Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 26, 2013

Emma Yates library’s display takes visitors back

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

POCAHONTAS, Va. — Libraries often exhibit their latest books, local art and other items of interest, but people visiting the small library in downtown Pocahontas see an unexpected display — a collection of vintage lady’s hats.

The Emma Yates Memorial Library was a hat shop, and the home of its owner, Emma Yates. From 1902 to 1954, Yates made and sold hats, and lived above her store. Now an historic site, the downtown building houses the town’s library.

David Woodard is the current librarian. Like other area residents, he had visited the library as a patron since it opened in 1987. He described the feeling one gets when they come through the door and see a piece of the town’s past brought back to life in a new form.

“This is like stepping back into a piece of history, stepping back in time to be here,” Woodard said. “If you take everything that the library does for the community out, it’s still a huge piece of history that’s sitting here. It’s almost as much a museum as a library, really.”

Emma Yates occupied the downtown building from 1904 to 1954, said Jerry Gravely, president of the library’s board of directors. A photograph of Yates and a display describing her history are now on view in the library along with much of the merchandise she made by hand.

“This was a millinery shop,” Gravely said of the building’s past.

Yates lived in an apartment above her shop, and she stayed in business for decades.

“From everything I’ve read, she sold hats up until she died,” Woodard said. “Hats and dresses.” He looked up at the ceiling, imaging the apartment above the library. “I can’t imagine someone 85 going up and down those stairs every day.”

“I can’t imagine her sewing hats and stuff together at 85,” Gravely added. “In fact, we still have some (hats) in hat boxes upstairs.”

“And there’s some of her furniture down here and upstairs,” Woodard said.

Besides preserving part of the town’s history, the library provides several services to the community.

“A lot of people may not realize it’s here, but the people who do come in here, they rely on the library for information, for Internet access and for books,” Woodard said. “And some of them rely on the library for social interaction. They come to socialize and see their neighbors here. Just to watch that, you really see a small town atmosphere come to life in here.”

The library’s board of directors works hard to find funding and ensure the library stays open. Increasing the number of people who use the library’s resources helps increase the amount of available funding, Gravely said.

Efforts to bring more patrons through the doors have seen good results. A recent summer reading program resulted in 130 books being checked out. Parents brought their children to the library and ended up checking out books, too. Woodard compared the event to the late President Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down economy.”

“It’s trickled up book checking out, I guess,” he said.

The library needs visitors if it is to stay in existence.

“The community using this library is vital to its survival, really,” Woodard said.

Some of the library’s funding comes through the Tazewell County Library. The Emma Yates Memorial Library is not part of the county library, but funding from them comes through the county board of supervisors, Gravely said. To help support this source of income, reports on attendance are kept up to date.

“We send a report in each month on the traffic in the library, how many people are checking out books, how many people have come through the door, how many people have used the computer, how many people come in just to say hi or whatever,” Gravely said.

Besides local patrons, the town’s library is often visited by former Pocahontas residents. Some simply want to remember their lives in town, and others are doing genealogical research, Woodard said. Other visitors who are new to Pocahontas come in to sample the town’s rich history.

Still more guests visit via the Internet. They come upon the library while surfing the web and want to learn more about it, he said.

Historic Pocahontas owns the building and the board cares for it, Gravely said. New windows have been put up in much of the building, those made of vintage glass have been left in place. The front of building has been painted, and a new furnace has been installed. Historic Pocahontas has added a deck in back of the building.

The library relied strictly on volunteers and donated books when it first opened. It still receives book donations, and some of them are sent to missions. There simply is not enough room for all the contributed volumes.

“Space is our greatest enemy here,” Woodard said.

Plans for improving the building continue. Gravely hopes to some day renovate the upstairs apartment so a librarian can live there.

“I would really like to see that happen,” he said. “I think it would be unique.”

The building has gone from being a hat shop and residence to being a library and an historic structure.

“I think it’s safe to say the goal is for the story to continue and evolve,” Woodard concluded.

The Emma Yates Memorial Library can be contacted at emma_yates@comcast.net.