Blackfoot’s First Librarian, Part 2: An Idaho Life

Before Edna Gillespie became Blackfoot’s first librarian, she worked as a teacher – or so the story goes. A 1949 newspaper article on the dedication of the high school yearbook to Gillespie says this:

“Miss Gillespie was a Latin teacher at the high school back in 1917 when the Current Events Club prevailed upon her to help them organize a city library.”

There’s only one problem here: that’s not what really happened.Edna Gillespie wasn’t a teacher at Blackfoot High School in 1915-1916 or 1916-1917. In fact, she had not taught in a Blackfoot district school since sometime before 1912. Her last-known teaching job wasn’t even in Blackfoot: that had been a one-year stint in Salmon, in 1914-1915. Then, in 1916, she worked at Hayes Gift Shop in downtown Blackfoot.

It’s not easy to reconstruct the career of Edna Gillespie. The Blackfoot School District, the City of Blackfoot and Bingham County no longer have records pertinent to public employees which date from before the 1920s. Lacking those records, large slices of history are now lost to us.

As a result, most of what we can find out about Gillespie comes from old newspapers. There are over 70 mentions of Edna Gillespie and her family in the Blackfoot News, the Idaho Republican, the Blackfoot Optimist, and a few other Idaho newspapers. The rest of her story is fleshed out from U.S. census records, county land records, and church records.

Beginnings

We know for certain that Edna’s family of four arrived in Blackfoot sometime before June 6, 1897, which is the date when the family joined the Methodist Church in Blackfoot. That church was built in 1885 and it is still standing today at the corner of Judicial and S. University.

I’ve assumed so far that they moved to Blackfoot directly from Hayesville, North Carolina, but that might be incorrect. They may have spent some time in Colorado before moving to Idaho. This is based on one passing mention in the obituary for W. F. Martin, Gillespie’s stepfather, which says that he came to Blackfoot from Denver.

I’ve not been able to find any trace of the Martin-Gillespie family in the Denver area.

Edna’s family consisted of her older brother Ernest, born in 1879; her mother Rebecca, who went by the name of Becky; and her stepfather, William Franklin Martin. She also had two uncles in the area: George Bumgarner and his family, who probably lived in Groveland, and Charles, who lived in Midway, out past Taber. Both of these uncles would relocate to Nampa sometime after 1910.

Edna was probably 16 when she arrived in the area. As stated in Part 1 of Gillespie’s history, if we rely on the 1900 census, she was born in 1880. If we rely on her death certificate, then she was born in 1882. The 1910 census would set her birth year as 1880; but according to the 1920 census, it would be 1881. Both the 1930 and 1940 census would set her birth year as 1882.

But Edna took a teaching job in the “Gray’s district” for the 1897-1898 school year, according to the Blackfoot News. If she had been born in 1882, that would make her a 14-year old teacher, which is a bit too young, even for those days when people started to work younger than they do now.Wherever the Gray’s district was located, it could not have been too far from Blackfoot since we next spot Edna in May 1898, as she is elected a vice president of the local Blackfoot branch of the Epworth League, which was an organization of the United Methodist Church.

In August 1898, Gillespie took the Bingham County teacher’s examination for the first time. I could find no mention of whether she passed it; however, I think she did not pass the first time she took it because she took it again a few years later, in 1901, and passed it.

In August 1898, Gillespie attended the third annual Bingham County Teachers’ Institute, which from its description in the newspaper, was a summertime preparatory course for people planning on teaching careers.

Sometime before 1901, Gillespie had a teaching job in the Rose or Groveland area. To quote the Yancey Family history of Groveland:

“Miss Edna Gillespie, our present librarian, also has the honor of being listed among the early educators in this country, as she taught school in (former) District No. 20. She would ride the stagecoach which went to Mackay on Monday mornings. She had a room and boarded at the Isaac Erickson home, going back to Blackfoot for the weekend with her family.”

We know this happened in 1901 or earlier because that was the year the new railroad between Blackfoot and Mackay put the stagecoach out of business.

According to the 1900 Census, Edna was a 19 years old teacher who had not worked in her profession for six months. That census was taken in June. At the time, Edna was still living with her family near Blackfoot but not within city limits. The teaching job in 1899 may have been the one that the Yancey family history mentioned.

Life in Blackfoot

During this time, Gillespie lived with her family. In 1897, her stepfather was employed as the watchman and toll collector on the bridge. The bridge had to have been close enough to the family home for her stepfather to reach the bridge quickly by foot or horse because long commutes did not exist before the age of the automobile.

The first bridge in Blackfoot over the Snake River
The first bridge in Blackfoot over the Snake River

Wherever that house was located is a bit of a mystery. The 1900 census does not have any street addresses for the area of the “Blackfoot precincts” where they lived. The 1900 census also calls the area “Basalt,” which can not be the modern Basalt just north of Firth, since the location referred to also included the homes of several of the original settlers of Groveland, including Gillespie’s uncle George Bumgarner.

Martin was listed as a day laborer on the 1900 census. The local newspapers record that he was a “nomeite,” or prospector involved with working the gold sands of Nome, Alaska, during the Nome Gold Rush. Several men from Blackfoot made the journey to Nome and back, hoping to strike it rich by gold mining in the Summer months.

We do not know if Martin prospered from making the trip to Nome as a gold fly. Whatever the outcome, he did not come up short financially since he owned a coal dealership in Blackfoot well before he died in 1919.

College?

The U.S. census started tracking education beginning in 1940. Gillespie’s entry on this census shows that she completed two years of college – just the right amount of time to get a two-year teaching degree, which was the standard for Idaho during the first half of the 20th century.

Attending college has an implicit prerequisite of graduating from high school, so we can assume that Edna had a high school degree or at least enough time in high school to finagle her way into a two-year college program. Regardless, we have no clue as to where she went to college or when.

We lose sight of Gillespie between 1901 and 1904, which may mean she attended college during that time. It may also mean nothing at all because Blackfoot had no newspaper during this same time period. Since newspapers are our major source for tracking Gillespie, the lack of mention may not signify anything other than a lack of sources.

The famous Albion Normal School would be a logical place to obtain a two-year teaching degree. It was a very popular school in Idaho for aspiring teachers. Idaho State University is the repository for all of the records from Albion. Alas, there is no record of Gillespie at Albion. As part of the research for this article, Ellen Ryan, the curator of special collections at the library at Idaho State University checked the Albion records and found no mention of Edna. Gillespie did not attend the Albion Normal School.

Excluding a few social affairs, we lose sight of Gillespie again during the school years of 1910-1911 and 1911-1912. This is another potential opportunity for her to pick up a two-year college program.

In the end, we are left with not much. We don’t know where or when she went to college. All we know for sure is an entry for two years of college on the 1940 census and that Gillespie had a splendid education that left her with a love of books, a mastery of Latin and a firm foundation in classical literature.

It is frustrating that we know far more about her ability to play a killer game of cards than we do about her schooling.

Parties

Sometime before 1910, the Martin-Gillespie family moved into a home at 286 S. University, just one block down from the Methodist Church they attended. Martin also owned several lots in the same block. The family kept possession of the property until after Edna’s mother passed away in 1932. After their mother’s death, Edna and her brother Ernest sold it.

Edna Gillespie moved effortlessly through Blackfoot’s social scene from the time she moved to Blackfoot. Mentions of her at parties and social affairs continue well into the 1920s. The pages of the local newspapers have several reports of Gillespie at the center of teas and parties, as a hostess or chaperon for dances, and at social gatherings for the purpose of playing the four-person card games of bridge or five hundred. She often won prizes for party games and card games, and was certainly quite a card shark based on her skill at bridge.

Gillespie was very active in the Current Affairs Club. This Blackfoot institution is now long gone, but for more than a half a century, it was an integral part of Blackfoot’s social scene. She was voted in as a member in 1901 and remained a member for the rest of her life.

In 1905, we find Edna playing the lead role of the Duke in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, staged by the women of the Current Events Club. Men were not allowed to attend any of the performances. It was strictly ladies only.

In 1916, Gillespie was part of the group within the Current Events Club that put the library together and successfully solicited funding for it. They turned over their library collection to Blackfoot, to form the core of the newly established public library in 1917.

Gillespie was very active in the Order of the Eastern Star along with her mother. She frequently filled elected roles in the organization, and when she died, had the star symbol of the group engraved on her tomb stone.

Gillespie was also a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. By all accounts, she led a very full and active social life.

Politics

Edna ran twice for elected office, first in 1904 and again in 1908. Both times, she ran as a Democrat under the wing of US. Senator Fred Dubois. Dubois was the first US. senator for the State of Idaho, serving two terms. He was also a resident of Blackfoot. He and his wife were on good friendly terms with Gillespie.

Dubois was a controversial figure in his day. He is still controversial now. He was best known for his opposition to the gold standard, one of the biggest political issues of his day. He left the Republican party and became a Democrat over the gold standard issue.

Dubois was also famous for his Mormon bashing; though to be entirely fair, he really was an equal-opportunity racist and religious bigot. He didn’t limit himself to Mormons, but also found time to trash Filipinos, Mexicans, the local Bannock Tribe, Native Americans in general, blacks and anyone else who didn’t measure up as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. Given all of the racial and religious groups which Dubois was against, it does seem a bit strange that he was in favor of women’s suffrage.

Blackfoot resident and U.S. Senator Fred T. Dubois
Blackfoot resident and U.S. Senator Fred T. Dubois

Dubois went out of his way to see that members of the LDS church were disenfranchised in Idaho Territory over the issue of polygamy. It’s almost forgotten now and seldom taught in history, but anti-Mormonism was alive and doing just fine well into the first decades of the 20th century. Dubois was one of the main actors in the five-year-long attempt to keep Reed Smoot, the first Mormon elected to the US. Senate, from taking his seat.

Yes, Dubois, Idaho, is named after this man.

In 1904, Edna Gillespie was on the Democratic ticket as the candidate for the Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction. Dubois’ presence at the state party convention and his continued anti-Mormon stance led all of the Mormons in the Idaho Democratic Party to walk out in protest.

Edna did not get elected. Very few Democrats were elected that year. Teddy Roosevelt won the presidential election and the Republican Party won by a landslide in almost every state that wasn’t part of the deep South.

Dubois was intractable. Despite almost splitting the Democrats in two for the 1904 election, his presence on the Democratic ticket in 1908 finally fractured the party. The end result was two different Democratic Party tickets, which effectively split the Idaho Democrats in two, drove the Mormons out of the party entirely and permanently, turning Idaho into one of the only consistently Republican states to this day.

Edna Gillespie was part of the pro-Dubois ticket in both elections. She ran twice and she lost twice. Having been tainted by support for Dubois, she never again ran for office after 1908.

Career

Edna Gillespie taught at Blackfoot High School starting in September 1904. She stayed there through at least the 1908-1909 school year. She ducks out of sight after that.

Blackfoot High School in 1908
Blackfoot High School in 1908, when Edna Gillespie still taught there

She could not have been teaching in the November of 1912, when she traveled to Ross Fork to register voters. The same applies to October 1913 when she went off to visit her Bumgarner relatives in Nampa for two weeks. By April 1914, Gillespie appeared on the account books of Bingham County, employed as an assistant county superintendent of schools.

The Idaho Republican went on the editorial warpath in late December 1913 through February 1914, alleging that the county commissioners were remiss with their use of county tax dollars in paving roads and paying the county’s school administrators, including Edna Gillespie. In reaction, this had the effect of the county commissioners cutting the salaries of almost every county employee, again including Gillespie.

We don’t know if she left her position as an assistant superintendent due to the salary cut or due to political odium. Regardless, she left that position and took a teaching job in Salmon for the 1914-1915 school year.

She did not return to Salmon for a second year of teaching. We next see her in 1916 working for Hayes Gift Shop in downtown Blackfoot and spending a lot of time with the Current Events Club to organize a library. In December 1916, she took suddenly ill and underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis, which she fortunately survived.

Probably because of her work assembling the library collection for the Current Events Club, she was hired to take that library and transform it into the Blackfoot Public Library in the Summer of 1917. A newspaper article on June 25 notes that she is tirelessly mending books and organizing them on shelves in the two council chamber rooms in city hall. The library official opened for business on July 1 of that year.

The rest, as they say, is history. From that humble beginning of 800 books, Edna Gillespie nurtured and grew the library into its own new building and 10,000 books by the time she died in 1949.

A dedication to a librarian

After several weeks of taking ill and being bedridden, Edna Gillespie died on April 17, 1949, in her apartment on E. Judicial, only a few blocks for the Methodist Church she attended for 52 years. The primary cause of death was coronary thrombosis, with diabetes mellitus as a contributory cause. She was either 66 or 68 years of age, depending on which year she really born.

The funeral was delayed until her brother Ernest could arrive from San Jose, California. She was buried in the Grove City Cemetery in Blackfoot next to her stepfather.

In section 15 of the cemetery, there are four grave plots all in a row. Edna is in the leftmost spot, her stepfather to her right. The next spot is empty; I believe it was intended for Ernest, who was buried instead in San Jose in 1960. Next to the empty spot in the row, the rightmost grave is taken by Edna’s mother, Rebecca Martin. Edna Gillespie, her mother and her stepfather all lie under the shade of an aged and expansive spruce in the oldest part of the cemetery.

Edna Gillespie's Grave next to that of her stepfather, W. F. Martin, the only father she ever knew.
Edna Gillespie’s Grave next to that of her stepfather, W. F. Martin, the only father she ever knew.

In December, 1948, the Blackfoot High School Class of 1949 announced that the dedication of the 1949 yearbook would be to Edna Gillespie. When she died, they named the library after her. There are still books on the shelves, at least in the sections I tend to visit, with “Edna Gillespie Library” stamped on their end papers.

For a half century, she was one of the essential pieces that made up this place called Blackfoot; she died a Blackfoot institution; but she left no descendants behind to keep the memory of her forever green.

We end now with Edna’s own words:

“The librarian sees pride and tears, hears the faltering voice and the brave words, and glimpses from her desk the sum of man’s courage. Books have told the story; books will tell the story again; they’s what books and libraries are for.”

The dedication page of the 1949 Bronco Yearbook
The dedication page of the 1949 Bronco Yearbook

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