Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: The Book Store/Library (06/03/10)
- TITLE: Waiting for the Wagon
By Yvonne Blake
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As the buggy rounded the corner, two children scurried out of its way. They stood on the edge of the road and stared at the pretty lady riding by in the open buggy. A girl with bare feet and long braids put her arm on her little brother’s shoulder and gave a polite wave. Behind them stood a weathered shack with a tired picket fence and chickens scratching about the yard.
Turning for another look at the children, Mary sighed. “We must be ten miles from any town or village. I wonder if those children have ever seen a library.” The buggy bumped over the dirt roads, past acres of farmland, with lonesome houses scattered here and there. “There are probably many other children living out here in the countryside, without libraries—without books!”
Mary Titcomb loved books. She also loved working at the library in Hagerstown, the county seat of Washington County, Maryland. There were so many interesting things in the world to read about. She wanted everybody to have the opportunity to enjoy books, too.
In 1904, Mary developed a distribution system. Boxes of 30 books were delivered to over 60 general stores, post offices, and even front porches throughout the whole county. Farmers, housewives, and youngsters were able to borrow books from the deposit spots and even request special ones they might desire.
It wasn’t enough. Mary approached the town council. “Would not a library wagon, the outward and visible signs of the service for which the library stood, do much more in cementing friendship? Would the upkeep of the wagon after the first cost be much more than the present method?” She presented her plans to cover the county with regular routes with a wagon.
Mr. Joshua Thomas, the librarian’s janitor, became Mary’s assistant. Shelves were constructed into the sides of a delivery vehicle with panels that opened to reveal over 600 books. Boxes of more books were stored inside. The book wagon looked very much like a peddler’s wagon or grocery truck.
There was much debate on how it would be decorated. Mary wanted it to be plain and dignified, without gilt or scrollwork. “We don’t want it looking like a laundry wagon!” It was finally painted black, with only simple lettering: WASHINGTON COUNTY FREE LIBRARY. In April of 1905, Dandy and Black Beauty, two faithful mares, started out on their first round.
Seeing the black wagon approach his house, a man hollered out, “Yer needn't stop here. We ain't got no use for the dead wagon here." Thomas promptly brightened the wheels and doors with a cheerful red design. He didn’t want the book wagon to be mistaken for a funeral wagon again.
For five years, Joshua Thomas crisscrossed the dirt roads of Washington County. Often Mary would go with him to meet those whom they served. She loved to help little ones find stories of adventure and faraway places. She saw the delight in a lonely, young mother’s eyes as she clutched a novel in her arms. She assisted men and students with books of history and technology.
One stormy August evening, Mr. Thomas was hurrying back from his route. The horses were already spooked by the lightning and thunder, when a train whistle sounded at the St. James crossing. Thomas tried to hold his horses back, but they bolted across the tracks. The train smashed the wagon into smithereens. The wind snatched the pages of the books and scattered them over the countryside.
Mary was saddened, but not discouraged. Times were changing. She helped design a new motorized book wagon to carry on the mission. It traveled farther and faster. More farmers, housewives, and children eagerly awaited the sight of the book wagon—bringing the world to their front door.
That was the first book mobile in our country. Over the years, hundreds of farmers, housewives, and children in rural places have benefitted from this service—waiting for the book wagon to come down their road.
“No better method has ever been devised for reaching the dweller in the country. The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book.” (Mary Titcomb)
* Mary Titcomb (1857-1932) established the first bookmobile program in the United States. She won the gold medal of the Library Olympics and honored in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
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