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Stories from the Coal Camps: July special will feature history and personal stories

Helper's Main Street in 1937 with the new Auditorium (library inside) in the distance.
The sun just begins to peak over the top of the Helper Library one early morning while the large coal miner that is a symbol of the railroad and mining town guards the entrance to the building. The library was built in the late 1930's as part of the Helper Auditorium building by the Work Progress Administration. The library today is very different from the one that Henry Rachiele describes in its early days, yet it still is there to nourish the minds of the curious.

Over the years there have been many books and accounts published concerning the coal camps that existed in Carbon County in the years from the 1870's to the 1960's. Some of the books describe the coal camps from the authors points of view, while others take the tack that residents had about living in those little towns where coal was mined often by hand or with early mechanization. Some books do both.

In late July the Sun Advocate will be produce what we hope will be a yearly special, recalling the times in the coal camps as told by those who lived and grew up there.

While there are a few of these towns left, most have disappeared. The few that haven't gone away are now very different from what they were.

The special will include the personal stories of people, along with some history of the area, including the huge disasters that dominates the history of the area and lives on through stories and family tales.

The following story by Henry Rachiele, about the early days of the library in Helper is an example of the kinds of stories that will be told in that special we will call Coal Camp Life.

I don't recall the very first time I entered the Helper City Library. But I do remember the librarian, who all of us addressed as "Mrs. Van Wervin." I still visualize her as a petite classical type librarian. She was very strict and didn't hesitate to let one know it. Also, as a youngster I viewed her as being kind of old.

The United States Government Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the Helper City Library in the late 1930's. It was attached to the front of a multifunctional community building, which as also built by the WPA. The building was and continues to be a blessing to the community.

I recall that the large main part of the building was used as a gymnasium (basketball, boxing, and wrestling), and for dances, social gatherings, and funerals.

Sometime later the librarian was allowed to hire an assistant. Lola Rachiele, my sister, came on board in May 1942. And she is the one that many of my fellow friends, fellow students, and I remember as the "Librarian". She continued to work as the librarian for over 50 years. Needless to say, she touched the heart, soul and brains of a large number of people of all ages in that time frame.

The library started out as a small operation in 1940, but continued to grow in number of technical, reference, scientific, hardback and paperback novels, periodicals, various magazines and newspapers, and patrons of all ages who used them.

In my opinion the architect who designed the library building and the walkways leading up to it did a neat job. First of all, the front doors were mainly two large glass panels. As such, they made the entry to the building very inviting. Moreover, several extra-wide concrete steps made their way up to the door from Main Street, which was five or six feet below the library. Just before entering the front door, however, there were two sidewalks, one skirting to the left and one to the right that circled around and up to the doors of the main building. The Library building was faced with glazed reddish-orange brick, and the grounds around it were covered with beautifully cared for lawn, beds of flowers, and a few trees.

Inside the front doors was a small enclosure that provided transition to the main library facility, as well as protection from the weather. From there one entered directly into a very large room with two circular cubicles, one on each side and to the front of the library complex. Each of these little rooms had a small table with a few chairs. Over time they had been used for various purposes. But basically they provided a few people with some privacy.

Leading directly from the front doors to the far back of the room was the librarian's desk. It was an attractive carved hardwood unit. There were large furniture-quality tables on the left and right side of the room that could and often did accommodate several people. And also on the right side of the room were several long, tall open wood and metal bookcases. To the rear and left of the librarian's desk was a wooden bookcase specially designed to display periodicals. On the left side of the room were chairs and tables for laying out newspapers and periodicals. The entire library was quite inviting and attractive. It was new, fresh, and clean looking.

So, what made this library different from many throughout the country? Why bother even writing about it? First of all, it came into being during the Great Depression when 65 percent of the people in the area were unemployed. Few people could afford to buy books for their personal use or retention. And even fewer had a set of reference books at home.

The library was also the book center for a multitude of people who lived in the many coal-mining camps in the area, and those who lived on farms or ranches, as well as in Helper, which was the railroad center. And, it fortunately had a librarian who willingly assisted elementary, junior high and senior high school students locate published material needed for school projects and assignments.

Hence, it became a haven for those who wanted to learn and it provided a sense of gratification for those parents who wanted their children to "better themselves". Equally important, parents knew where their kids were.

As I look back, I am amazed at the number of youngsters who made use of the library and subsequently went on to become engineers, university professors, school teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers and just well-educated persons.

I also recall that out of town railroad men, including locomotive engineers, firemen and conductors came in to read and enjoy the various publications during those times when they were "laying over", i.e. when they had to spend a day or two in town. And, I can not forget to mention the many townspeople who came into the library to read or check out books for their personal enjoyment.

Finally, it was also an after-hour center for those who like sitting around just to relax and visit.

Needless to say, this was a library of the past that benefitted many people. But as I see it now, it has and will continue to change as technology changes, especially with the advancement of computers and the internet.

It would be interesting to speculate on the make-up and character of this small library in the future and the role of the librarian.

Henry Rachiele now resides in Las Cruces, N.M.




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