Monday, 25 November 2013

People from the Past 9: Frances Van Meter (1909-1994)

A corner of the Carter Library at Fairlynch Museum

At the tenth Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Fairlynch on 22 March 1979, Priscilla Hull, as Chairman of the Management Committee of the Museum, reported that the Library, under the care of Mrs Van Meter, was “now available on certain days each week, or by special appointment.”


A young Frances Van Meter. She is described as the second wife of a Eugene Van Meter at

Frances Van Meter (1909-94) born in Bardwell, Carlisle County, in Kentucky USA, was one of the founding members of what became the Manchester Center in Lexington’s Irishtown, Kentucky.  How, after an eventful life of such high achievement, she came to settle in the tranquil surroundings of Budleigh Salterton as Librarian of the local museum is one of the many curiosities and unanswered questions that I’ve met at Fairlynch.  If any of my US readers has the answer I’d love to hear from you.

The Manchester Center, which finally closed in 2010, was founded as the Manchester Street Library in 1940 by 20 women, including Mrs Van Meter, to give Irishtown residents access to books when not in school. She was the Library’s Executive Director from 1943 to 1966. 

The Manchester Street Library owed its origins to an initiative taken in 1939 by two members of Lexington’s Kentucky Junior League, an organisation of women committed to improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Their efforts began with providing library facilities at the Abraham Lincoln School, on West High Street in Lexington’s Irishtown.

Shack-like houses in the area known as Davis Bottom in Lexington's Irishtown
Image credit: The Goodman Paxton Photographic Collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky

In the pre-WW2 years Irishtown was well known as a deprived area notable as the home of poor white residents, most of whom were working-class Irish who had fled the potato famine in their homeland.   As recently as 1980 it was described as "the worst pocket of poverty in Lexington."

Lincoln School, in about 1912.
Image credit: Louis Edward Nollau F Series Photographic Print Collection,
Special Collections, University of Kentucky

The school, founded in 1912 and funded by a mixture of private donations and public funds, was a progressive model for elementary education with facilities and programmes far ahead of the times, but it also exemplified the era of school segregation in Lexington. Black students were not allowed to attend Lincoln throughout its 55 years of service as a public school.

By spring 1940 the women volunteers had become deeply involved in improving library facilities at the school, repairing old or worn-out books, cataloguing and accessioning new ones and of course encouraging children to read. It was clear that such a facility was badly needed at times when the school library was closed. By 1 June of that year, the volunteers, now 15 in number, were running what became known as the Manchester Street Library in an old store-room near the Lincoln School. Five hundred books were on the shelves and the sum of $105 was in the bank, raised by the volunteers and their friends.

The volunteers themselves took it in turns to do a stint in the library, helping approximately 25 children to select books, and, as librarian Amelia King Buckley put it, “holding story hour, keeping peace and always remembering that the library must not acquire a schoolroom atmosphere.”  Their aim was to build up a feeling among the children that it could be fun to come to the library and borrow a book, and that all the books belonged to all of them and they must care for them accordingly.


The actress Colleen Moore in 1921

When the Lincoln school re-opened after the summer break it was clear that the children wanted their Manchester Street Library to be kept open during the winter. Much needed funds for doing this came from the decision by the Lions Club to allow income from showings of the dollhouse belonging to the famous actress Colleen Moore to benefit the Library.

The Library itself was evolving, organising visits to a printing shop, a dairy and a farm and encouraging the children to produce plays.  Books for all ages were added to its stock. It gained a new dimension when it developed a sewing club where a group of mothers could learn to make new garments out of leftover clothes from jumble sales.  The club disbanded each year in late winter and early spring when the women took jobs in local tobacco factories. 

Further outside help and recognition of the Manchester Street Library’s worth came when the Kentucky branch of the National Society Daughters of Colonial Wars decided to make a regular contribution to help with the purchase of attractive patriotic books, the first ones that had been bought new.

In 1938, work had been started on a low-cost public housing complex known as Charlotte Court, built specifically for African Americans living in Lexington. In January 1942 the Library Committee provided 250 books for a lending branch in the complex’s recreation centre following a request by the complex planners.  After the success of the Charlotte Court branch, the Manchester Street Library received a request for a lending library in Aspendale, a segregated housing project on the east side of Lexington. Like Charlotte Court, the Aspendale branch library was managed by a separate library committee which reported to the Manchester Street Library Committee.

The Library, by now with a collection of approximately 3,000 books also benefited from community funds generated by a government initiative during World War Two. It was able to move from the old storeroom to a nearby four-room house at 1026 Manchester Street and to employ a full-time librarian. The Girl Reserve, a branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association held meetings in the new building, and music lessons were now offered.  

 Autumn 1943 saw the formation of a men’s club and a women’s club thanks to the interest of the YWCA and the YMCA in the project. A toy lending library was started with the help of the Council of Jewish Women. Reading material was also being distributed by boy and girl volunteers to Lexington’s juvenile detention centre which had never had a library.

But by 1951 the importance of the Manchester Street Library as a book centre had diminished thanks to the mobile library set up by Lexington Public Library. The following year the name was changed to the Manchester Center.

The librarian had already begun offering, as a contemporary magazine put it, “personal and mental hygiene guidance... offering assistance with government and job application forms... providing scholarships and urging school attendance, teaching piano lessons,  lending ear to boy-girl problems, advising on clothes buying, and numerous other activities for which there was no other neighborhood clearing-house, and with which the neighborhood family units were unable to cope.”  The Center continued to offer field trips for children in the Lexington area, facilitated children’s theatre and musical activities, and encouraged youth to participate in other leadership development programmes including Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the YMCA and the YWCA

The late 1950s saw a dramatic increase in the range of services that the Center offered, from meeting room space to counselling for adults. Together with its Recreation Director Julian Walker (1928-2011) Frances Van Meter launched a fund-raising campaign in 1960 which resulted in the demolition of the 144-year-old building on Manchester Street and its replacement by new purpose-built premises.  Within a year the Center was being used by 400 people weekly.

On retiring as Executive Director of the Centre in 1966 Frances Van Meter worked for four years at the Lexington Public Library. She then fulfilled what had seemingly been a childhood dream by moving to England in 1970 and settling in Budleigh Salterton, Devon. Or rather, at Clover Cottage in Ting Tong, a triangular piece of land on a hill overlooking the town and a few miles further west of it. 

The view from Ting Tong on a misty autumnal day, looking east towards Peak Hill and Sidmouth: the sea is somewhere out there

For Frances Van Meter the distinction was important: in 1978 she became involved in a six-month battle with the Television Records Office over her address, officials having decreed that Clover Cottage was on Dalditch Lane. Frances Van Meter “saw red” according to a report in the Sidmouth Herald. She had researched the origin of the strange-sounding name and discovered that it had ancient origins. 

“‘Ting Tong’”, she wrote, “is probably a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Thyngton’, meaning ‘meeting place.’  Its location would have provided an ideal look-out point for ancient tribesmen holding ‘council meetings’ since its hilltop even now gives an excellent view of the Exe estuary, the Channel as far as Portland Bill in one direction and Berry Head in the other on a clear day, as well as a panorama of inland countryside. The Isle of Man still has its Tynwald (parliament), Denmark its Folketing (people’s meeting) and Iceland its Allthing (everybody’s meeting). Norway has not only ‘Storting’ (big meeting) consisting of two parliamentary houses, but both those houses end in -ting.” 

Clover Cottage, Ting Tong, in about 1986

The newspapers had a field day. Frances Van Meter had approached her friend East Devon Councillor Anne de Winton, a Budleigh Salterton resident and published author. Council officials joined the fight to try and arrive at a solution,  though the Sidmouth Herald commented that this may have added to the confusion.

There was naturally insufficient space in the newspapers for all that erudition displayed by the lady from Kentucky, but editors seized on her transatlantic origins.  ‘A right ding dong over Ting Tong’ rang out the headline in the Western Times and Gazette of 20 January 1979, concluding its report: “I will defend this little bit of British heritage,” drawled Mrs Van Meter, who comes from the United States of America.”   

It was at this time that Frances Van Meter became involved with Fairlynch, a community project which must have seemed tiny by comparison with her achievements in her home state. Her readiness to do battle with officialdom as well as her scholarship would no doubt have appealed to the Museum’s founders. 

Fairlynch co-founder Joy Gawne remembers her as “statuesque” and an excellent Librarian. "'Van Meter... like the gas meter', she would say to introduce herself. She would be typing away in the Library and visitors at the Museum would apologise thinking that they had gone into an office by mistake, but she would welcome them and insist on showing them what was on the shelves.” 

A postcard showing Knowle Village in about 1900
Image credit: Fairlynch Museum

The results of her research into Ting Tong were published in a folder dated 14 May 1986. A further project concerned the history of Knowle Village which she was unable to complete, but an album was published by the Museum using her notes and photographs.

At around this time she moved from Ting Tong to a flat at Pinewood in Westbourne Terrace, off Budleigh Salterton’s West Hill. She died in the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital on 18 August 1994, aged 85.

It was Frances Van Meter who as Fairlynch’s first librarian laid the foundations of what is now the Carter Library. Our Museum has not had its own librarian for some years now.  Maybe a Friend of Fairlynch will be inspired to fill the vacancy if they read this story of the lady from Lexington who did so much for the community. He or she might feel amused by the thought of following in the footsteps of such a remarkable woman.   

In 2010 the Manchester Center Board of Directors made the difficult decision to close the Center in Lexington.  For several years it had been struggling and in the face of trying economic times it became increasingly clear that it could not continue to operate given its financial situation.  Thankfully its history lives on. 

With much acknowledgement to Jonathan Jeffrey’s ‘Looking Back: A History of the Manchester Street Center.’ Kentucky Libraries, 72 (2), 2008.

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