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Looking back: Docent recalls years as Chester librarian

From the archives: Janice Hammett, left, helps a local reader with his project at the Chester Inn Library. (Photos contributed)

By JOHN KIENER

Associate Editor

[email protected]

Janice Hammett is back at the Chester Inn where she started as a librarian after graduating from Jonesboro High School. Now she serves as a volunteer in assisting the Heritage Alliance as a docent in the operation of the state-owned facility’s museum.

Today, Janice Hammett is back at the Chester Inn as a docent for the museum. In the above photo, Hammet gets ready for the Jonesborough Days Parade.

 “People remember when the library was here and they remember me,” she said. She started working in 1975 for $1 an hour at what was then the Jonesborough Library.  

“We were not considered a part of Washington County until we moved into the present facility in 1986,” she explained.

Upon reading the Herald & Tribune’s publication of the 100 years of library history written by Dorothy Wood and Doris Dean, Hammett said she wanted to share some of her recollections of events that occurred during her tenure as a librarian. “At one time, I could name everyone who lived on Main Street,” she said.

Her co-workers at the Chester Inn Library were Betty Cooke and Margaret Henry. During those days, she said, “There was a post office, bank, grocery and hardware stores on Main Street. An insurance agency occupied part of the Chester Inn next to where the library was located. You could look out the windows of the library and see people walking down Main Street.”

What library parking that was available was behind the inn. The Dinner Bell Restaurant also occupied space behind the library in an area that now constitutes the Jimmy Neil Smith Park. Upstairs of the Chester were apartments. Hammett said, “Jonesborough in those days was a working town. Now it’s a tourist town.”

In explaining her library career, Hammett said, “My best memories of working at the library were the people. I love books. I always have. I have to have a paper book when I read so I can turn the pages.”

The Chester Inn Library had very little space and no public restroom. There was a large portrait of George Washington that had to be taken down twice a year in order for the heating system to be turned off and the air conditioner started in the spring with the process reversed in the late fall.  

“It was a guess about what the weather was going to be when we reversed the system,” Hammett said.  

The facility’s space expanded a bit when the insurance office closed.  A cinder block wall was removed and the space was used for a children’s reading room.  

“There was no children’s librarian.  We all took turns.”  

One of her children’s reading experiences remains fixed in Hammett’s memory.  

“I was telling the children the story of the Billy Goats Gruff.  There was a man in town who wore black clothing and could often be found walking in front of the library. I asked him to hide under a nearby bridge after I told the 10 children the story and jump out  (like the troll in the Norwegian fairy tale) when I passed with the group of 6- and 7-year olds.”

The man complied. Hammett had not anticipated that the children would begin screaming when the man jumped out from under the bridge. They ran away in all directions.  

“It took me over an hour to find all of them and to take them back to the library,” the now wiser librarian recalled.

Interesting requests included a man who wanted to find a drawing of The Vitruvian Man with clothing. (The proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius’ is a drawing made by Leonardo da Vinci about 1490. It is accompanied by notes based on the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius. The drawing, which is in ink on paper, depicts a man in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and inscribed in a circle and square.)  A drawing with clothing was never discovered. 

Another person asked for a book about the “Dead Sea Squirrels.”  

“I never corrected, told a person it was a dumb question or argued with a patron all the time I have worked at libraries,” Hammett said. “I did indicate that while we did not have the requested book, there was a publication about the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls.’” 

She also helped a woman who wanted to know how to use her “segregated” knives, once Hammett figured out that the knives were “serrated.”

She did tell an individual requesting a book on “Weapons Of Mass Destruction”  that such a publication was not available in Jonesborough. One person in worn clothing wanted to know how to get to San Antonio, Texas. Hammett got out a road atlas and traced the route from Jonesborough on a map, making the man a copy.  

“It will be 10 cents for the copy,” she told him. 

When he replied that he did not have any money, she said ‘It’s OK. Go ahead and take the copy.” Leaving the Chester Inn, she saw him standing on the street corner, a copy of the map she had given him in one hand and his other hand extended thumbing for a ride. Hammett realized that using this method of transportation, it was going to take the man longer than she told him to get to San Antonio. 

While the library did not have a regular “Meet An Author” program during Hammett’s time at the Jonesborough Library, she remembers two authors who visited and spoke to groups. They were Peter Jenkins and William Least Heat-Moon. Jenkins, born Aug. 27, 1939,  is an American travel author. He is known for walking from New York to Oregon while writing two books that describe his experiences over the nearly six years that he spent walking. He is a graduate of Alfred University,

Heat-Moon (born William Lewis Trogdon) is an American travel writer and of historian of English, Irish, and Osage ancestry. He is the author of several books which chronicle unusual journeys through the United States, including cross-country trips by boat (River Horse, 1999) and, in his best known work (1982’s Blue Highways), about his journey in a 1975 Ford Econoline van.

One day when she came to work at the Chester Inn, the floor was slushy. Water had leaked from one of the apartments above the library. Hammett called the fire department. She said she was in a very anxious and excited state until lawyer Jud Thornton came by and assured her “everything would be all right.”  The Town Fire Department pumped out the water. It was discovered that the water had leaked down only one set of shelving.  “However, it took us some time to clean up the mess,” she said.

Because of the deficiencies at the Chester Inn, especially with space and parking, Hammett was thrilled the day that then Mayor Jimmy Neil Smith told her that the town had purchased land for a new library at Duncan’s Meadow. She was surprised at the people who said when they were leaving the inn,”We’re sorry that the new library will be so far out of town.”  

During this period, the Gray branch was established in a trailer. The facility was so small that when both libraries received new copiers, the one at Gray took up an enormous amount of space. She also remembers a Library Float in the Jonesborough Days Parade in the mid-1980s and selling chicken meals for library fund raising during the celebration.  

When a prominent Nashville politician running for a federal office came by and failed to purchase a meal, she said the group working that day at the concession stand pledged never to vote for him. 

Hammett found the new facility up-to-date, large, and user-friendly. “If I had five cent for every card catalog index I typed, I would be a millionaire. Now everything is on computers.”  The new facility would have audio-visual equipment and computers. She would not see all these innovations completely in place because after two years she moved with her husband Bob to Morganton, North Carolina. There she became a librarian at Western Piedmont Community College while earning a degree in library science.  

Returning to the area after 10 years in North Carolina, she worked at the Johnson City Public Library for five years before retiring. Now, volunteering at the place where her career began, she said, “I was really fortunate. I’m proud I was an original member of the Civic Trust. I loved the people who came to the library.” She looks forward to again greeting and assisting people visiting the Chester Inn.