Those of you who know me know how much I love books. In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to pay tribute to a woman who also shared that passion and made a difference in Bradford County.
In 1937 Dawes Markwell was one of several people in Bradford County who realized that even though there were eight borough libraries, only three of them functioned efficiently. The other five were sorely in need of modernizing their book collections. And to the complete dismay of Markwell, the elementary schools had no libraries at all. It was felt that there was a great need for a distribution of books in our county.
After three and a half years of meetings and trying to convince the county commissioners of the importance of a library program, on June 9,1941 the Bradford County Library was established.
It was given a very small budget and in accordance with the Pennsylvania library law at that time, the State Library was able to lend two thousand books to the new county library.
The county commissioners felt that they could use a room in the basement of the new infirmary that was being built that summer.
Markwell had been appointed librarian in May and got the library under way in August. It was decided that there was a need for a bookmobile.
The bookmobile, a half-ton panel truck was ordered, but it had to have shelving on tracks installed. Unfortunately with a war going on in Europe and Asia, the steel for the tracks and the shelving was delayed.
Books arrived. While waiting for the completion of the bookmobile, Markwell visited communities, set up deposit stations and delivered books in her own car.
Finally, the week before Thanksgiving, the completed bookmobile arrived. Markwell set out on its maiden “voyage” with Mr. Ezra Jones as her driver / clerk.
“It was wonderfully satisfying to see the books disappear from the office,” said Markwell. “And know that they were at last getting into readers’ hands somewhere out in the county.”
To celebrate this great event, the library board had a special dinner.
It was Dec. 8, 1941 – 24 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
War rationing of gasoline and tires had its affect on the bookmobile, but Markwell managed quite well.
“The amount of gasoline and tires and inner tubes allowed was based on the previous year’s use,” explained Markwell. “The bookmobile had no record… so I made an estimate of the service I wished to give.”
The Ration Board accepted Markwell’s estimate and the county library was able to have a full schedule all through the rationing war years.
Rationing was not the only problem encountered by Markwell during those years. The county library didn’t always have the funds to hire enough help and Markwell often found herself as not only the librarian, but the bookmobile driver as well.
Tires were a big problem. Markwell remembers on one bookmobile trip on a lonely stretch of road between Athens and Windham Center, she had a flat tire. The spare was under the chassis and she had to lie on the ground on her back to unscrew the two bolts that held a steel crosspiece. While one hand held off the weight of the spare wheel, the other hand worked the wrench.
“All during the operation I hoped fervently that the whole contraption would not fall on my face,” said Markwell. “It was January with a cold wind blowing swirls of snow around the bookmobile. Tires seemed not so durable then as now and I got a good deal of practice in changing them.”
Markwell found that it was to her advantage to carry along a carton of rationed cigarettes.
Heavily loaded with books, the bookmobile had excellent traction, even on snowy unplowed roads. On one such road, while racing to make it to the top of a hill before she lost all momentum, she met a car coming the opposite way. Both vehicles plunged into the snow banks. The bookmobile was stuck, buried up to its oil pan! The other driver told Markwell that he would dig her out if he had a shovel.
“He didn’t know librarians but he was a good sport when I pulled my shovel out from under a bookshelf,” said Markwell. “Before he had me out, he had earned that carton of cigarettes.”
Markwell drove the bookmobile to the most isolated communities and schools in the county. At that time there were 37 one-room schools. They were located on back roads, on the windiest ridges, and hidden in the woods. But Markwell got there. Even if she could get to within a half mile of a school, she walked the rest of the way.
“I wore a ski suit on those winter days, with sheep-skin lined boots,” said Markwell. “How else could I stand outside the bookmobile while a crowd of clamorous children made a serious choice of books from unprotected shelves?”
Every child got a book. Even the teachers borrowed books from the bookmobile.
“County library books are experienced travelers. I have sent them on their way aboard bobsleds and tractors, trucks and manure spreaders,” said Markwell. “Anything that offered just so that they got to the youngsters who needed them.”
And it was those books in the hands of the children that made quite a difference. According to Markwell, three years after the bookmobile had begun its journey the county children were given a reading test to measure their improvement over that specific period.
“The tests showed a thirteen percent increase in reading ability,” said Markwell. “There is nowhere else to assign credit for the improvement except to the bookmobile service.”
Through rain, wind, ice, snow and heat of the summer Markwell drove that bookmobile. Together they climbed mountains, went through floods and around every kind of detour. Each year, she delivered about 145,000 books to schools, stores, banks, homes, post offices, gas stations; anywhere she could set up stations that people would find convenient.
Markwell loved the rural route and life of the bookmobile. She appreciated the beauty of the county as she drove.
“It was at Sugar Hill School that I saw my first view of the stars through a telescope,” said Markwell. “The sky seemed unbelievably close.”
She remembered the road to the Morgan School on Armenia Mountain as a “dirt road up the glen – mostly one-way and barely passable for long stretches.” But one winter day, when she did the trip after an ice storm she described the beauty of the landscape before her as “every tree was covered with glistening ice, every grass blade and weed coated with silver.”
After 25 years driving the bookmobile in three counties – Bradford, Sullivan, and Wyoming – Markwell said, “With demand from the people, the county library must move forward. There must be an adequate central building. We have traveled 257,000 miles in our first quarter century – twelve times around the earth. Where will we go in the next twenty-five years?”
Dawes Markwell loved books and saw the need for them as part of rural life. Oh, if only she could see the Bradford County Library today.