The Time Traveler this week is taking a trip back in time along the dusty roads of DeSoto County when the first traveling libraries brought Edgar Rice Burrough’s swashbuckling pirate stories, Zane Grey western novels and sizzling romances like “Peyton Place” to Boy Scouts, housewives and bank executives alike.
In 2019, it is often bandied about the sad lament that “people don’t read books anymore.”
But on the contrary, I find that people are tired of having to work their poor fingers to the nub manipulating script so small that mice can’t decipher the words.
They long for the faint rustle of pages on a cool breeze on a table beside a pitcher of ice cold lemonade. They look for a page smeared with a chocolate chip cookie smudge — that’s the best bookmark of all for a potboiler mystery or romance novel.
There was a time and place where all a man needed was a good book, a good dog at his feet and a good libation to ward off the winter chill or the sweltering heat of a blistering summer afternoon. As one who was reading from the time he literally crawled from the crib, I have found that reading affords an individual a perfect bookend to a great life. Of course, the best book of all — the Holy Bible — has all the elements of a great story from beginning to end — murder, mayhem, mysteries and the mystical, heroes, villains, profound eternal truths, the supernatural and salvation.
The people of DeSoto County were among the first in the State of Mississippi to create a regional library concept.
Just the other day I was glancing up at the fine oil portrait of my friend Jim Anderson, which now hangs in the main lobby of the First Regional Library headquarters, and I chanced to visit with his daughter Nancy.
She pulled from a file drawer — yes, there are still plenty of file drawers to be found — a history of the First Regional Library that her father wrote in the 1970s.
According to Jim Anderson’s research, prior to 1950, there were only four public libraries in operation in the five counties which now comprise the First Regional Library system.
The Oxford-Lafayette Public Library got its start in 1930 when the Oxford Business and Professional Women’s Club took up the sponsorship of a free public library. Native son William Faulkner was well on his way to literary greatness about the time the first public library got started there.
The federal Works Progress Administration, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, paid for salaries of library workers and books. The Batesville Library would begin in 1932 followed by Sardis in 1947 in a store on one of the town’s main streets.
But one of the earliest was the DeSoto County Public Library, which began with a WPA project in 1935.
The DeSoto County Board of Supervisors stepped in to fund the library when WPA funds dried up.
The library was kept funded when most other libraries had to shut their doors due to lack of funds.
The library was housed during the early Forties in a library room inside the DeSoto County Courthouse, which was built in 1940. A county library enabling law was introduced in the Mississippi State Senate in 1944 by state Sen. J.W. Hudspeth of DeSoto County and was passed by the state House of Representatives and state Senate in 1946. At the time, according to Anderson, the county library only had $100 per year for books and $1,200 for its staff of two.
Its 3,000-volume collection consisted of books mainly from the WPA era.
A wonderful lady named Amma Gray Horn left her entire estate to the DeSoto County Library and the director of the Mississippi Library Commission came to DeSoto County in the spring of 1947 to organize a citizens’ group to help establish a well-funded library system.
It was a momentous day on Sept. 1, 1947 when the DeSoto County Board of Supervisors approved a one-mill levy and appropriated an additional $4,000 from the county’s general fund to purchase a bookmobile.
As is most always the case with our unique history, DeSoto County was the very first county in the State of Mississippi to enact a tax levy to support public libraries. DeSoto County joined with surrounding counties to form the First Regional Library System in October of 1950.
The system began with 8,000 books, and for our rural residents, Irene Scott climbed behind the wheel of DeSoto County’s first Bookmobile. Down rutted roads, rambling past mud-splashed picket fences and parking underneath shade trees in a wooded clearing, the library system brought the world of books to a people hungry to devour them.
From 1966 to 1972, the First Regional Library system grew rapidly.
It should be noted that a young reader named John Grisham was often seen ambling inside the library to check out a book or two.
Later, one of the world’s best-selling novelists would note that a town’s character is often known by the kind of library it has created — paraphrasing Mr. Grisham on that.
His first book signing would be at our library — the headquarters of the First Regional Library System.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.