As part of the Menominee County Library’s centennial celebration this year, the Friends of the Menominee County Library is sponsoring a look back at a full century of exceptional service to its patrons.
Today, it’s pretty easy to stop by one of the county libraries to check out a book… well, just about any book. If the library does not have a copy of the particular volume you are looking for, a staff member will do their best to get you a copy from another state library. Of course, as more and more books are scanned and digitized, you can now “to borrow” a virtual copy of thousands of titles from the comfort of your own home. Finding something to read has never been easier.
But it has not always been so. Prior to 1920, books were a rare commodity in rural Menominee County. Churches, schools, and many individuals always had a few volumes on hand, but there were no libraries where the general public could borrow books to read at home.
On April 25, 1917, a new library law went into effect in Michigan. Public Law No. 138, as it is officially called, authorized the Board of Commissioners of all counties to establish and guarantee the funding of “a free public library for the use of the inhabitants.” Commissioners could create a county-wide library system from scratch or they could partner with an existing private or municipal library in the area.
The Spies Library of Menominee was quick to take advantage of this new law. The board 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 throughout the county. The legislation required each organization to be responsible for half of the total cost of the operation, which had been capped at $5,000.
Ms. Helena LeFevre was the head librarian at the Spies Public Library, and it was in her hands that the logistics of this ambitious project began to fall. She was ultimately responsible for ordering, packing, and even transporting between 100 and 200 pounds to each location. His first task was to inspect schools, churches and factories to try to determine how many volumes were already available in each community. The results of this survey allowed him to determine the number of additional books to order for each location. The delivered boxes of books remained for a period of 90 days before being taken to another mini-library. This rotating collection of books was something entirely new and exciting for rural residents of Menominee County.
LeFevre’s experiences supervising and accompanying initial book deliveries offer a look at the sometimes harsh travel and road conditions a hundred years ago. On February 3, 1920, she brought the first box of books to Carney by train. When she arrived, she had to hire a young man to transport the shipment from the station to the post office. Then she helped the local librarian/caretaker choose the best location for the box and explained to her how this new revolving mini-library would work. On the first day, twenty of the books were immediately checked out.
After dinner at Carney, LeFevre boarded the 7 a.m. train for Nadeau, where she delivered another box of books for the local store. Miss Stella Nadeau was to be the new librarian/caretaker.
On subsequent train journeys, 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 March 18, 1920, she was greeted by a certain “Mr. Bagley with his cutter and a big white horse. Just outside Harris School, however, the cutter and its contents overturned in a snowdrift. The librarian found himself under the box of books buried under a meter of snow. However, it didn’t take long to save passengers and cargo. Fortunately, neither was injured.
In Greenwoods, a mini-library has been set up in a cheese factory. Mrs. Spitzer had agreed to serve as librarian/caretaker. A Gourley, the owner of the store where the mini-library was to be installed, expresses his skepticism about the project. Most of the locals were from Bohemia and didn’t speak English.
Hermansville residents were still reeling from a labor strike and a devastating fire when their books arrived. The only place available was the local hair salon. LeFevre initially wondered if women would frequent a library at a men’s barbershop, but once the service was up and running, there were as many women as men perusing the collection.
The Stephenson branch was established in the local pharmacy owned by Dr. Sawbridge, and it was here, as in most other places, that LeFevre visited schools and churches in an effort to promote the project. Religious leaders in the region were primarily concerned that the circulation of the books could help spread the deadly Spanish flu that had recently killed more than 50 million people worldwide.
The eight-mile journey from Daggett Station to the Banat was particularly strenuous. A horse-drawn cutter was the only way to navigate the very primitive road, especially in the blinding snowstorm they faced that day. For locations along the bay, the road was good enough for books to be delivered by car.
In total, it took nearly four months to set up these 30 mini-libraries across the department. Each location has shown a high payout rate from the first day of operation. County-wide circulation of library materials was an idea whose time had come.