The Littlest Library You Ever Saw: 52 Weeks 52 Communities

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Aunt Mae Gilliam and library patrons outside the Broad River Community Library, Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.

Did you ever visit the Broad River Community Library? The tiny little library in this rural southeast Buncombe County community first made an appearance thanks to the New Deal-era program called the WPA or Works Progress Administration. The WPA funded all manner of social programs, including arts and literary efforts, like rural libraries. The Broad River Community Library was one such institution to benefit from this depression-era funding. For most of its existence, it was operated by community member “Aunt” Mae Gilliam, who was known to open the library after she completed her farm chores, sometime after 11 o’clock in the morning.

The building was a very small log-cabin structure, a former community grocery store, just 12 feet square. Opening in 1938, the library stood at a prominent intersection in the community at the corner of US Highway 64 and Stone Mountain Road. Though small in size (both Mae and the library), they each provided a vital community service, access to books. A 1942 newspaper account called Aunt Mae a “mild mannered little missionary of the mountains.” The graduate of Asheville Normal School (where she studied to become a teacher) had a passion for education and desired to share her love of books with her community.

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Aunt Mae outside the Broad River Community Library, Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.

The rural lending library found unique ways of doing business with its widely dispersed patrons. Mae was known to help her youngest patrons as they arrived home on the school bus. During an interview for a news story, Mae was interrupted as the bus pulled up, and the interviewer looked on as she assisted students in returning and exchanging for new books directly through the school bus windows. Mae noted that she had very few overdue fines as a result of this system, and that a short note sent home to the parents of the children brought quick results.

At the library’s inception it had just 140 volumes for patrons to choose from, but by 1942, it boasted more than 700 works crammed into the small structure. The books came in as a result of donations from community members, civic organizations, and even Mae’s personal collection. The microscopic library eventually became so full, that books were stacked on the floor, and Mae was forced to store some in her home and rotate the stacks. Mae also got a helping hand from the Asheville-Buncombe Library system, the “Bookmobile” visited her library frequently, bringing along a new load of material with each new visit. The library has simply outgrown itself.

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Broad River Community Library Patrons accessing the Asheville-Buncombe Library system “Bookmobile.” A991-5. 

As a result of overcrowding, “Aunt Mae” started an effort to expand the library’s space, and encouraged community members to donate extra building materials to the cause. The community heeded the call, and a space out back of the cabin began to fill up with stones for a foundation and new logs dragged in from surrounding farms for walls and beams. At the time, Broad River had no grocery store, no garage, or access to a filling station, but it did have a library and the community, Aunt Mae, especially, was darn proud of it.

The Broad River Community Library served not only as a place to check out books, it was also a hub for community education, and Aunt Mae was an amazing facilitator. She was known to track down books that were easy to read for those who could not read well, and help young women better their reading skills so they could better assist their children. One young woman who improved her reading with help from Aunt Mae began teaching night classes to her illiterate neighbors when she felt confident enough to begin teaching. She went from having just a 3rd grade education to teacher, all because of the benefits of a community library.

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Clipping from a news story on Aunt Mae and the Broad River Community Library, Asheville Citizen, 1942. 

Unfortunately, Mae’s dreams of a new library building were never realized, due in part because of rationing of materials for WWII. After the war, increased access to transportation, frequent stops from the bookmobile, and the building of a new Black Mountain Public Library meant the demand for a library in rural Broad River was not high enough to justify the cost. However, Mae remained a prominent community figure, and is still highly regarded by many in the Broad River Township. Indeed, just a few years ago (2006), folks were meeting to discuss how they might go about memorializing this important community figure.

We love sharing our collections with you! We especially like when they get a good workout from researchers, the curious, and even the stray interior designer or stylist! These images and collections are as much yours as they are the library’s. That’s what public libraries are all about!

Come on in and take a look. You never know what you might find!

As a reminder, this post is a part of our 52 Weeks, 52 Communities Series. In this series, we are covering a different Buncombe County community each week. Do you have materials or stories to share related to Broad River (or an amazing community member like Aunt Mae) you’d like to let us know about? Do you, your parents or grandparents have a good story to tell? Please let us know!!! We want to hear from you! The North Carolina Room is Buncombe County’s Public Archive, we want to help preserve and make accessible the history and culture of Asheville and Buncombe County for all its residents.

This post was authored by Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, a librarian working in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.

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