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Jimmy Neil Smith recalls early library days

Jimmy Neil Smith began shaping the direction of Jonesborough as mayor in 1978. (Photo contributed)

By JOHN KIENER

Associate Editor

[email protected]

Jimmy Neil Smith enjoyed his tenure as the Town of Jonesborough’s Mayor in addition to being the founder of Storytelling. In a recent interview, he talked about his remembrances and role in the history of the Washington County-Jonesborough Library. 

He said: “I attended elementary school during the 1950s in what is now the central office of Washington County Schools and Academy Hill. We did not have a school library. So, as a class, we would walk down West Main Street to the library in the first floor of the Chester Inn.  It seemed adequate to us kids, but we didn’t know any better. By the 1970s, over 20 years later, it was a common belief throughout our community that the little library in the Chester Inn was woefully lacking.” 

Smith ran for and was elected mayor. Remembering those school days, he said, “So, when I became Jonesborough’s mayor in 1978, one of my goals was to build a new and larger library to serve our community. It was a goal shared by the other four members of the Board of Mayor and Alderman. It was a no-brainer.”

The opportunity for the construction of a new library became possible as part of a larger building construction project. As the newly elected mayor, Smith said, “The goals of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen included building a new Town Hall with a new Fire Department and a visitors center for greeting tourists. We were very fortunate to have a vacant strip of land along Boone Street, known as Duncan’s Meadow, and it was, without question, the best location for our new community facilities.”

Not everyone in the community was in favor of the plan. Smith continued: “So, despite some resistance within our community, the Town purchased the property and began planning our new Town Hall (with its new Fire Department) and the Jonesborough Visitors Center. Soon thereafter, the Jonesborough Post Office, then located across Main Street from the Chester Inn, wanted to lease space within the complex for a new post office. Since the Duncan’s Meadow was spacious, we still had a vacant area at the end of the site, near the downtown area, and we offered this vacant space to the board of the Jonesborough library for a new library facility.”

Next on the agenda was the challenge of obtaining financing for the new complex.  In order to find the necessary funds, Smith remembers: “We realized that our key to success was patching together the funding from a variety of sources. No one source was sufficient. While I served in a leadership role, it was a team effort to secure the funding we needed. So, following the Town’s commitment of land, we asked Washington County for financial support, submitted a grant for federal funding to the State of Tennessee, and sold the Rhea Wells House that was given to the Town by Mr. Wells for library purposes.”

Those opposed to the project were not done with their criticism.  Smith said, “Critics of the proposed location of the new library expressed concern that the building would be prone to flooding. After all, Duncan’s Meadow often flooded. However, the Town sought the assistance of the Tennessee Valley Authority to flood-proof the entire Duncan’s Meadow — protecting any new buildings on the site from flooding. There has been no flooding of these community facilities since they were built.” 

Reflecting on these same facilities today, Smith was asked if there is a need today for a new library or addition to the present facility.  He answered: “Absolutely! It has been about 35 years since the new library facility was opened, and during that time, the library has continued to grow in usage. More space is needed, and I am optimistic that the Washington County Commission and the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Alderman can come together to develop a plan to expand the current facility. However, it’s going to require some dedicated and aggressive leadership from all of the government entities involved.”

When told about the the discussion in the Wood & Dean article that the original design of the building was 5,800 square feet but a library of 8,700  square feet was recommended in 1979 by the State of Tennessee Library survey, the former mayor responded: “I think we built the space we could afford to build that would move the library out of the cramped quarters of the Chester Inn and into a new facility that would meet the library’s needs at that time and in the near future.”

The Wood & Dean articles also referred to the Library Dedication on Sept. 21, 1986 as part of the celebration of Tennessee Homecoming ’86 Smith said: “Jonesborough played a key role in Homecoming ’86. In fact, Lamar Alexander, then governor of Tennessee, used Jonesborough as a model for other communities in the year-long celebration. However, I ended my service as mayor in April of 1984, so I was not engaged directly with the Town and its celebration of Homecoming ’86. I suspect that the Town touted the library as a feature of the Town’s celebration. Instead, I developed plans and secured state funds for a state-wide storytelling program in my capacity as president of the organization that would become the International Storytelling Center.”