As many of you may be aware, I have a book to sell on the history of Indiana state parks (People, Parks, and Perceptions) and, having minimal marketing skills, I have taken it upon myself to visit all the libraries in the state in order to persuade them to purchase it. Happily, my efforts have proven very successful, and I’ve enjoyed quite a series of adventures over the last year or so. Yes, adventure is where you find it; open your eyes!
Today I headed out to catch some libraries that I had missed because of their limited hours. First stop was the Swayzee Public Library, located in a small town in Grant County that posts on its welcome sign that it is “the only Swayzee in the World.” The library (http://swayzeepubliclibrary.com/) is in a remodeled nineteenth century brick structure that was once a Methodist church. The building sits on State Road 13 south of downtown, and has housed the library for over fifty years. Inside is light, airy, and inviting, chock full of books, although the librarian ruefully tells me that most of her patrons come in for the DVDs.
If you’re wondering why the town is called Swayzee, it was named for the owner of the land when it was platted in 1880 at the junction of two railroads. Seven years later, natural gas was discovered and Swayzee boomed, but, like so many towns in northeastern central Indiana during those years of wild development, it began to fade when the gas ran out at the turn of the century.
Why “the only Swayzee in the world”? The story goes that a serviceman in World War II wrote back to his hometown with the street address and “Swayzee,” omitting the name of Indiana. (No zip codes in those days, young’uns.) Evidently the letter reached its intended recipient, so, clearly, this must be the only Swayzee in the world. I don’t make these things up (although maybe the folks in Swayzee did.)
From there I took county roads and old highways, passing through Gas City, which has an expanded Carnegie Library ( Gas City-Mill Township Public Library (IN) ) that has ￼retained
the handsome original portion on the east end. I’d already made a successful visit there last year, so I gave it a wave and a smile, with a nod to the town’s street signs supported with replicas of derricks in honor of the town’s heritage.
On to Matthews, a town in southeastern Grant County on the old Wheeling Pike, a nineteenth century road that only coincidentally meanders through the south part of the area wherein lay the former gas fields. But the town’s origins in 1895 were literally smack in the middle of the gas boom, or more accurately the huge Trenton Gas Field, which was already well on its way to being depleted. The heyday of Matthews, presumably named for the governor at the time, Claude Matthews, was barely ten years. Having passed through town twice before, I had learned that the library was open only for a couple of hours twice a week; I had planned my trip to catch it this time. But when I arrived at the rundown little building that housed the town offices and the library, it was vacant! Yet the library had been there only a few months before. Fortunately a sign on the door informed me that the library and all the rest had moved into the old elementary school. Matthews is not so large that finding the new location was a concern. About three blocks away at the edge of town was a nice brick postwar elementary school. I wandered in, noting on the door that the library was now open six hours weekly. Down a dark hall I spotted a light from a former classroom that was the library’s new home, small, but undoubtedly with more space than it must have had before. The librarian said “the board” would have to make the final decision, but she accepted my book and invoice, and told a young man sitting there to “run this over” to the president. We had a nice conversation about the role of libraries in hardhit communities, and then she told me of another library that I didn’t even know about in Gaston, a little town just down the road.
I digress to note that one of the joys of pursuing libraries is the wildlife along the way. Not far from Gaston I spotted a red-tailed hawk not fifteen feet from me on a low-hanging wire. It’s a common enough sight today, but my heart still thrills. More thrilling still were the four egrets standing in a small pond next to the road just a couple of miles further. Not to mention it was the perfect summer day, of which we have had very few this year.
Gaston, whose name suggests origins in the gas boom, is in Delaware County, site of the first natural gas discovery in Indiana (in 1876 near the town of Eaton). What’s left of its downtown includes what surely was an opera house, and in one of the storefronts a window displayed painted letters reading “Gaston Community Library”–and also a fitness center and coffeehouse. And more, as it turned out. I walked into a jumble of exercise equipment in a room lined with bookshelves. About halfway back was a partial wall setting off a counter and some tables and chairs, this space also lined with books. There were three fellows of disparate ages seated at the tables and I asked if this was, in fact, the library. “Yes,” responded the youngest, a teenager, enthusiastically, “and a coffeehouse and a church . . . “ at which point, one of the older men took over. Turns out he was the founder of the library (et al.), and cheerleader for the community–and service to it. Michael Osborne loves history and books of all sorts–and he is a down-to-earth pastor bringing the message to the people where they are. “See what this place represents,” he says, putting on the brogue of his Scots-Irish ancestors,“healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spirit.” For on Sundays, he holds church amidst the books. (You can listen to an interview with him here: Interview.
Bless these tiny libraries in these hardscrabble little towns! You meet the most interesting folks! (And yes, he bought a book.) Having now been to some two hundred libraries throughout Indiana, my adventures have been many. Next time, perhaps, the tale of Alexander, Peabody, and Winkelpleck. A law firm? A 70s rock group? Nope, benefactors of Indiana libraries that bear their names. Andrew Carnegie wasn’t the only one.