The Boxcar Library of Montana

Boxcar1

The “Lumberjack Library”. Courtesy of the Missoula Public Library.

“But chiefly and certainly the books supply the men with a means of harmless enjoyment; an insurance against boredom; a magic carpet whereon to be whisked away from the monotony of days of toil to a life of gay adventure and gracious living.”
– The Missoulian, Dec. 19th 1926.

While bringing library books to isolated logging camps had been done before, the library boxcar that came out of Missoula, Montana  was one of the more interesting solutions to the tedium of camp life. The seed was planted by librarian Ruth Worden, who approached Kenneth Ross, General Manager of the A.C.M. Lumber Department in Bonner, Montana. (A.C.M. stood for Anaconda Copper Mining Co., one of the most powerful mining operations in the country that also did a hefty bit of logging.) Ross agreed to let her bring books for the workers, since Missoula County Free Library would provide the titles at no cost. Initially, the collection was housed in a store and later a hotel. While not enthusiastic about the project at first, Ross was stunned to learn that workers read over 4,000 books at the end of the library’s first year.
So impressed was Ross that he arranged for a special “library car” to be built so it could be sent to the numerous lumber camps in the area. The gray car measured roughly 12 by 40 feet and had a collection of 1,400 books, along with newspapers, magazines, and even a Victrola record player. The books were either donations or purchased by Worden from a fund of $400, the money “subscribed by the men themselves.” The car was switched from one camp to another every two weeks.

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Interior view of the library. Note the Victrola under the window. Courtesy of the Missoula Public Library.

The sawmill workers and lumberjacks crowded into the library mostly on Sundays, often checking out books to take back to their camps for the rest of the week. At one end of the car the librarian sat behind a counter where he checked out materials. Bookshelves lined the walls, a stove kept the library warm, and a single table with room for about a dozen sat on the other end. Not surprisingly, the workers enjoyed Westerns along the lines of Zane Grey and James Oliver Curwood.
The library car continued to serve A.C.M. camps until the late 50s, when it was moved to the Lubrecht Forest just north of Missoula and became “cabin 15”. Numerous forestry students from The University of Montana used the car, now stocked with reference books, the students reading at the long table once enjoyed by lumberjacks. It continued to serve the University until it was recently purchased by the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, Montana, where it is currently being restored.

Citations:

Dundas, , Robert G. “The Lumberman’s Library; An Account of ACM’s Rolling Reading Room..” Tall Timber Short Lines, Fall/Winter  2003, 30-36.

“Library Car Generously Patronized by Workers in County’s Lumber Camps.” Missoulian, Dec 19, 1926.

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