My Hometown Series #10–The Little Library That Could

About three or four days after my family moved from Irving to Grand Saline, my great-great aunt loaded me and my sister up in her 1960-something mustard-colored Ford Fairlane and took us downtown to the Grand Saline Public Library to get library cards and check out some books to read. By late June, when we moved, there wasn’t a lot for kids to do in Grand Saline, especially new kids who didn’t know anyone yet. Summer baseball was already well underway, or maybe even over by then, and it was still a couple of weeks before we’d attend Vacation Bible School at the First Baptist Church. So, having been a teacher for over 50 years, she thought it was a good idea for us to get books so that we’d have something constructive to do. That was just fine with me. I loved to read, and I loved going to the library when we lived in Irving.

I’ll never forget my first sight of the little depot library. It looked so small. I was used to the Irving Public Library, a large, sprawling brick building with a huge circulation desk in the middle where three ladies sat checking in and out books, and many rooms full of books, magazines, microfilm readers, tape players, and even televisions. This little library in my new hometown was something quite different. As we walked in the front door, there was a small wooden desk just to the left where just one lady sat with a stack of books next to her on a cart. She smiled and greeted us as we walked in. My aunt, who greeted her by name, introduced me and my sister and told her we had just moved to Grand Saline, and that we needed library cards. The librarian carefully filled them out by hand—she didn’t have a typewriter like the ladies in Irving did, and placed them in a small box on her desk. We didn’t get copies—she would write on them whenever we came in. After the administrative work was done, we were off to find books.

There are so many memories of that day that I still carry with me—the way the floor creaked when I stepped in certain places, just like the one in W&W Dept. Store; the smell in the air of all of those wonderful books in such a small room; the almost churchlike silence—at least until the trains came by. I don’t know how long we were there that first day, but I do remember that while we were there, two trains came roaring past, literally shaking the floor. I was startled by the first one, and asked my aunt what the noise was. That’s when she told me the story that the library started out as a train depot where trains would stop to drop off and pick up cargo and passengers. I was fascinated, and when the second one came past, I made sure to run to the front door and look out to watch it. After a while, we gathered up our books and took them to the lady at the tiny desk. She carefully filled out our cards and stamped the books. My aunt thanked her and she told us that she hoped we’d be back soon. We were—many times.

There were numerous visits to the little depot library during the first few summers we lived in Grand Saline. There were many books checked out, and even an audio tape or two after I received a tape player and recorder for Christmas one year. Once I entered high school and started focusing on music more, I didn’t go as often, but would still visit once in a while to check out a book or two. For me, knowing the library was there always meant there would be something to do, somewhere to “go,” and some new characters to meet in the pages of books. I’m sure there are many more who felt the same way, and many who still do.

Over the years, that little depot library has become so much more than just a place to check out books. By the time I was in middle school, the back rooms had been renovated and opened to the public for events. I attended at least two dances there. We celebrated my great-aunt’s 90th birthday there, as well. And, later, my high school graduation party was there, as well as my sister’s wedding reception. It was also the location of the first wedding I ever played piano for. Now days that room is used for a wide variety of family, organizational, and community events. Especially noteworthy are the number of activities for local kids which the library sponsors there each summer. The library is an active and vibrant place to be.

But, it’s not only the many fun activities for local kids (and adults) that make the Grand Saline Public Library such an enormously important part of the community. For many folks in the surrounding areas, it is, quite literally, their access to the world. Computers with high speed internet service offer the ability for many of our neighbors who do not have internet access in their homes to conduct business, search for employment, or communicate with friends and loved ones far away whom they might otherwise lose touch with. Public Wi-Fi access allows for work to be done even if all of the computers are in use. The library also offers a number of other resources to members of the community who are in need.

Recently, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Grand Saline Public Library, I shared a picture of Governor Abbott’s proclamation with a good friend who has been both a university librarian, and director of libraries for a large private school in Dallas. He was simply amazed that a town the size of Grand Saline still has a public library that is so active after so many years. He told me that in a day when so many towns and even large cities are shuttering their libraries due to lack of funding, the fact that ours is still open is truly remarkable. He said it was a credit to the librarian and the volunteers who have worked so hard to make that possible.

I can’t imagine my childhood without the library. It would certainly have been very different and most likely not nearly as fun. I’m happy to know that kids today get the same opportunity to experience it that I did so many years ago. But now, due to a series of unfortunate events—a “perfect storm” as one person described it—the little depot library is facing an uncertain future. Some funding that was expected won’t come this year, and that means that paying bills, purchasing books, performing necessary maintenance, and even some summer programs might not be possible. In a worst case scenario, this could leave many of our friends and neighbors without the resources they’ve come to count on from the library. That’s why, as much as this story is about my fond childhood memories of the little depot library, it is also a plea to those of you reading for help. Over the years, Grand Saline has faced many hardships and hard times, but each time pronouncements came that the town was “dead” or “dying,” folks stepped up and stepped in to make good things happen; to be sure that she just keeps chugging along like those trains that fly past the library every day.

When I was a very little boy, I had a copy of the book The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. I’m sure you remember the story. A little train carrying a heavy load was faced with the daunting task of pulling that load up a steep hill. As folks looked on, doubtful that the train would make it, the little engine just kept saying to himself, “I think I can. I think I can.” Eventually, to the cheers of everyone watching, the engine topped the hill and sailed down the other side, exclaiming, “I knew I could. I knew I could.” Our little depot library is a lot like that little engine in the book. It has a steep hill to climb and a heavy load to carry. But, I’m confident that in the capable hands of our librarian, Kelly Bryant, and the many volunteers and Friends of the Library; and with the help of our generous and determined community, that little depot library will make the trip just fine.

A Go Fund Me account has been set up to take donations for the library during this important time. It can be found by searching “Grand Saline Public Library” at www.gofundme.com. If you don’t have access to make the donation online, I’m sure that an in person donation would be more than happily accepted. Please carefully consider making a donation to help get it up and over that steep hill.

Let’s not let this opportunity pass to save one of the most important resources we have. The loss of a library is a terrible thing, but together we can keep that from happening in Grand Saline. I KNOW we can!

**This piece was first published in the March 29, 2017 edition of the Grand Saline Sun.

My Hometown Series #8 — Front Porch People

This essay is a little different from my regular “Hometown” pieces as it focuses mostly on personal memories of my family’s old homeplace in Grand Saline. But, I included it in this series because, like us, so many people in town back in those days were also Front Porch People. If this story brings back memories for you, please do share them in the comments section on the blog.

There was something about sitting on our front porch during the late afternoon and evening, especially during the spring and summer, that I just couldn’t get enough of. If I was alone, I’d stretch out on the smooth concrete–no matter how hot it had been, the concrete slab was as cool as if it had never seen the light of day. Those moments never lasted long, though. As soon as my grandmother or aunt caught me lying there “for the world to see” (as they would say), I was admonished to “sit up straight” lest somebody drive by and see me “all wallered out there like some kind of lump.” I never really understood why it was so important to them that nobody ever saw me lying on the front porch, but it was, so I did as I was told. I sat up, leaned back with the palms of my hands flat–sometimes, if I felt really daring, I would lean back on my elbows…maybe they wouldn’t check up on me again. Until I was in sixth or seventh grade, and had gotten too big for them to hold me, I would sit in one of the two metal chairs that sat on the right side of the porch under my grandmother’s bedroom window. They were often even cooler than the concrete, but those sits usually didn’t last long. Mammy or Sister would open the screen door, step out on the porch, look at me–“you’re in my chair,” they’d say–and that was my cue to get up and let them sit down. Sometimes, if they had company or something especially important to talk about, I’d be instructed to “run on out yonder and play,” and I would dutifully do as I was told. But, most of the time, we would all be content to just sit there on that big front porch, watch the cars go by, and listen as the summer sunset brought every creepy-crawly in every tree in our front yard to life.

During the school year, on the days I would walk to and from school, my grandmother would stand on the front porch watching–waiting patiently. In the morning, she would see me off, “Have a good day at school,” she would say. Then she would stand and watch me walk down High Street until I went over the hill at the intersection of Houston Street and was out of sight. In the afternoons, she would stand and watch for my head to pop back up over the top of that hill, and then would wait for me to walk into the front yard and up on to the porch. “Well, did you have a good day at school,” she’d ask. After my almost-always-less-than-enthusiastic answer, she’d offer the weary student solace. “Are you hungry? Do you want a jelly sandwich?” A “jelly sandwich” was short hand for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and my answer was always “yes” and “yes.” After getting me settled with my afternoon snack, she and my aunt would go back out on the front porch to sit and watch the afternoon traffic pass as people headed home after work. On Friday nights during the fall, back when the old Person’s Memorial Stadium was still around, we would sit there on the porch and listen to the game–well, we weren’t really listening to the game. But, we could hear sound from the speakers and sometimes make out what the announcer was saying. And, we could certainly hear the roar of the crowd and the Fight Song every time the Fighting Indians made a touchdown. When I got old enough to go to those games, my grandmother and aunt wouldjohn-sarris-quote-11-15-14-300x225 often still sit and listen, then ask me for a full report when I returned home.

When I was a little kid, my whole family gathered at Mammy and Sister’s house for Thanksgiving. I’m sure there weren’t more than fifteen or twenty people there at the most, but the house was almost busting at the seams. After dinner, while the older men would gather around the television to watch football and talk, the younger kids would head outside to eat our dessert and then play. The front porch was always “home base” no matter what game we were playing. It was especially good for Hide ‘n’ Go Seek because it was big enough for all of us to find safety from whomever was “it.” It was also a school room, an airplane, a spaceship, a Trailways bus (remind me to tell you sometime about my childhood desire to be a bus driver when I grew up). It was a bank, a post office, a hospital emergency room. It was often a stage where we performed original “plays” and Christmas pageants that we’d written ourselves as my Mom, grandmother and aunt would sit at the foot of the steps in the yard. The front porch was just about anything we could imagine possible. I remember once when we were young–VERY young–my sister and I decided to open a lemonade stand, and we convinced our aunt to make the lemonade because she made the best in the world. We didn’t make much money–okay, we didn’t make any–because instead of selling it at the street, we tried to sell it from the front porch where it was cooler. It was about 150 feet from the road, an impossible distance to read a sign made on a piece of cardboard and written with a ball point pen. Of all the things it was, our front porch was not a prime location to start a business.

During the springtime especially, the front porch was a pretty good weather station. When the afternoons grew sticky and still, my grandmother would step out on the porch and turn her eyes to the sky. “It sure is still out here,” she’d say in the most foreboding tone you could possibly imagine. Sometimes, if she’d heard from Harold Taft on Channel 5, or Warren Culberson and later Ron Jackson on Channel 4 that a thunderstorm was headed our way, she would stand at the edge of the porch and look to the west until she could see that it was “comin’ up a cloud.” We’d often sit, wait, watch, and listen until we could see lightning, hear the thunder rolling in the distance, and until the wind began to shake and bend those towering oak trees. If the storm wasn’t too bad, my aunt would often sit on the porch and enjoy the cool wind and the fresh smell and sound of the rain pattering on the roof of the porch cover. Then, if the storm rolled through early enough, I would sit with her and watch as the sky cleared from the west and the setting sun turned the sky a brilliant pink. Rain or shine, that front porch was an amazing place to see, hear, and feel nature all around.

That house and that front porch are long gone now. In fact, little remains that still looks as it did when I was growing up there. But, I can still see it all in my mind’s eye; and I can still hear the voices of my grandmother, my aunt, and all those wonderful people who spent time there. We weren’t the only front porch people in town, though. Back in those days, you could scarcely walk or drive down a single street in town without getting a big wave or a cheerful “how do you do?” from somebody enjoying the day on theirs. Even downtown, folks would sit in chairs in front of the businesses to “catch up” on the latest goings on in town and in the world. Most folks back then seemed to be the kind that wanted to be in a place to see what was happening. To hear events with their own ears. To greet their friends and neighbors with a smile, a wave, and a “how do you do?” They weren’t in the business of letting the world pass them by without giving themselves the chance to reach out and stop it, even if for just a moment. They were just that kind of people. They–we–were front porch people.

My Hometown Series #5 — Good-bye, old friend.

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Demolition begins on the old Grand Saline Elementary School building. 8/16/2016

 

Change is never easy. Good-byes are always difficult. We want the things that mean the most to us to remain unchanged from the time of our fondest memories of them. For many of us who grew up in Grand Saline, Texas, one of those things that we have hoped would never change or go away is the old elementary school. Four generations of students attended school in that building, and four generations of students have (mostly) fond memories. There were many people who hoped to salvage it for some purpose after the new school was constructed and it was abandoned. There was talk of an adult learning center, a community center, a fine arts center. . .unfortunately, though, the money to make the necessary renovations to the building is just not there. Demolition on the old elementary school began yesterday, and in short order, the building will only be a memory. As much as I hate to see it go, having been in the building after it was emptied, and having seen many of its flaws which had gone unnoticed by most when it was full of students and teachers, I think this is for the best. I wrote about some of those memories a while back and posted it here on my blog, but I thought I’d share just a couple more today.

Even after I was in high school, I still made my way down the hill from time to time. Each fall the band boosters held the Harvest Festival. We used the auditorium for the queens pageant, the gym and playground for the festival itself, and, the best part for us students. . .turning the cafeteria into a haunted house! We would all meet up at the cafeteria early on the morning of the festival, hang black tarps to make the maze, and then go to work on the ghoulish vignettes laid out to scare the pants off our guests–or, at least make them scream and laugh a little. Then, the next morning we were back at it, cleaning up all of the fake blood, guts, cob webs, cauldrons, and whatever else we found to cram in there. Later in the year, the band would come down and put on a special concert for the fifth graders in an effort to encourage them to take band in middle school. (That’s not always easy in a football town.) For some reason–we all know why–when the concert was over, we wanted to walk those halls and poke our head’s into our old classrooms and say hello to our former teachers. I think we probably made a quick trip over the monkey bars and down the slide as we walked back up to the high school. It was just that special.

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

Years later, I would revisit those halls as an uncle, proudly watching his nieces at their Kindergarten Graduations, Christmas programs, awards ceremonies, special lunches, and other events of that nature. By that time, I was well into my thirties and hadn’t been a student there in over 20 years, but I still wanted to walk those halls, look into my old classrooms, and say hello to former teachers. When I went to work for the school in 2010 I had a couple of occasions to head down the hill and take something to Mrs. Sewell in the library, and each time I walked through the doors and down those halls with the creaking hardwood floors, I was reminded of just what a special place that school building was.

The last time I was in the building was in late 2012, after the new elementary school opened, but while the technology office was still in the old building. It was during that time that the nostalgia became tinged with sadness. When the building was full of people it was full of life, and things didn’t appear to be in such bad shape. During that time, though, when it was empty except for our office and the remaining bits and pieces that weren’t carried to the new school, I saw just how bad things really were. Suddenly, as if by magic, cracks appeared in the walls, ceiling tiles sagged, doors became difficult to open and close. I’m sure all these things were there before, but they went unnoticed except by the people who needed to notice them and make the hard decisions about what to do with the building. By then it was over 60 years old. . .something had to be done.

Now, the really hard decision has been made. Despite the optimism of our best hopes, I think that somewhere in the back of our minds we all knew this day would come. We all know that buildings can’t stand empty forever. They become eyesores, or worse, they become dangerously tempting targets for mischievous kids or malicious adults. The cost to renovate and the risk of leaving it alone are just too high, and regrettably, but necessarily, the time has come to say good-bye to this iconic landmark in our hometown.

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

The East wing of the old Grand Saline Elementary School is first to go during demolition. 8/16/2016

But, in all of our tears and heartache, we can take comfort in two things: first, that right up until its last day, that old building still looked the same as we remember it looking on all our first days of school; and, second, that in our memories it will always look the same, and it will always be the same. Long after that lot is empty and grass has covered over the scarred earth, those memories will never change.

Good-bye, old friend. You are already and forever missed.

 

 

 

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The main entrance of the old Grand Saline Elementary School which was closed in 2012 after over 60 years in service. Demolition on the landmark began on August 16, 2016.

The main entrance of the old Grand Saline Elementary School which was closed in 2012 after over 60 years in service. Demolition on the landmark began on August 16, 2016.