By Will Slater
Just about every time he gives the introductory remarks at the monthly dinner, Whitneyville Library and Whatnot Association President Nate Pennell gets choked up. He is always moved, librarian and board member Pat Brightly says, by the community’s strength.
In 2005, this Washington County town numbering 230 residents and its library were at a crossroads. A former librarian and major benefactor, John Bodger, had passed away. The Whitneyville Public Library needed a long-term financial plan. Pennell had an idea. Once a month, he thought, the library association could host a dinner, charging attendees a modest sum to support the library budget.
Since 2006, at 5 p.m. on the first Saturday of the month for typically nine months a year, residents of Whitneyville and beyond flock to the Hill Grove Community Center. They eat (or get takeaway), share each other’s company and support the library. This year, the June dinner marks the first meal with no COVID-19 restrictions since the pandemic began. Whitneyville folks dominate the scene, but everyone is welcome.
There is ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, green beans and Janet O’Neal’s famous rolls and biscuits. There is buzz about library contractor Ron Gandy’s fried turkey in July. Pennell’s tender pot roast is a crowd favorite, too, though little can be divulged about it.
“We add a secret here and there to flavor it,” Pennell says with a smile.
Pie is both an appetizer and dessert. There are over 15 types here. Attendees rave about the scratch raspberry, coconut cream and pumpkin, to name a few. Everyone, it seems, has a specialty. In the winter months, the dinners are replaced by candy sales, featuring homemade fudge, peanut brittle and Maine’s Needhams. The dark chocolate-coated sweet has a moist potato/coconut filling.
The meals were an instant hit. It takes a little over $20,000 a year to fund the library. Dinners generate about $1,000 each. Around the same time the dinners began, the board embarked on another project. The circa-1868 library building was worn and inaccessible to the handicapped and elderly.
“That old building, they couldn’t even keep it warm,” Gandy recalls.
More than a decade of fundraising and planning led to the construction of the new library, which opened in November 2018. From 20 to 30 visitors drop by daily during the summer months from around the county. The library’s back room is occupied by the “Whatnot Shop,” named for its once-unpredictable inventory. Like the library, Whatnot has come a long way and features the work of 43 local craftspeople.
As a Whitneyville native and lay local historian, Pennell knows the town better than anyone.
“Most people here have a very good work ethic, and they know they have to do multiple things,” he says.
Pennell spent the Friday before the dinner making 13 pies, baking the ham and putting up a fence to keep deer out of the garden. Everyone pitches in, helping the community where and how they can. The board members all wear many hats. Diners frequently pay extra for their $8 meals, Brightly says. An anonymous couple pay for the meat at each dinner.
Before Pennell’s eyes, Whitneyville has changed. The lumber industry faded through the 20th century and the community shrunk. Most residents work outside the town now. Townspeople push forward, together. Pennell remembers when there were two telephones in the whole town. Today, usable computers are available for free at the library. The library was old, so they raised $400,000 to build a new one.
More is on the horizon, too, including plans to expand the shop and library and build out the new garden. The Ben Franklin bell on top of the old schoolhouse probably needs fixing, Brightly says. If the past is any indication, progress will be just a matter of time.
The Whitneyville Public Library is located at 6 Cross St., Whitneyville. The Hillgrove Community Center is located at 42 S. Main St., Whitneyville. For more information, call 255-8077 or visit http://www.whitneyville.lib.me.us/.