Around the County

Our library: Living women’s history

By Pat Stuart
Posted 4/20/21

While writing a recent column on women and history, my mind turned toward the determined Powell women who created our library. Thanks to them it is living history and a symbol of all that makes …

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Around the County

Our library: Living women’s history

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While writing a recent column on women and history, my mind turned toward the determined Powell women who created our library. Thanks to them it is living history and a symbol of all that makes Powell a special place.

Keep in mind, we’re talking about the town’s formative period, back before women could vote or own property or hold public office. That didn’t stop the first women who arrived at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Camp Colter from setting about turning its dirt lanes into a town.

Which is why 10 women sat down together 113 years ago and formed the Ladies Union. A lot had happened in the dusty, wind-bedeviled camp that year. Powell had its first post office, a new name and a school with 38 students. Reportedly, the Bureau would begin selling lots soon. 

All but one of the 10 was married. All would have been dressed in their best. The fashion that year featured ankle-length dresses with a matching over-garment. Inescapably, their hems would have been soiled a bit by the streets. This alone would have been a motivating factor as they devoted themselves to organizing religious services, scheduling socially uplifting lectures and raising money. Which they did.   

Powell’s first church came two years later. Next, with the town platted and to the sound of hammers ringing against nails, the Ladies Union, now 56 strong, reorganized themselves to tackle their next project and renamed themselves the Powell Library Club.

The wife of Powell’s first mayor, Mrs. A.P. Libby, had just moved into one of the brand-new houses on the equally new Bent Street. She volunteered a corner of her living room to the cause. Donations began appearing on her doorstep.

    

A true fairy tale

Powell’s first library book? According to a 1991 Tribune article, it was “Everybody is Lonesome.” (Which may have been “Everybody’s Lonesome: A True Fairy Tale,” a popular book published in 1910.)

Soon, the library outgrew Mrs. Libby’s front parlor and was moved to a doctor’s office, then into the Wyoming Hotel, then to the Baptist Church basement.

For the next 15 years, the women dreamed while also fundraising and engaging in political action, securing enough votes in 1914 to obtain approval for the dedication of lots on Block 29 for a library. (A block that was still owned by the federal government and not deeded to the city until 1934 and not leased to the Library Club in 1935.) 

At some point the ladies decided to buy and move a building. According to library records, they negotiated unsuccessfully with several property owners. Finally, in 1921, they worked out an arrangement with the school district, which was consolidating and vacating buildings. As part of this, the club would buy and move the Fairview schoolhouse to their lots, where it would house both a library and one classroom.

Three months and many donations later the club reported a circulation of 348 books, library patrons sharing space with students — variously the fourth and fifth grades. 

   

The Mission library

The next decade saw continued expansion. The school built. Students moved out. Books came from Cody. The club added two more schoolhouses — one being the Lateral A schoolhouse, the second a question. In 1934, though, we know the library consisted of three small buildings that were given a new exterior and finished in Spanish Mission style. 

The women had also built a club room into their consolidated structure — one with a fireplace where they could gather in comfort to create items for their fundraising efforts. When they weren’t using the club room, it became a community meeting place (with a small rental fee).

Over the next two decades, the relationship between the Cody and Powell libraries grew while fundraising continued. But needs had outrun income. They needed tax dollars. Inevitably, in 1960, the ladies turned their operations over to the county, the courthouse agreeing to expand the building while the women would keep their club room. Thus, a year later, the current adult section joined the three core buildings. 

The last big change came in 1981, with the elimination of the stringers of the old buildings and an expansion to the current size.

Another smaller change came 10 years later with the creation of the present library façade. Another decade passed before the county commissioners recognized that Powell had again outgrown its library but decided to tackle the equally outgrown Cody library first.

By then, the library club had disbanded to be replaced by the Friends of the Powell Library — women as dedicated as their sisters of the 20th century to, again, repurposing what we have and adding on. 

It’s a Powell tradition. It’s the way we do things. It’s also a living story of local “women’s history.”

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