By Tom Woodman
Basking in the sunshine and breeze of an early fall day, I stand in the hamlet of Upper Jay. This small collection of homes and businesses somehow embodies the Adirondacks’ intertwined forces of creation and destruction.
A crossroads on the bank of the East Branch of the Ausable River, Upper Jay was for twenty-five years the place where an artist named Arto Monaco presented an intricate fantasy world named Land of Makebelieve, a masterpiece of craftsmanship and imagination in the guise of a children’s theme park. Time after time, the East Branch surged over its banks and inundated the Land of Makebelieve until its creator had to accept defeat. Now twelve days after Tropical Storm Irene unleashed destructive floods throughout the region, the remnants of the theme park are gone, carried downstream or buried in river mud.
But it’s not Arto Monaco’s misfortune I’m here to witness today. It’s the story of what befell a small century-old library that stood in the path when Irene’s downpour pushed the river nearly twelve feet above flood stage and sent it coursing through the stacks of books on its way to spread more ruin downstream.
The havoc Irene brought to the eastern Adirondacks created many heartbreaking sights. One friend told me she wept when she first drove through Keene, seeing the torn-apart buildings and cratered roads. Others choked up when they saw a small army of volunteers pulling sodden merchandise from McDonough’s Hardware in Keene Valley. For many the sight that brought a tear to the eye came to them over the Internet: a picture of ruined children’s books heaped outside the flooded Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay. In the photo’s background, youngsters trudge into the building to carry out more.
When the rains of Irene fell and fell through the day on August 28, the small communities of the eastern Adirondacks were cut off from the outside world and from each other. It took time, days even, before what happened would fit together into an overall picture that we could make sense of.
For Upper Jay that started to change when Kate Messner, a children’s author herself, came upon the library and took the picture of the book pile that she posted on her blog. The words of her post brought home what had been lost:
“One of my first-ever author events happened at this library, a cozy, casual reading … I remember watching kids coming in to choose books right before the event started. You can tell when kids feel at home in a place, when they know it’s truly their library and these kids did.”
The word spread through the worlds of writers, publishers, libraries, and bookstores. Journalists told the tale, and National Public Radio brought it to an audience across the country.
On the day that I visit, professional cleaners are airing the building and pulling materials out the door. Earlier, a Keeseville church sent a work crew to shovel out mud and haul trash as did Home Depot stores from the Capital Region. Volunteers have been as young as four and as old as eighty.
On the porch a stack of cartons with the imprint of a publishing house are the latest donated books to appear. Library President Marie-Anne Azar Ward says so many books have arrived that storage is an issue. But as we talk, two neighbors arrive and collect the boxes to store in a local theater until the library can take them in. (At press time Ward said the library could no longer accept donated books.)
Two men walk up. They are the vanguard of a group from the Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs. A busload of forty of their students will follow. Marie-Anne will set them to work removing the layers of mud from around the library, but she also has arranged for them to pitch in elsewhere.
Many in the area need help, and the library’s fame can become good fortune for them as well.
The library’s losses are breathtaking. All but six of the children’s books are gone. They were displayed on low shelves where the kids could reach them and so were in the water’s path. Half the library’s ten thousand volumes are destroyed. Archival documents telling the history of Upper Jay now sit in freezers. Restoration specialists say that’s the best way to preserve them until they can be evaluated. Heating duct work has been torn from the building, and insulation must go. The furnace will probably work again, but only after its electrical system is replaced. Floodwater has to be removed from the oil tank.
But what survives is the library’s place in the communities along this river valley. In the decades after it opened in 1906 the library was the center for celebrations and civic events as well as for reading. The population is smaller now, and there are other facilities for some of these activities, but the library still serves a scattered population of two thousand and many are regulars. Parents use the computers while their children spend time in their section.
Some of these kids have been among the volunteers.
“They are just astonished,” says Marie-Anne, “but they have rolled up their sleeves just as theadults have and have offered to wash the stuffed animals and take things home and make them right if they can. In a way it’s a good experience for children to see that they are able to help in some way when something like this happens.”
On the day after the storm, more than thirty neighbors showed up without being asked to start getting the library ready for a reopening. Ward hopes that will be by Thanksgiving. They’ll need new insulation installed and a heating system operating by then, of course. The weather can be harsh.
But these folks are prepared to deal with that.
For more info on how you can help:
More Irene Coverage:
• The big rain – Tropical Storm Irene alters the lives of Adirondackers, the course of rivers, and the faces of the High Peaks.
• We’re still here – Local businesses in communities hit by Irene make it clear that they’re open and they’re staying.
• New slide guide – Hikers and skiers look forward to exploring the many new slides created in the High Peaks by Irene’s deluge.