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.