, as more and more books are scanned and digitized, you can now “borrow” a virtual copy of thousands of titles in the comfort of your own home. Finding something to read has never been easier.

But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to 1920, books were a rare commodity in the rural areas of Menominee County. Churches, schools and many private individuals always had a few volumes at hand, but there were no libraries where the general public could check out books to be read at home.

On 25 April 1917, a new law regarding libraries went into effect in Michigan. Public Act No. 138, as it’s officially called, authorized the board of commissioners in all counties to establish and secure funding for “a public library free for the use of inhabitants.” The commissioners could establish a countywide library system from scratch or they could partner with an existing private or municipal library in the area.

The Spies Library in Menominee wasted no time in taking advantage of this new law. The board of trustees immediately authorized a two year study that researched and identified the best way to expand library service throughout the county. In October 1919, the Menominee County Board of Supervisors signed an agreement with the Spies Public Library to establish 30 mini-libraries around the county. The legislation required that each organization be responsible for one half of the total cost of the operation, which had been capped at $5,000.

Ms. Helena LeFevre was the main librarian at the Spies Public Library, and it was into her hands that the logistics of this ambitious project began to fall. She was ultimately responsible for ordering, packaging and even transporting between 100 and 200 books to each location. Her first task was to survey the schools, churches and factories in an attempt to determine how many volumes were already available in each community. The results of this survey enabled her to determine how many additional books to order for each location. The boxes of books that were delivered remained for a period of 90 days before being circulated to a different mini-library. This rotating collection of books was something quite new and exciting for the rural residents of Menominee County.

LeFevre’s experiences in both supervising and accompanying the initial deliveries of the books offer a look at the sometimes difficult travel and road conditions one hundred years ago. On Feb. 3, 1920, she brought the first box of books to Carney by train. Upon her arrival, she had to hire a young man to transport the shipment from the train station to the post office. Then she helped the local librarian/caretaker select the best location for the box and explained to her how this new rotating mini-library was going to function. On the first day, twenty of the books were immediately checked out.

After dinner in Carney, LeFevre boarded the 7 o’clock train for Nadeau, where she delivered another box of books for the local store. Miss Stella Nadeau was to be the new librarian/caretaker there.

On subsequent train trips, LeFevre was able to deliver boxes of books to Ingalls and Wallace. At both locations, high school students helped transport the boxes using their hand sleds. Arriving in Wilson on 18 March 1920, she was met by a certain “Mr. Bagley with his cutter and a big white horse.” Just in front of the Harris school, however, the cutter and its contents overturned into a snow drift. The librarian ended up under the box of books buried in three feet of snow. It didn’t take long to rescue both passenger and cargo, however. Fortunately, neither was harmed.

In Greenwoods, a mini-library was set up in a cheese factory. Mrs. Spitzer had agreed to serve as librarian/caretaker. In Gourley, the owner of the store where the mini-library was to be installed, expressed his skepticism concerning the project. Most of the locals were from Bohemia and didn’t speak English.

The people of Hermansville were still reeling from the shock of a labor strike and a devastating fire, when their books arrived. The only place available was the local barbershop. LeFevre initially wondered whether any women would frequent a library in a men’s barbershop, but once the service was up and running, there were just as many women as men perusing the collection.

The Stephenson Branch was set up in the local drug store belonging to Dr. Sawbridge, and it was here as in most other locations that LeFevre visited schools and churches in an effort to promote the project. Religious leaders in the area were primarily concerned with the possibility that the circulation of books might help spread the deadly Spanish Flu that had recently killed over 50 million people worldwide.

The eight mile trip from the train station in Daggett to Banat was an especially arduous one. A horse-drawn cutter was the only way to navigate the very primitive road especially in the blinding snowstorm they had to contend with on that day. For locations along the bay, the road was good enough for the books to be delivered by car.

All in all, it took almost four months to set up these 30 mini-libraries throughout the county. Every location boasted a brisk checkout rate from the very first day of operation. Countywide circulation of library materials was an idea whose time had come.

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