100-year-old librarian ‘keeps dust off the floor’ in Vinland

After 80 years on job, preserving memories more important than books

For the last eight decades, Martha Cutter Kelley Smith has tended to the books at the Coal Creek Library. But not because she’s an avid reader.

“I don’t read ’em,” Smith says. “I’m not any kind of speed reader.”

But just as she has for the past 80 years, the 100-year-old Smith toils away at the state’s oldest library, keeping herself busy and keeping a monument to the small community of Vinland up and running.

It’s good to be back here, she says. For the past two weeks, the summer heat has cooked the small library, forced hot air through the tiny room’s seven narrow windows.

When it’s that hot, Smith just stays home.But now, with temperature cooling back down, Smith sits at a wooden desk in the front of the building, sorting through boxes of donated books.

Sitting on a shadeless corner off an old county road in Vinland, the library for decades has served school children and residents here, providing books when many schools nearby had few.

Smith’s family founded the library along with a handful of other Vinland residents just years before soldiers fired the first shots of the Civil War. After years of moving the library’s original 10 volumes from house to house, the collection finally settled in its current building in 1900.

“Now I try to keep the dust off the floor,” Smith says.

She gets up from the front desk and the half-full boxes of books and shuffles over to an old, carved wooden chair near the library’s glass cases.

The chair she sits in is original, as are several bookcases, tables and the front desk itself. Much of what’s in the library – including many of the dusty, faded books – was all here the day it opened.

The library’s 3,500-plus book collection contains all the essentials and little else: A complete Charles Dickens collection, with faded pages and carved leather bindings from the 1880s; Robert Browning’s poems; a re-bound copy of Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” from 1894.

The library also serves as a kind of local museum – and a storage place for memories and keepsakes of Smith and her family.

The photograph of Smith’s high school class sits in a dusty binder near the library’s front window. In faded black and white, it shows Smith and a group of school girls perched on the steps of the Vinland Methodist Church in 1924.

“I weighed 130 pounds back then,” she says, laughing. “Now I only weigh 103!”

These pictures, maps, old history books – they carve out the library’s place in Kansas, with volumes about Baldwin and the Vinland area.

Smith helps keep that history alive for her community.

Back at her home – where Smith spends much of her time, aside from her Sunday afternoons at the library – she says many of her visitors at the library now are people curious about its contents. Book historians come in to examine the texts. Neighbors still stop in now and then to borrow a book or two, she says, but since many schools in the area closed or got libraries of their own, the little Coal Creek Library is here, mainly, to provide memories.

But someone has to be there, if only one day a week, to keep those memories alive when Smith isn’t around.

Life at home

From the back room of the house, Smith’s son, Edwin, emerges. The 61-year-old has lived at home most of his life after bouncing among three colleges.

He ribs Smith about her work with the library – “She’s addicted to it,” he says – and mentions that he’d rather not look after the building when Smith decides she’s done tending to it.

“I’m just not interested in it,” he says, his thick, black-framed glasses hanging low on his nose. “It gets too hot in the summers.”

Edwin never took much of an interest in the library, even after spending plenty of time there as a child.

Instead, he worked for years as a night watchman at Kansas University, until a change in schedule forced him into early retirement in 2001.

But Edwin has his interests. The Smith house is draped in Edwin’s wild paintings of lions and other big cats, all done in vivid oranges and purples. Plus, he’s got his own expansive book collection, with so many science fiction titles he stores most of them in a nearby barn.

Back at the library, Smith thinks for a time about Edwin, his life living under her roof. She starts to say how it’s been all of these years, then pauses.

“But now,” she says, “I couldn’t get along without him.”

As for the library itself, it’s getting along just fine. But Smith knows she won’t be there forever.

Since Edwin has never shown much interest, Smith has never asked him to help out.

“We just don’t talk about it,” Smith says.

Smith doesn’t much talk about her health, either. She’s doing all right, she says, but today she’s excited about her neck.

In one of the library’s four original chairs, she begins to roll her head to the right, then the left. This, Smith says, is her exercise, the way she stays in shape as she gets older.

“I do it 10 times this way,” she says.

The exercises were prescribed by her chiropractor, the kind of doctor she’s gone to every two weeks for the past 50 years. She’s had neck problems since childhood, but now, at 100, she’s working to get them fixed.

“And it’s getting straighter,” she says.

Plus, the colds she used to suffer from are gone now, as she gargles twice a day to “irrigate” her nose.

So, in good weather, she still catches rides down to the old library to tend to her books and guests on Sundays. And she says she doesn’t plan on stopping.

Continuing the legacy

But when Smith retires, the library will still be cared for, says Ray Wilber, the president of the Coal Creek Library Assn.

In many ways, Wilber keeps track of the old place, making sure that whatever needs fixing gets fixed and helps search for ways to pay for it.

The library got a new porch and roof just a few years back, and now, with the support of the Santa Fe Trail Historical Society, he’ll fix up the windows and eventually replace the faux-brick siding that lines the building’s exterior.

Wilber says that neighbors and friends have even offered to help run the place, keeping it open as a library and a museum.

But right now, with a cool breeze gliding through the library, this is Smith’s territory. And, in many ways, it always will be.

“We won’t be able to replace Martha Smith,” Wilber said.