Blackfoot’s First Librarian, Part 1: Beginnings

Corrected on 3/20/2019 regarding birth date and schooling in Idaho.

This article was prefaced by a short history of the Blackfoot Public Library’s different names and locations through the years, published on March 8, 2019.

Edna Gillespie was an unforgettable character to those who knew her. She left such a deep imprint on Blackfoot that the library was renamed in her honor in 1949.

Gillespie lived in the Blackfoot area for 52 years. Her name was known in every household in town. She was prominent in Blackfoot’s social circles. At one point, she even ran for a political office. Yet in all of the pages of the voluminous History of Bingham County, published in 1985 for the county’s centennial, there is not one mention of her.

The History of Bingham County is filled with family histories, many of which recount the hardships of the county’s original Euro-American settlers – the ones who survived without dying, going bankrupt or otherwise moving on. Many names are familiar like Stufflebeam, Reese, Jensen, and Cammack. Other names are conspicuous by their absence like Danilson, Bumgarner and Gillespie.

The accounts in the History of Bingham County were written by the survivors of those families still in the area; but Edna Gillespie left no descendants behind to keep the memory of her green. What we have of her are fragments from census reports, land records, church membership lists, and a few newspaper clippings.

We are fortunate that she left behind her wonderful account of the library in 1943, originally published in the quarterly newsletter of the Pacific Northwest Library Association. In those two pages, we catch a glimpse of a woman of deep intelligence with a surprising wit, a soaring vocabulary and an eye for descriptive detail.

She surprises us with her regret at losing the bright colors of the old library in the basement of city hall while she rues the tasteful decor of the new library building at 129 N. Broadway:

“I throttled my yen for wild, barbaric colors, and the (new library) room stands out in buttercup yellow and cream and tan. However, I still hanker for crimson and turquoise and gold. I am a violent woman, and by Dewey, I am going to have the sunset scheme some day!”

She ambushes us with the occasional outrageous statement: “Shock treatments are frequently beneficial to the sane.”

She delights us with her little vignettes of life at the library:

“Then came Oscar! Oscar was a black sprite of a mouse who showed no fear but seemed to love the library, and even the librarians. He would scoot across the floor almost to the desk, then sat back on his haunches, cock his head impudently, and practically demand What every young mouse should know. We returned Oscar’s interest and affection until that fatal day when he trotted out with Oscaretta and we found a file of Harper’s chewed up for a nest. Sadly we brought the poison. R. I. P.”

As seen by others

Verdis Fisher was the state director and editor for Idaho in the Federal Writers’ Project. He described Edna Gillespie as “indefatigable.”

Ava Barnes was hired and trained by Gillespie to work at the library when she was a high school student. She later became the head librarian for Blackfoot, known to her subordinates as “Mrs. B.”

“I remember Mrs. B. telling me that Miss Gillespie was stern,” remarked Lisa Harral, the current directory of library.

Photographs of Gillespie leave that impression of sternness: neat in her blouse, glasses and thin, black-ribbon choker tie, with a assessing perusal of the book in front of her. Not a hair is misplaced and her posture is the envy of every mother who ever despaired of a slouching child.

Edna Gillespie from a 1948 Blackfoot newspaper
Edna Gillespie from a 1948 newspaper clipping, courtesy of the Blackfoot Public Library

Her handwriting which is preserved in the files of the library could be used as an exemplar of perfect Spencerian cursive – an art sadly no longer taught in school. Without the benefit of lined paper, her hand-written inventory of the library possessions is ruler-straight and exactly spaced. It is evidence of a meticulous and organized mind that never missed dotting an i or crossing a t.

And yet, this stern, meticulous and indefatigable paragon of a librarian could revel in her love of riotous colors and describe herself as a violent woman in her tastes. She could quote Boccaccio’s Decameron and describe a flock of turkeys as obstreperous – a word I’ve never even seen outside of an SAT test. Edna Gillespie was hardly a simple person.

If anyone at all has any experience with raising turkeys, it is astounding how exact Gillespie was in her usage of obstreperous. Whoever coined that word probably raised turkeys.

Hayesville

Edna Gillespie was born on November 11, 1882 according to the official Idaho record of her funeral, in Hayesville, North Caroline. I could not find a birth certificate.

The year of her birth may be wrong on her funeral record for the following reason: she landed a teaching job just a few months after arriving in Blackfoot. If she had been born in 1882, that would mean she started teaching at the advanced age of 14. Even during a time when teens were more likely to be at work at younger ages than today, teaching a 14 is young even for the 1890s. It is more likely that she had been born in 1880, a year after her brother was born.

Hayesville was a small settlement which was little over 40 years old, carved out of the lands vacated by the cruelly-evicted Cherokee tribes in the tragic Trails of Tears episode of American history. Along the banks of the winding Hiwassee River, Hayesville was the seat of Clay County and its only real town.

Hayesville was and still is one of the most beautiful spots in the Appachian Mountains, close to the southwestern end of what is now Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It lies in the valley of the Hiwassee River, surrounded by high ridges covered in trees. Like many other southern Appalachian valleys, the “bottom land” was fertile and easy to farm but there wasn’t much of it.

The view from on of the hills overlooking Hayesville, North Carolina
The view from on of the hills overlooking Hayesville, North Carolina. Photo Courtesy of Hayesville, NC & Clay County, NC

The soil of the ridges was thin and rocky, with bedrock only a few feet down, if that. The difficult farming of the Appalachian uplands was the curse of all eastern farmers from New Brunswick all the way down to northern Georgia.

Jeremiah Clauton Gillespie wasn’t a farmer. He was a local shopkeeper in Hayesville. He married the daughter of a local farmer, Rebecca Bumgarner or Baumgarner. They had a son named Ernest, born in 1879. Edna was born probably in 1880. She never really knew her father. He died on October 8, 1882.

Edna’s maternal grandfather, Alexander, Bumgarner, become the guardian for her, her brother and her mother. Her mother sued to receive her dower rights under North Carolina law, by which she was entitled to the use of a third of the estate of her deceased husband during her lifetime.

Edna’s father had had many accounts payable still open when he died and Grandfather Bumgarner was relentless in pursuing those debts. He took several of Gillepie’s debtors to court in order to collect what was due the estate. The probate file for the estate of her father is 384 pages long, mostly of checks and receipts for debtors paying their bills, plus checks written from the estate to people that Gillespie owned money to.

On July 4, 1886, Edna’s mother remarried for the second and final time to William Franklin Martin, another resident of Hayesville. There is no record of what Martin did for a living while there.

Martin was the son of a doctor and was probably well-educated for that reason. When he moved to Blackfoot, he was first employed as the watchman and toll taker on the bridge over the Snake River. In 1900, the census lists him as a day laborer. He eventually became the owner of a coal supply business in Blackfoot.

Edna’s stepfather would be the only father she would know. She would live under his roof until he died in 1919 and when she herself passed away, she was buried next to him in the Grove City Cemetery here in Blackfoot.

In 1888, Edna’s grandfather filed a suit against the Martins and the Gillespie heirs. Grandfather Bumgarner claimed he had discharged all the business of the estate. The suit asserted that he wanted to be relieved of his position as the estate administrator and guardian of Ernest and Edna.

There is something strange about this suit. Bumgarner did not succeed with it. He remained the estate administrator and the legal guardian of the Gillespie children – as far as North Carolina was concerned – until he died in 1901, when his son William inherited the position for the last few years of Edna’s minority. Yet by this time, the Martins and the Gillespie heirs had been living in Blackfoot for several years.

The Gillespie inheritance was only worth $300 in 1902. It is unclear if Ernest and Edna ever received anything from their father’s estate.

The schooling of a librarian

Edna Gillespie got the majority of her schooling in Hayesville. It is undoubted that she was a very well educated woman, with a strong foundation in classical literature and the brains to teach Latin. It may seem out of joint that a small farming community in the backwoods of North Carolina could provide Edna with that level of education, but Hayesville wasn’t your usually small town in the sticks.

Though it was a small settlement of a few hundred people, Hayesville was the fortunate spot of a once famous school. When Edna lived there, it was known as either the Hayesville Academy or as the Hayesville Male and Female College and Graded School. It took both local and boarded students from several states. It taught primary classes through college courses, including mathematics, algebra, Latin, Greek, English, geography and history.

During part of her childhood, this school was administered by Trinity College of Durham, before being deeded to Clay County as a public school and the two colleges shared some faculty. This is notable because Trinity would change its name in the 1920s to become Duke University.

In the fullness of time, the name of this once-famous school in Hayesville would be shortened and simplified to what it is today: Hayesville High school, still on the same hill overlooking the center of town as when it was founded in 1850. Beginning in the 1890s, there was a program at Hayesville to examine and certify teachers. The school stopped teaching at the college level sometime after 1900.

Though Edna’s attendance at Hayesville Academy/Male and FemaleCollege is not certain, given her vast erudition, it is probable she was a student at this once famous school.

Blackfoot

We can not ask the long-gone Martins and Gillespies why they picked up all they had and moved from Hayesville to Blackfoot. We do know when they moved: in late Spring, 1897. Edna was 16 going on 17. She did not do any schooling in Blackfoot. By September 1897, she had already taken her first teaching job locally, according to the local newspaper.

Their arrival was recorded by Rev. Yost of the Jason Lee Memorial United Methodist Church, with the family becoming church members as of June 6, 1897.

Why Blackfoot? Two of Edna’s Bumgarner uncles already lived in the area. Whatever their motivation was to leave Hayesville, there was family to welcome them here in Idaho. Blackfoot became their second home. Once here, Edna never left.

Part 2 will be coming sometime this week.

1 Comment

  1. It is great to get a biography of Edna Gillespie. I never met her but I acquired my interest in libraries at the local library, in Blackfoot, in the late fifties and early sixties. Later, I got an MLS (Masters in Library Science) and I can tell you that part of that credit goes to our local library from that period in my life.

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