Archive for Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Smith is Kansas’ oldest worker

She’s a page in the history books

September 25, 2002

Talk about keeping up the family business.

Since 1926, Martha Smith has been librarian at Vinland's one-room Coal Creek Library, a venture her ancestors helped found way back before Kansas was even a state.

Now 97 and bent by the weight of years, Smith spends a few hours on Sunday afternoons from April to October tending the library's 3,500-plus volumes and the collection of artifacts that documents its history.

Tucked between gravel roads in southern Douglas County, the faux red brick building topped with tin is thought to house the state's oldest continuously operating library, founded two years before the start of the Civil War. Smith has been its librarian off and on since she was in her early 20s.

"I kept it open and clean and checked out books to people," she said.

The aging books, many tattered and worn from decades of page-flipping, don't leave the library much anymore. Most visitors are more interested in browsing the library's old patron lists to see if their kinfolk once read books from its shelves.

Others are returning to a tiny escape where they remember borrowing novels that swept them away as children.

"I walked up there and got books from the library off and on when I was growing up," said 88-year-old Moleta Schmidt of Baldwin, who spent her childhood on a farm outside Vinland. "I checked them out and took them home. They were good story books. We didn't have books at home like you have now."

Reading, games, song

As for Smith, she admits she's never been much of a bookworm: "I'm a slow reader."

She always figured it was just appropriate to surround herself with the books her relatives helped bring to Vinland.

"I suppose it was because of my ancestors belonging to this association," she said.

That association was the Coal Creek Social Library Assn., a group of 22 Coal Creek Valley residents who first met Nov. 22, 1859, at the home of Smith's great uncle, George Cutter. The constitution and bylaws adopted at that first gathering handwritten and still on display at the library established an organization devoted to "the moral, social, and intellectual improvement of its members."

Smith tells how the group continued to have social meetings every two weeks "in one home or another."

"I think they always talked about some book," Smith said. "Then they played games and they sang."

What started out as a 10-volume collection library members drew lots to see who got to take home books first grew into a library too large for a private home. Members moved the books to the Grange Hall until the current library building was erected in 1900. Membership in the library association peaked between 1880 and 1910, when an average of 50 people used the books.

A museum, of sorts

Many of the original 100 volumes acquired during the library association's first year still can be viewed at the building, which has become something of a museum. A note next to an encased copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" explains the book "was read and re-read until tattered."

Most of the original wooden shelves line the walls, cradling the timeworn tomes, many of whose covers have been replaced and titles rewritten by hand on their spines. The same wood-burning stove that kept Smith's predecessors warm on frigid winter days 100 years ago stands ready to burn firewood today, though it doesn't keep the uninsulated building warm enough for her to maintain winter hours any more.

"I couldn't be here in the wintertime," Smith said, pointing to the stove. "I had that and that kerosene stove going and I couldn't keep warm sitting down."

Even so, working at the library always has been a highlight of her life.

"I like it," said Smith, who grew up on a farm near Baldwin. "I was helping my father farm, just driving horses mostly. That gave me a time with people."

She still enjoys donning her spectacles and glancing through the library's guest book. Recent visitors hailed from as far away as England and New Zealand.


Smith has had help keeping up with her library duties. During summers from the 1950s through the 1970s, the Vinland Extension Homemakers Unit kept the library open one morning a week so the town's children still could fetch books.

"Nowadays they go to Baldwin or Lawrence ... or watch TV," said Anne Hemphill, Vinland's unofficial historian and Smith's 91-year-old sister.

Smith never had formal training as a librarian. When she graduated from Vinland Rural High School No. 1 in 1924, an aunt who lived in Lawrence got her a job in the children's section at the Lawrence Public Library. She worked there for two years, when the library was still in the Carnegie building at Ninth and Vermont streets, before taking the helm at Coal Creek.

On a recent afternoon, Smith, wearing a flowered dress with a jeweled broach pinned at the neck, navigated the library's worn hardwood floors, pointing out books from the original first 10 locked away in glass cases and black-and-white photographs of family members who helped found the library.

"That's a leaf I found pressed in one of the books," she said, giggling at the memory.

After nearly eight decades as the Coal Creek librarian, Smith still takes pleasure in making sure the building stays tidy and that its door is open at least once a week. She has a few "helpers," and she's sure someone will step in to keep up the library when she's no longer able.

Will she ever retire? Resting in a chair on the library's front porch, she guesses, "Probably my health will tell."

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