This small city in southeast Kansas has an ambitious plan for a new library to serve as a center for learning, communication and community activities. If history is any judge, they’ll pull it off, thanks to vision and careful stewardship of local resources.When Judy Tolbert gets “the vision” to do something, there’s usually no stopping her. The same can be said of other community leaders in Sedan, a southeast Kansas town of 1,093 in Chautauqua County, near the Oklahoma border.
They’ve had visions before, like the one to sell beige bricks bearing the name of the purchaser, laying them in the downtown sidewalks and calling it a Yellow Brick Road. (They’ve sold more than 11,000 of them.) Like removing the garbage from the creek bed that runs through town and having a naming contest for the new improved ditch (now called The Hollow). Like painting rusty, grungy looking fire hydrants a cheerful yellow, and just as cheerfully repainting them red when they learned that yellow signifies information about the volume of water flow to the town’s volunteer fire fighters.
Now this group of visionary community volunteers has decided the town needs an improved library. Make that a library and resource center in a new building designed by American General Steel. Currently, Sedan has about as many library books as it has “yellow” bricks. Judy Tolbert, Nita Jones, Sue Kill and other community leaders recently explained this to me over lunch at Safari Mark’s. This restaurant just opened in Sedan’s historic hotel. In the adjoining bar, Safari Mark himself was preparing a tableau of African wildlife he’d personally hunted. Thus the nickname, and from there, the name of the restaurant.
It isn’t enough to have books in the library, Tolbert said. Instead, the library, which is in the fundraising stage, will have multiple uses. “The project has potential to unite the community and area,” she said. “There will be a community safe room so that the next time the tornado siren blows, residents won’t have to shelter in church basements hoping the steeples don’t collapse on their heads.” It will have two meeting rooms and 20 computers. These can be used by library patrons, adults studying for high school equivalency exams and nursing-home residents who can visit the library in small groups to use computers. There will be a full kitchen where area experts can teach classes about canning and preserving food grown in the community garden that will be located on library grounds.“Young people have no earthly idea where food comes from. If we get to the point in this nation…and it could happen…,” Tolbert said, her voice trailing off. “They need to know how to survive.”
And—above all— the library will have restrooms. The current library shares space with a title company, and the restrooms are located in that business. That means a rather significant disruption to titling activities any time a small child in the library heeds the call.
Sedan may be a town of dwindling resources and a population that has dropped by 228 people since 1990. Its glory days were built on oil extraction, but that resource is close to being played out. Now its economy relies more on farming, ranching and tourism from white-tail deer hunting. So even though a key economic resource is disappearing, the people who made money from it are investing wealth back into their community.
At present, the new library exists only on paper. The project is being developed by the library board, of which Tolbert is a member. The financing is being funneled through the Sedan Area Foundation, of which she is also a member.
Tolbert’s involvement on multiple community boards and committees is something small-town residents are accustomed to. Sue Kill, who has long been involved with economic development in Sedan and Chautauqua County, helped me sort out some of the key organizations. The Sedan Area Foundation was organized in 1996 as a nonprofit organization to accept donations for specific projects or for the benefit of the community. The Sedan Area Economic Development Committee was also formed as a nonprofit to promote economic development and cultural enrichment for the city and area.
The library board has purchased a residential lot that was donated to the Sedan Area Foundation. They’ve also purchased the lot next door from private individuals, where the parking lot and community gardens will go.
The library board had adequate funds for these purchases but needed approval from the city council, which they received unanimously. Local newspaper publisher and editor Rudy Taylor covered that meeting. He lives in a nearby small town that he said has been trying for years to build a new library for its community. They’ve been raising funds through bean dinners and bake sales, but it has been slow going, he told me.
“Sedan is different,” he said. “There are foundation members who are very wealthy. Judy brought them along to the city council meeting, and said ‘We don’t want to ask tax payers for help. We just need your cooperation.’ ”“That woman is doing it” Taylor said of Tolbert. “She’s high on enthusiasm, but her eyes are open. She and the library board realize that hard-back books are a small portion of what a library is about in today’s world. They know they need a cutting-edge, highly digital library, as well as books, videos and so on.”
Taylor detailed how Tolbert asked the assembled city council how many of them used Sedan’s library, and no one raised his hand. Two said they were avid readers but usually purchased and downloaded e-books. “That’s a sign we have to look further down the road for what a library gives the community,” Taylor said.
While the city council readily approved the land purchase, they did ask questions about how the business of the library would be sustained after the fundraising goal had been met. Tolbert believes that the library’s budget, increased from $24,000 to $32,000 when the library moved out of city hall and into the title company, will be sufficient to cover more hours for librarians and utilities in the new facility. The additional work required to run the new programs will be done by volunteers, as most things have been in Sedan for a long time.
Tolbert herself was born not far from here, spent several years in Sedan and then went to Wichita for college. She began working in the insurance business, spending the bulk of her career with the Woodmen of the World. Her employment took her to several cities in the region. Because of her parents’ declining health, she transferred home to Kansas. She ended up opening an office in Sedan. The first people she met were the town’s visionaries, she said, including Nita Jones, who with her husband, Dick, runs a real estate company.
“I loved her enthusiasm, passion and energy for the community,” Tolbert said of Jones. “It is easy to get involved when you see someone with that much passion. I decided if she loves it here that much, I could love it too.”
In spite of her days as former chamber of commerce president, city council person and member of the Sedan Area Economic Development Committee, Tolbert hasn’t forgotten her techniques for generating sales at Woodmen of the World. “We are asking for money from around the region, not local money. Then when people in town see regional people contributing, then the locals will ask to get involved.” “Regional” people include the various chapters of Woodmen of the World, which fund social projects in their communities. Tolbert has visited several of these chapters personally, including ones in Wichita and Oklahoma City. She’s challenged them to pledge $100 each toward Sedan’s library and to extend that challenge to other chapters nationwide.She hopes to spread that vision of giving into church communities. “We hope every church will pray over it at the same time,” she said. “When they do, then everybody will know God has his hand in building this. We hope to start a new vision in the community that God can meet our needs. We’ll start a small town revival and all those that have donated, we feel, will want to come to Sedan to see what we have done with their ten, one hundred, or a thousand dollars.”
Tolbert said the energy-efficient library will cost $783,000 to build, but with items such as the kitchen, a security system and other equipment, they are looking at closer to a million dollars. Right now they have about $18,000, and Tolbert says construction will not begin until the full amount is raised. They’ve got a secret fundraising weapon: Local school children are making a video that shows some of the many reasons the town needs the Sedan Public Library and Resource Center. They are writing original songs, which they will perform for the video, Tolbert said. They’ll treat the issues of the inaccessible library and the town’s lack of adequate tornado shelter with humor.
“The video will show the kids, community members, and people who live in the nursing home gathered on Chautauqua Street in front of current library, fighting over computers and trying to get away from a tornado during the Yellow Brick Road festival in May.” She and Nita Jones will be dressed as bricks. If that doesn’t get the donations pouring in, it isn’t clear what will.
Julianne Couch is the author of Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy. She’s at work now on a new book, Mountain Prairie River Home, about 10 small towns in six states in the Heartland.