February 2006 Issue
Tribute to Reading
The Coonskin Library Museum speaks volumes about the value early Ohioans placed on books.
Bob Avery remembers arriving in Amesville for the first time back in 1980 and asking where the Coonskin Library was.
"It was on the historical signs at the edge of town, but nobody knew anything about it," he says with a chuckle. "They'd point to this house or that one up the hill and say, â€˜I'm pretty sure it was up there.' Actually, they were all sort of right."
Avery had moved from Toledo to the tiny Athens County village with his wife, Tanya, who had grown up in nearby Logan. As a history buff and educator - he was the new principal at Amesville's elementary school - he was naturally curious about the hamlet's background. When he got nowhere, he did a little research that took him back in time to the early days of Ohio's settlement.
The Coonskin Library, as it turned out, was one of the state's most quaint and unusual institutions - something that had been nearly forgotten, but which in its day brought learning, Beducation and entertainment to the forested, sparsely settled wilderness.
Nowadays in our digital, broadband culture, with nearly any fact or figure quite literally at our fingertips, it takes a leap of imagination to picture a time when one might have had to travel several hundred miles just to find a few good books. But 200 years ago, books were rare and precious luxuries. An entire library of them would have been nearly unimaginable.
And yet, the spunky, intelligent citizens of tiny Amesville found themselves imagining the unimaginable, and even doing something about it.
AMesville and Ames Township were founded in the 1790s. The village sits today astride the junction of state routes 329 and 550 about 10 miles east of Athens, in a pretty valley cut by Federal Creek, a tributary of the Hocking River that floods more often than the locals would like. It's home to about 180 people and has a bank, a Grange Hall, a pizza and sub shop, the Green Haven convenience store and the friendly looking Country Cupboard Cafe. Right across the street is Gifford Park, where you'll find an Ohio Bicentennial historical marker that tells the tale that Bob Avery dug around for 25 years ago. "It really wasn't that hard," he admits. But it was interesting.
By 1801, Amesville had a tutor and the people in town were talking about ways to boost learning. As the story goes, villagers were meeting in 1803 to discuss road improvements when Joshua True first brought up the idea of a local library. George Ewing seconded the motion, and planning began.
It didn't seem so outlandish, perhaps. Athens County was abuzz at the time with the idea of education, as people knew that a university was soon to open in Athens. The hurdles were numerous, however - and began with money. Ewing and True suggested that the town pool funds from its most valuable resource: the pelts of raccoons, beavers, foxes, bears and other wildlife that were highly marketable at that time in the cities of the East Coast.
The hunting and trapping began, and in 1803 stock was taken of the results. Villagers founded the Western Library Association, into which people could buy a membership - payable in pelts - for the then-hefty sum of $2.50. About 30 or 40 residents turned in hides, which were entrusted to Samuel Brown and the Rev. Manasseh Cutler.
Their mission: take the pelts overland along rough roads to Boston, cash them in and bring back books.
They left in the spring of 1803. In Boston they worked with the Rev. Thaddeus Harris of Harvard on selecting the books. The pelts had given them $73.50, which was enough to spend $60 on 51 volumes, and $13.50 for shipping back to Ohio. They and the library arrived back home in December.
Back in Amesville, people were delighted. Librarians were elected for one-year terms, during which time they kept, loaned and managed the books. The first librarian was Manasseh Cutler's son Ephraim, whose house still stands in town. "That's why lots of people thought the Cutler house was the library," Avery says. "But it was a traveling library. It moved all over town, and was kept in 25 or 30 houses."
In keeping with the practical nature of the townspeople, and the fact that two ministers made the selections, those first 51 books were mostly about history, biography, travel and, of course, religion. "What we'd consider heavy reading today," Avery says. Histories of the United States and the Revolutionary War were popular, especially considering that several of Ames Township's original settlers were veterans of the conflict.
A board managed additions to the library, which grew over the years to some 400 volumes. Novels were eventually added, though only one of the original 51 books was fiction. The books were eventually contained in two large, heavy, Shaker-style wood and glass bookcases, which were hauled annually from one librarian's house to the next.
Avery says records show the care and pride that people attached to the books: Fines for the slightest damage to a book could run as high as $1.50. "The books are still in amazingly good condition," he says. "They were very careful with them."
Since the organization remained formally known as the Western Library Association, it's not known exactly where the Coonskin Library name came from. Avery attributes its popularity to Thomas Ewing, a U.S. senator and cabinet secretary who grew up in town and was the first graduate of nearby Ohio University. The youngest founding member of the library association at age 13, he turned in 10 raccoon hides for his $2.50. "Ewing always talked proudly about what he learned in 'that little wilderness library,'" Avery says. Later, when an adversary in Congress tried to insult Ewing by saying all he knew was "what he read in that Coonskin Library," Ewing accepted the slight and turned it into a point of pride.
The name apparently stuck, but interest in the library eventually faded. In 1861, the board sold it to the local Glazier and Brawley families. "They tried to run it for a while as a private library, but that didn't last," Avery says. They sold it to William Cutler of nearby Marietta, a descendent of the Cutlers who had helped found the library. His daughter, Sarah Cutler, willed it to the Ohio Historical Society, where most its volumes remain to this day. A few others reside at Ohio University's Alden Library.
After Bob Avery learned the story, he started working with friends in town to revive the heritage. They formed the Coonskin Library Association in the mid-1980s, with the intention of creating a museum or memorial. Residents bought $100 lifetime memberships, and funds were raised with overnight coon hunts and euchre tournaments that became communitywide events. "We just wanted to keep the project alive, keep people interested," Avery says.
It worked. About $13,000 was raised, and the association started to look pretty hard at a small building behind the local elementary school as a possible home. A former schoolhouse from the 1920s that had been moved to Amesville in 1949, it housed the school cafeteria for 30 years. In 1994, the school board gave it to the association, and it became the Coonskin Library Museum. Avery credits Steve McKinley, a retired art teacher from Federal-Hocking High School, and shop teacher Terry Burns for mobilizing students and donating their time and talents to the creation.
Today, it's a modest but pleasant tribute. A small seating area full of child-size chairs has a stage where storytellers and volunteers can tell school kids what life was like in pioneer days. A map traces Samuel Brown and Manasseh Cutler's route to Boston. A local artist's portraits of the museum's founders, including Thomas Ewing, adorn one wall, and there are historic documents and photographs - including a grainy black-and-white of one of the old bookcases that constituted half the library. A stuffed raccoon looks down from a branch over the door.
Original Coonskin books are occasionally loaned from Athens and Columbus, and Avery speaks with pride and awe about the time he got to turn the pages of several with gloved fingers. "They were beautiful," he says.
Avery, now retired as a guidance counselor from Federal-Hocking High School, feels he's done his part to help the town learn more about its history. Between 300 and 400 people, mostly students, visit the small museum each year, and Amesville celebrated the 200th anniversary of the library in 2004 - T-shirts, speeches, 5K run, festivals, news coverage and more. There are still some things he'd like to do to improve the museum, but he's mostly happy. At the very least, he feels some pride in helping kids today make that leap of imagination - to the days of a pre-Xbox world in which people were willing to go to great trouble to get their hands on something to read.
And Amesville's better off, too. Says Mayor Frank Hare, "We're just a little town of 185 people. It's nice, in a town our size, to have something that people in the outside world are interested in."
For details on visiting the Coonskin Library Museum, call Bob Avery at 740/662-1230.