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Summer Issue 2010

Patchwork of Dependency: The Effects of World War II

 

by Mary Hooper

Joan Weaver and Rosetta Graff aren’t exactly reinventing the small town public library, just… well, reinterpreting it.

Weaver and Graff are library director and librarian respectively of the Kinsley Public Library in Kinsley, which, with a population of roughly 1,600, is the largest town in Edwards County.

Before the Internet, the local public library was the source of books and information. Now, the library is one of many sources. So, like a company rewriting its business model in changing times, the library, especially the small library, also must adapt to remain relevant, Weaver says.

“We have to do more than check out books. I think one way a small local library can stay relevant is to become a repository of local information.”

In recent years, the Kinsley Library has become just such a repository, placing much of its collections of local lore and history online. The library and its website are the go-to sites for genealogy, historic photos, cemetery and burial records, church records, old newspapers, and information, including photos, about the family-owned carnivals that once headquartered in Kinsley.

The Kinsley Library’s latest gathering of local history is called “Patchwork of Dependency: The Effects of World War II on Edwards County, Kansas,” a trove of personal stories that highlight the effect of the war not only on individuals but on a part of rural America.

A few years ago, Weaver and Graff decided to interview the mostly elderly residents of the near-ghost towns of Fellsburg, Centerview and Trousdale as part of the library’s ongoing oral history project. But the cost of having the interviews transcribed, an often tedious process, was from $80 to $100. The library didn’t have the money. In the meantime, the Kansas Humanities Council was taking grant applications for its “Kansans Tell Their Stories” project.

Aha! said Weaver and Graff.

“We said, hey, we can continue to do our interviews and there’s our funding source for the transcriptions,” said Weaver.

The Humanities Council awarded the Kinsley Library a grant of $3,248 to continue their work.

In conjuring a project title, Weaver thought of the patchwork quilt of towns and settlements that once lay across Edwards County. Before the Great Depression, Fellsburg, Centerview and Trousdale were fairly thriving communities, as were Kinsley, Offerle, Lewis and Belpre. Out around Offerle, small settlements grew up around SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church and Zion Lutheran Church.

“The wounds of the Great Depression with its failed banks and foreclosed farms were still open in Edwards County as the country entered World War II. The war helped the economy recover while demanding many sacrifices which made the people and communities more dependent on one another,” Weaver has written.

Weaver and Graff finished their interviews last year. So far, 22 county residents who lived through the war volunteered their recollections. Some, for the first time.

There was one old soldier who started to tell of his combat experiences, then stopped, looked at Weaver and Graff, and said quietly: “I’ve never told anybody about this before.”

“I think that for some of our combat veterans, it’s now or never when it comes to talking about it. We have several heroes among our interview subjects,” said Weaver.

For the librarians, the project represented the last, best hope of getting local members of “the greatest generation” to open up.

“I think a lot of their kids were after them, try to get mom and pop to talk about their experiences before it was too late.”

The 22 who shared their stories include not only those who were men in uniform but farm wives, store clerks and teen-agers.

“We wanted to get as broad a cross-section of the population as we could,” Weaver said.

The Depression and the Dust Bowl marked a turning point for Edwards County, and indeed, much of rural Kansas.

Before the Depression, Edwards County had a fairly large population, but hard times and raging dust storms drove many homesteaders to pack up and leave. The war siphoned off more people, particularly the young as they left for the armed services or wartime factory jobs far from the familiar sand hills.

Edwards County was still pretty robust in the ‘50s and early’60s, but the decline really set in after that. Farms were becoming mechanized. People could drive to Dodge City or Hutchinson to shop. Cars and gasoline were cheap. More well-paying jobs lured folks to far-flung big cities.

Having probed the wartime memories of local people, the Kinsley librarians plan to apply for another Kansas Humanities Council grant to capture folks’ recollections of the Fifties and Sixties.

“Usually historical societies do this, but we view this as part of our mission to gather local history,” Weaver said.

The collection of historical data is veering off into a different direction with the labors of Ed Carlson, often called the unofficial historian of Edwards County, who is researching, photographing and documenting the history of Kinsley’s unusual houses.

Houses profiled include the Cheap House, not a commentary on its construction, but its actual name, having been built by one Charles Edward Cheap. And then there’s the Alfred Hobbs House, where Earl Winfield Spencer was born. His claim to near-fame was as the first husband of Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, who married Edward VIII, who, of course, renounced the British throne in order to stay married to “the woman I love.”

The “Patchwork of Dependency” interviews, both taped and written, as well as other online resources, can be found on the library’s website, www.kinsleylibrary.info/.

 


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