Circulating Books on the Back Roads of Vermont

Eleanor Bon­ney Simons remem­bers her book­wagon days as Regional Librarian
Bon­ney Simons (in the ker­chief) helps cus­tomers look for titles in the back of her bookwagon.

By Sharon Lakey
“The one-room school in Stan­nard was a dark build­ing,” 91-year-old Eleanor Bon­ney Simons (known as Bon­ney) remem­bers. “The win­dows were reg­u­lar house win­dows, not the large ones you would see in typ­i­cal schools at the time. I thought, ‘How hor­ri­ble for these chil­dren to have to attend a school like this.’”
As she entered the build­ing, she noticed a man in the back of the room, kneel­ing there to help some child. When he stood up, he came for­ward with his hand out and intro­duced him­self as Super­in­ten­dent of Schools, John Holden. Later, he became Vermont’s Com­mis­sioner of Education.
Accord­ing to Bon­ney, that event changed her atti­tude. “I under­stood that these chil­dren could be as well-served in a one-room school as any other. Like today, it all depends on the qual­ity of instruction.”
For young Eleanor Bon­ney, fresh out of Sim­mons Library School in 1941, mov­ing to Ver­mont to become Regional Librar­ian in St. Johns­bury was like going back a cen­tury. “Pot-bellied stoves and a teacher who had to do everything–all eight grades in one room!” she exclaims, obvi­ously still impressed with the dif­fi­culty those brave teach­ers faced.
The Regional Library sys­tem came into exis­tence as a response to the Great Depres­sion, which had taken its toll on Ver­mont libraries. With finan­cial sup­port reduced, a State Free Library Com­mis­sion came up with a plan to set up a sys­tem of five regions that would cir­cu­late books through­out the state, both to schools and pub­lic libraries. Book­wag­ons would deliver the books, con­sis­tently exchang­ing col­lec­tions to get the most use out of each book. It was a bril­liant plan that would serve Ver­mon­ters well.
When she inter­viewed for the job in Mont­pe­lier in the spring of 1941, she remem­bers being asked, “Have you ever dri­ven in snow?”
“Once,” was her reply. She had just got­ten her driver’s license.
Mrs. Wells, the governor’s wife, and O.D. Math­ew­son, a promi­nent Lyn­don Cen­ter edu­ca­tor and founder of Lyn­don State Col­lege, who had spon­sored the bill to set up the regional sys­tem, were on the board who inter­viewed Bon­ney. She remem­bers Math­ew­son say­ing dur­ing the inter­view, “the rea­son Ver­mon­ters get so much done is they have to get up before break­fast.” No doubt, that com­ment meant that if she got the job, it wasn’t going to be easy.
Young and unfazed, Bon­ney was hired and served in that posi­tion from 1941 to 1947. She moved to St. Johns­bury, find­ing an apart­ment down the street from the Athenaeum where the regional col­lec­tion was housed on the upper floor. The Athenaeum librar­ian at that time was Cor­nelia Fair­banks, the last of the Fair­banks fam­ily in St. Johns­bury. “She was a very mild woman, polite,” remem­bers Bon­ney. “At the time, Cor­nelia still used record writ­ing, even though she had a type­writer.“  In school, Bon­ney had learned this type of writ­ing, but she had also had a course in typ­ing. “I think the Athenaeum still has some of Cornelia’s cat­a­loging cards.”
It was the end of the depres­sion when she started and before WWII, and she was lucky to have two local men who were employed by the WPA to go with her on those early trips as dri­vers. They were Fran­cis Mayo from St. Johns­bury and Lee Blan­chard from Gro­ton. The book­wagon team was set up with a new Ply­mouth, a small panel truck that had a big lazy Susan shelf in the back that held 600 books. “We’d go out about 15 days a month. The rest would be work­ing on the col­lec­tion back at the library,” said Bonney.
Lunch was on the road in the book­wagon. Bon­ney ate from a metal lunch pail that her land­lady packed for her. “The state paid on-the-road costs,” said Bon­ney, “50 cents for break­fast.” Bon­ney and her dri­vers vis­ited 53 towns, which included towns in Essex, Orleans, Cale­do­nia , Orange and Wash­ing­ton counties.
Most of the dri­ving was on dirt roads. “No mat­ter what the weather, if we planned to go out, we went,” she said. Of course, there were times when they bogged down, either in snow or mud. She remem­bers “bury­ing it where Steve Parker now lives on the Old North Church road to Tampico one Sep­tem­ber. An old man came with his horse. Mr. Blan­chard pushed from behind, and the man asked, ‘Can you team it?’ I guessed that meant ‘Can you drive it?’ I nod­ded and slipped behind the wheel to help guide the car out of the mud.” There were many such events on the back roads of her routes.
She fondly remem­bers her WPA men. “Mr. Mayo was an avid reader, and I relied on him heav­ily.” Peo­ple would gather around the books in the wagon and pep­per her with ques­tions about the titles. “I hadn’t read most of them, but Mr. Mayo would help me through. A cus­tomer wanted to know if the book they were tak­ing out was any good, and he had read most of them.”
“Mr. Blan­chard loved it when we went to Gro­ton. He used to own a store there. He would go into the school and announce, ‘I bet I can name every fam­ily rep­re­sented here just by look­ing at your faces.’ And he would do it; the kids would be so pleased.” She also remem­bers that as they drove along the roads, he would count and announce how many head of cat­tle were in each field along the way.
Her dri­vers helped her through that first year, but when war was declared in 1942, the WPA was dis­banded. There were plenty of good pay­ing jobs to be had in sup­port of the war effort. Not only did her WPA men dis­ap­pear, but so did many teach­ers. “They were mak­ing a pit­tance as teach­ers but could go out and work in fac­to­ries and make good money.”With her dri­vers gone, Bon­ney went it alone or with Isabelle Sar­gent, a St. Johns­bury girl that grad­u­ated from the Acad­emy. “We had to cut back on some of the runs because of the gas coupons,” she said.
She most enjoyed going to the schools. “If a teacher was orga­nized and cre­ative, the kids had a good edu­ca­tion.” As a ster­ling exam­ple, she men­tioned Dorothy Stan­ton, who taught at the Tampico in North Danville. “The thing I noticed most about her room was that every time I came, the chairs were often put in a dif­fer­ent set­ting. There was a feel­ing that the stu­dents were always busy, involved in some project they were work­ing on.”
There were schools that were not so for­tu­nate, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the war years when some schools were led by sub­sti­tutes due to the teacher short­age. She remem­bers dri­ving into one one-room school­yard and see­ing a boy jump­ing out the win­dow. The sub­sti­tute there told her, “These kids can’t read; they just stum­ble along.” The worse such story she remem­bers was when a Super­in­ten­dent came to visit one school, sit­ting among the stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in the les­son. “You don’t need to expect any­thing,” said the sub­sti­tute. “I’m just keep­ing the door open.” The teacher short­age was the turn­ing point for the numer­ous one and two-room schools as con­sol­i­da­tion became more prominent.
“I liked going to schools the most, because of the inter­ac­tion,” said Bon­ney. “When I went to pub­lic libraries, it was mostly to help with book clas­si­fi­ca­tion and weed­ing.” A librar­ian weeds a col­lec­tion when there are too many books on the shelves, but weed­ing may or may not be seen as a good thing by the local librar­ian. “I went to the Bar­ton library to weed. It was a nice build­ing, but books were piled high, even stacked on the win­dowsills. I don’t know how many boxes were filled that day from the col­lec­tion as I worked my way through it. I heard later that the librar­ian came in the next morn­ing, sat at the desk and cried all day. I don’t know if she put them all back on the shelves or not.”
“Some­times I was asked to go to indi­vid­ual houses to deliver books, and I would do that, too. I remem­ber Mr. Miller in East Top­sham, who ran the famous Miller’s store there. He wanted books about the Phillip­ines, because that was where his son was located in the war. A cus­tomer came in the door and asked if he served cof­fee. ‘Hell, no,’ Miller responded. ‘I don’t deal in antiques.’ There was no cof­fee, because of the war,” Bon­ney said in explanation.       
When the war ended, Bon­ney was in for a life change, too. Before the war she had been intro­duced to a young fire­man when he came to douse a fire in the Athenaeum chim­ney. Evi­dently, another type of fire had been lit at the same time. When he returned from the war, he returned to his job at the fire sta­tion and began to find ways to engage the beau­ti­ful Bon­ney in con­ver­sa­tion. One day, he saun­tered by to ask if she had any good books to read. “Oh, can you read?” was her reply.
They were mar­ried in 1947, and she quit her full­time job as Regional Librar­ian. “He wanted me to,” she said. “It would have been a poor reflec­tion on him if I had to work. Those were just the val­ues of the times.” He went on to become St. Johnsbury’s fire chief for ten years; Bon­ney worked part time for the new Regional Libar­ian, Mary Stew­art and her assis­tant, Les Smith, who would become the well-known area book­mo­bile man.
Michael Roche, our present Regional Librar­ian, shared the fol­low­ing inter­est­ing sta­tis­tics about Eleanor Bon­ney Simons’ last year on the job: the St. Johns­bury book­wagon trav­elled 14,385 miles on 136 work­ing days, aver­ag­ing 105 miles a day, rain or shine. She deliv­ered to over 100 schools, 58 pub­lic libraries, 35 indi­vid­ual stops, 20 sta­tions and 14 pri­vate homes for a total of 1,153 stops.
For more pho­tos related to this story, click here.
This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the Octo­ber 2010, issue of the North Star Monthly.
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6 Responses to Circulating Books on the Back Roads of Vermont

  1. mroche says:

    Sharon, what a won­der­ful arti­cle. It’s hard to believe that was only 75 years ago. I loved the pho­tographs and of course kudos to Bon­ney for her many years of work­ing in and sup­port­ing libraries. Michael

  2. Tyler says:

    “At the time, Cor­nelia still used record writ­ing, even though she had a typewriter.“

    Could some­one clar­ify the usage of “record writ­ing” in this con­text? Google’s not turn­ing up any­thing rel­e­vant on the phrase.

  3. Danville Historical Society says:

    Record writ­ing was the type of ele­gant script that was taught and used on pub­lic doc­u­ments before the use of type­writ­ers became com­mon. You can see this type of script on old deeds, etc.

  4. Tyler says:

    Thanks for the info!

  5. andrewliptak says:

    Very cool arti­cle, thanks for sharing!

  6. Dean Romig says:

    Alas, on Sun­day night, Sep­tem­ber 13, 2015, her chap­ter in Life has come to an end. Eleanor Bon­ney Simons passed to her Great Reward and Eter­nal Life in Heaven.
    We shall cher­ish her mem­ory and speak fondly of her often. She leaves an envi­able legacy.

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