Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Jan. 29, 2001

Pages from the past: a 1920s farm kid takes on the library

By Burt Kreitlow

The root of my love affair with libraries is hard to explain.

Using a library of any kind in the rural area where I grew up was a challenge. Our small farm home was in a rural neighborhood called Highland. Highland had a small store, a creamery, and a hand-pumped source of gasoline in relation to the store. Farmers from two miles around used these services.

In the days of no automobiles, after winter set in, we delivered milk by sleigh, walked or skied to the one-room school, and visited neighbors.

We had a Model T Ford that was used summers and was put up on blocks over winter. There were no school buses and only the rare graduate of grade eight attended high school.

Highland was five miles from Howard Lake, the nearest town. Though only 50 miles from Minneapolis, the area was very rural as was most of the state in the 1920s. Over one-half of the population lived on farms or in small towns and in my home county, Wright, there were no towns of over 2,500 population.

Where in this setting could a love affair with libraries begin?

Did it begin with that old library table in the living room?

That table included the only bookshelf in our entire farm home. It held a complete set of Sherlock Holmes, a Bible, "The Anatomy Of Man," and several books which were past Christmas presents.

Or did it begin with the cased library in the one-room Highland school that I attended?

In that library were no more than 200 books. By tradition dating back to the late 1800s, five new books were purchased yearly by the school board. This was supposed to make up for those lost or severely damaged during the year.

Or was it the traveling library developed by the County Superintendent of Schools?

When the budget allowed, the local school board included in its budget the postage required to get a box of 50 books delivered once each month during the eight-month school year. Those books were devoured by those of us with imagination and a developing love for reading.

Or were its real roots with the difficulty of borrowing books from a public library?

Howard Lake had a public library kept open by volunteer ladies. I was not welcome.

The library was to be only for those living in the corporate limits of the town. Through hindsight, I am convinced that this farm kid dressed in country clothes did not fit the library culture. There were also a number of other factors that caused my parents to ignore the library.

At age 10, I braved the negative attitude of the librarian and the strange looks I got from other patrons, went into the library on my own and tried to check out a book.

I was told in no uncertain terms, "No, you cannot check out this book or anything from the library. This is only for those in town. We shouldn't have let you in the reading room."

This is just what I needed to grit my teeth and respond, "I will be coming in someday when I get back to town. This is so nice."

During the next several years, I spent many Saturday mornings in the library. How did I manage that?

Farm kids learn to be inventive about getting their own way. I wanted to spend time in the library and read, read, read. There was so much to read in addition to that in our school library, and I had completed reading everything in that library by grade five.

At age 10, I saw my opportunity to get to the library on a regular basis. This was in relation to one of the routine farm tasks that took Pa to town at least once every two weeks. It was a half-day job.

A wagon or sleigh would be loaded with grain in the morning and driven the five miles to Moore's feed mill. The grain would be ground and mixed for feed for our hogs and cattle. Sometimes a sack of wheat was added to the load. It, too, was ground and used for our own breakfast cereal.

When Pa drove the team to the mill in town, he would wait about two hours for the task to be completed. He would spend these two hours visiting with Grandma and Grandpa and do any necessary shopping.

Here was opportunity that I saw. I had already driven to town by myself several times, so I did not expect my age to be a deterrent and it wasn't. So, I volunteered to do the feed mill trek on Saturday mornings. The response was not automatic, but the next day my parents said "Yes."

My first date with a big library of over 1,000 books was set. My parents seemed pleased that I had volunteered for a time-consuming job. They commented on how pleased Grandpa and Grandma would be when I stopped on Saturdays. It was then that I explained that I would be going to the library first and would go to Grandma's and Grandpa's if I had some extra time.

After some hesitation, Ma said, "Perhaps you better go there first and change to some clean clothes. I'm sure the library people don't like farm kids in there, to begin with."

There must have been some rebellion in my soul at that early age because I responded, "If they don't like it, they will have to tell me. That will be time enough to go see Grandma and Grandpa. If I only read, they may not kick me out."

I was never told to leave the library, but at this early age and through age 15, I learned what it was to be shunned.

Of course, I was the dirtiest looking person in the library. Loading and unloading sacks of grain left a mottled residue of dust on my jeans. No doubt my shoes did carry an aroma of cow manure left from the morning's milking. In retrospect, and to be honest, I may have had my own body odor. Saturday night was bath night and this was Saturday morning.

During these special two hours on Saturday mornings, except when other pressing farm work interfered, I polluted the Howard Lake Public Library. Never did I see another farm kid in the library.

And I read, first searching the stacks for books by authors I had read in the one-room school library (Curwood, London, Dickens, Grey, and others), then doing what I still do from time to time - perusing the stacks for titles that appeal. I even tried once or twice, unsuccessfully, to get the librarian to suggest something. If that brought no result, I took a book and read blindly, occasionally finding gems.

The last year I used this library was just after the repeal of prohibition and much of the library space was taken over by the new liquor store.

Do I remember those three libraries that formed a lifetime of reading?

Yes I do. I thank my parents for that bookshelf built as part of the library table. I thank the one-room school board for five new books each year and a traveling library when it could be afforded. And I thank the Howard Lake Public Library for putting up with me even if it was against the accepted culture of the times.


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