A newspaperman gave readers a peek into something unique in the winter of 1926.
Lumberjacks at the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. camp in Greenough stood before shelves of books in a railroad boxcar on a December Sunday, “taking down first one book and then another, turning over the pages, perhaps returning all to the shelves,” he wrote.
“But even so, having learned at least the good and friendly feel of books – their hearty grip, as it were.”
A new package of books had arrived from the Missoula County Library in town, and four or five men gathered around librarian James Dwyer as he ripped it open.
One sawyer reached for Rafael Sabatini’s “The Snare.” Two tried to lay claim to Randall Parrish’s historic romance novel, “The Maid of the Forest.”
“A rustle of paper and several young ‘giants of the forest’ leave the car with bulky newspaper packages, containing five or six books tucked under their arms. (They are) supplied for the week with books,” concluded the Missoulian reporter, probably John Hutchens, in the Dec. 19 article.
He didn’t tell us if a Victrola ground out, say, Gene Austin’s “Bye Bye Blackbird,” but a phonograph was one of the amenities of the novel rolling library that defied stereotypes. Turned out lumberjacks, when given a chance, would forego gambling and fighting if they had something to read.
“You normally don’t think of rough, burly loggers in a lumber camp as bookworms,” Don Spritzer observed Friday.
Spritzer, a historian and retired reference librarian for the Missoula Public Library, was standing inside the very same library boxcar, which on June 29 was placed on permanent display tracks at the Historical Museum of Fort Missoula.
The concept of a library, or books of any kind, in an isolated lumber camp was something Kenneth Ross wouldn’t have dreamt up himself.
Superintendent of lumber operations for the Anaconda Co. in Bonner from 1902 to 1925, Ross said he was annoyed in 1917 when two Missoula librarians approached him about bringing books to the lumber camps in the Ninemile Valley. One was Ruth Worden, youngest daughter of Missoula co-founder Francis Worden, who was the Missoula County librarian at the time.
He was just being nice when he said OK, Ross let on later.
Bob Brown, the museum’s executive director, gets a charge out of one of Ross’ quotes in Hutchens’ story.
“It annoyed me very much, as I did not think that camp libraries would do us any good, but only cause us a lot of bother,” Ross said.
“He was like, yeah, right. All these guys want to do is drink, fight and gamble,” Brown said. “But you don’t say no to Miss Worden, particularly since Kenneth Ross had known her since she was a little girl.”
Ross turned the annoyance over to his camp clerk and forgot about it. But Worden showed up again, this time at his office in Bonner. She wanted to start a library there.
“I happened to be very busy and was very much annoyed,” reported Ross, who was integral in the U.S. War Department’s efforts to supply wood for airplanes during World War I.
Worden was persistent, books came to Bonner – and something wondrous happened. They got read. Lots of them.
Ross saw the results – 4,000 checked out in the first year and, to his “great surprise,” a good number in the camps.
“The next thing I heard was that one of the men at the bunkhouse had been reading up on industry and economics, and got out of one of the books an argument that shut up one of these fellows that always seems to think it is a crime to give a day’s work for a day’s pay,” Ross told another reporter in 1922.
He was a convert, and when Worden came around again with the idea of a library car to circulate among the lumber camps, Ross was sold. He had one built – 14 feet wide, 40 feet long – and it was put into action in 1921 in the Ninemile camps, rotating to the next one usually on a weekly basis.
When lumber operations returned to the Blackfoot in late 1926, the library car began making its rounds through that valley. Its popularity apparently peaked in the late 1920s, according to Bob Dundas, who was an adjunct professor at the University of Montana when he researched the library car’s history.
He wrote about it in an article published in 2003 by the railroad magazine Tall Timber, Short Lines.
Logging trains gave way to trucks in 1949, but the library car served Anaconda Co. logging camps until the late 1950s, when it was moved to the University of Montana’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest, Dundas said. Hank Goetz, retired director of field stations for the School of Forestry, remembered studying in the car as a forestry student in the spring of 1960.
By now placed on timbers instead of its standard-gauge trucks, the library became a storage shed and occasional bunkhouse for fine arts students at UM. Spritzer learned about its existence when he met and helped Dundas with his research.
“Once I found out that it was there, I got excited about it,” Spritzer said.
The Fort Missoula museum, Lubrecht Forest and the university all supported relocating the car to the fort and fixing it up.
Brown said it was about eight years ago that Scott Kuehn, a forester and logging historian, enlisted a local crane company to lift the car onto a flatbed and truck it down the Blackfoot to the fort. Kuehn and railroad historian Mac Palmer led restoration efforts, including the exacting task of removing rotting wood from the trucks – or chassis – the car was to set on.
Rock ballast was hauled to extend the tracks the library car now sits on and the old roof was replaced by the windowed “clear story” on top, of the sort the original was equipped with to provide light.
The steep temporary steps leading to the front door of the library will be replaced by more authentic stairs for an Eagle Scout project, Brown said. Spritzer said the fort is still looking for a table similar to the one loggers used to sit around to read, as well as a period woodstove that was situated near the side entrance. Some of the original bookshelves are intact, as is the wooden divider between the main room and a back office in which the librarian once worked and slept.
“I’ve been collecting books for the last seven years for the darn thing,” Spritzer said, adding the tentative target date for completion is next Fourth of July.
Meanwhile, the library car sits proudly and (shhhhh) silent in its new place of honor among the museum’s railroad and logging exhibits.
“What makes it unique,” said Spritzer, “is it’s probably the only extant traveling library that served lumbermen anywhere in the country. To the best of our knowledge it’s a one-of-a kind deal.”