Pocahontas, Virginia, is a tiny town in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Formerly a large coal-mining town, its population has dwindled since the last coal mine closed in 1955. In June 2021, it welcomed a new branch of Tazewell County Public Library (TCPL).
Pocahontas has an incredibly rich history as Virginia’s first coal boom town. In the late nineteenth century, it was a bustling town filled with many European immigrants. The Pocahontas Cemetery, a historic landmark, is a testament to the tremendous diversity that founded the town. Gravestones can be found carved in Hungarian, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, and Hebrew.
The new Pocahontas Branch of TCPL is located at 179 Centre Street in the former Emma Yates Millinery Shop. Miss Emma Yates opened her hat shop in 1902 at the height of the town’s popularity, and the shop quickly became the town’s gossip center. The millinery shop closed in 1954, and the property sat unused for several decades prior to becoming a library. Building upon the sense of community originally found at Miss Yates’ shop, the location began a new role in the community by becoming the Emma Yates Memorial Library (EYML) in the late 1980s. A group of nuns from St. Elizabeth’s Roman Catholic Church, which can be spotted high on a hill from downtown, worked diligently to open the doors of this private town library in 1987. While many other buildings in Pocahontas have deteriorated, the former millinery and current library has been maintained diligently. It’s actually the last building in town to still have an iron storefront.
After operating for over thirty years as a private library, the EYML Board voted to turn over operations to the county in June 2020. From there, the TCPL Board of Trustees voted to open the location as a new branch in January 2021.
Moving from being a private library to a public one is no simple task. Staff and volunteers worked countless hours to clean, repair, and revitalize the library. The EYML collection was in dire need of a good weeding; not everything that’s old is of historical value. There was a long process of sorting out redundant and excess items that cluttered the library. One of the biggest challenges was the large volume of items that needed to be removed so that the actual historical items could shine. The former EYML librarian, Darla Blackwell, was hired as the branch manager, bringing her invaluable knowledge of the area and the patrons the library would be serving. Six months later, around fifty people attended the formal ribbon cutting of the new branch on June 1, 2021.
Preserving the rich local history of Pocahontas has been a major focus of the library branch. To honor the history of the building, the Pocahontas Branch now houses the Emma Yates Memorial Collection. This collection includes not only local yearbooks, newsletters, and ephemera, but also a large collection of hats and furniture from the former millinery shop. The library is working to build a partnership with the local Historic Crab Orchard Museum to aid in properly preserving, storing, and displaying the hats.
Emma Yates re-enactor Susan Reeves attends the opening of the Pocahontas Branch
A large percentage of visitors to the library are from outside of the area. The town has become an attraction for ATV riders, who stop in at the various historical sites in the area. Other visitors tend to include individuals doing family research either at the library, the Pocahontas Cemetery, or the Exhibition Coal Mine.
Adding the Pocahontas Branch to TCPL is a benefit to all in Tazewell County. Pocahontas itself is a small town at around 400 residents, but it serves a larger population of small communities scattered throughout the northern district of the county. The mountains make it challenging for folks to reach one of TCPL’s other three locations when going about their daily business. With the new branch, residents of Pocahontas and the surrounding areas no longer have to drive thirty minutes or more to access TCPL’s over half a million books, movies, magazines, databases, and other resources.
One notable advantage comes in the form of internet access. In Tazewell County, access to reliable internet is a challenge due to geography and monetary limitations. In Pocahontas particularly, even cellular coverage is limited. Since the Pocahontas Branch’s opening, internet usage at this small location has surpassed its neighboring larger branch in Bluefield. There are currently only two public computer stations, but WiFi access has seen very high usage. Mayor Ben Gibson predicted this advantage at the ribbon cutting. He spoke of the importance of internet access for the town and surrounding areas, especially during the COVID-19-era.
Yet another major resource the Pocahontas Branch has been able to provide to the community is food. By partnering with Feeding Southwest Virginia, the library was able to provide children with meals during the summer and snacks at programs while school is in session. In a struggling community, it has been crucial to feed children’s bodies in addition to their brains.
We’re only six months in, so we know there’s a lot more to do. Our biggest goal for the future is to add more children’s and senior adult programming. Because there is currently very little for children to do after school in Pocahontas, there’s a good opportunity for the library to become a gathering place for kids. With local apartment complexes and a new adult day-care center, we are well positioned to build services for these populations and expand our outreach beyond those welcoming Pocahontas Branch doors.
-Erica Hall, Director, Tazewell County Public Library