Early History of WGRL!

            Wythe-Grayson Regional Library is celebrating 75 years of history!  The theme for WGRLs 75th anniversary is “Looking Back Stepping Forward”.  I have heard a lot of stories over the years, especially about the Becker Library in Independence and the citizens of both Wythe and Grayson counties promoting the development of their public libraries and in creating a joint library system for the two counties. … The story begins with Independence and Wytheville supporting public libraries and continues as branch libraries became part of the regional system.  I am Mary Thomas the current Executive Director of WGRL.  Please join me on a journey looking back at our beginnings.

            The story of WGRL needs to be told in several segments. The first segment starts with Pauline Bourne, the Town of Independence, and Grayson County.         Parts of the story of a public library in Independence come from written accounts, oral history, photographs, and local history books. The Grayson County Public Library has furniture from the Becker Library, the Berry Clock and books that were a part of the Becker Library collection.  Archived materials in the Grayson Library files include a news article by Carol Newman Jr.  Additional information comes from Grayson County: A History in Words and Pictures by James Stamper.

Pauline Bourne – a Vision for a Library in Grayson County VA.

            In an article I found in the Grayson County Library files: “Footback Librarians of the Hills” by Carol Newman Jr. we learn about Miss Pauline Bourne and the National Youth Administration (NYA), but the focus of Newman’s article was the footback librarians and the people that benefited from this service.  The article represents the heartfelt appreciation not only for the delivery of books but the time the youth spent with their patrons.

            The story of the first library in Grayson County really begins with Miss Bourne and her love of reading.  She was a lover of books; she knew their power. She referred to her books as her ‘silent friends’. Miss Bourne took steps toward her goal of a public library by successfully securing a book lending project, through the NYA in the latter half of 1935.

            A native of Grayson County, she passed the bar in 1931 and practiced law in Independence. She was also active in the NYA – a program started by President Roosevelt as part of the New Deal.  Miss. Bourne served as the local director of the NYA and hired young people as “footback librarians” to carry books to the citizens of Grayson County. Continuing from the same article mentioned above: “[Miss Bourne] conferenced with officials of the county and her NYA supervisor, W. C. Chapman, from Roanoke; she decided to work up some kind of a library.”  Miss Bourne’s vision was for a library that fit the needs of the county. The article indicated that the residents, in the hills of Grayson County, rarely came into the town of Independence. In 1934 Independence was located 17 miles from the nearest rail station.

            One of her goals was to place a public library in Grayson County. The plan Miss Bourne developed was to find books and take the books to families using the NYA boys and girls. In the beginning books were gathered from her personal collection while she waited for delivery of books from the State Library of Virginia located in Richmond. Books would be loaned for three months at a time. From a document: Outstanding Women of Grayson County (Laura Bryant) it recounts that “The books were sent by the State Library of Virginia in wooden chests on the train to Galax and trucked to Miss Bourne’s office in Independence.” The books were housed in Miss Bourne’s former law office, which became the headquarters for NYA. The NYA youth were each given a satchel filled with books to distribute. They had to go on foot. There were no other means of transportation available for them; few roads and more often than not there were no roads up to the homes they were going to. Going on foot was their best option.

            At the time the article was published (date unknown) it is mentioned that the Becker Library was being built using NYA boys as there were 3000 readers being served. The library grew to holding 1729 books and 2000 magazines; it served 27 ‘isolated’ communities. Mr. Newman, the author of the article, noted that the library and the communities being served were growing.

            The growth of the ‘Footback Librarian Project’ justified the building of the first library in Grayson County. It is recorded in different sources that Miss Bourne valued education and reading for pleasure. The support for a physical public library was a big accomplishment. Miss Bourne campaigned and secured the funds for the new library and supervised the NYA boys to build the Becker Library located on the town square in Independence. In the Outstanding Women of Grayson County document, it states that Lola “Kidd” Dickenson drew up the plans for the library. Starting in the winter of 1936 through 1937 a log cabin was built to house the library’s growing collection. The plans are framed and are hanging in the Grayson County Library today. Another woman of note is Euna Faye Gentry. She also passed the bar in 1931 and served as librarian at the public library and at the high school. 


The Becker Library – the Original Grayson Library

            The success and confidence of the ‘Footback Librarians’ drove home the need for a physical building to serve as a public library in Grayson County.  Miss Bourne worked on this building project through the NYA. Donations of money and materials had to be found. The Grayson County Supervisors at the time could offer encouragement and moral support for the project and property for the building.  Support came from all over, including as far away as Washington D.C. Florence Becker, widow to the noted geologist George Ferdinand Becker, was the main contributor to the library project. The Becker Library was dedicated on July 4, 1937.

            Mrs. Becker gave several gifts to the library including two chairs and a desk that were used by George Becker and which are in the Grayson County Library today.  She also gave fifty books to the library. The Grayson Library also has “the Berry Clock” which was presented by Miss Rosamond Berry of Lynchburg, VA.

            In looking at the writings about the Becker Library and the project to bring books to as many people in the county as possible I found a statement that is particularly interesting for today: “Not everyone is in favor of everything the Government is doing, but when people enjoy books and see other people enjoying them, they forget politics.”

            The Becker Library operated continuously until 1942. After 1942 the library operated sporadically until 1948. In 1948, an agreement was made between the Becker Library, (also known at the time as the Grayson County Library), and the Wytheville School and Public Library, in Wytheville, Virginia.

            Are you interested in looking at the books and other artifacts mentioned in this article? Drop by the Grayson Historical Society or the Grayson County Public Library.  Keep in mind that the WGRL is seeking stories of the early years of the libraries in Grayson and Wythe counties.  If you have a story about the libraries, please feel free to write it down or record it and give it to a staff person at any of the current WGRL libraries. We would love to document your memories, experiences and how having a library was beneficial to you and your community.