WEBSTER — The shelves of the tiny E.C. Rowell Public Library in Webster, a town more famous for its flea market and cattle auctions than anything else, drip with Civil War history.
The display case in the foyer begins the transportation back in history with some historical collectibles: a flag, binoculars and books, turned brown with age, too delicate to handle.
On the shelves are more than 1,300 books, many first editions, some printed in the 1860s. They detail the War Between the States from every angle, penned by people who lived through the war that tore the nation apart more than 150 years ago, and first read by people who shared those experiences.
It’s a lot for Mark Chesser, a rancher turned librarian, to oversee. The collection was moved from an old building to a new one a few years ago, and it moved from being secluded in a back room behind a locked door to being out in the main library accessible to everyone.
There may be similar collections in libraries somewhere, Chesser says. “But, as far as I know, not in Florida.”
This impressive collection inside this unassuming Sumter County library could be in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia,or even the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. But it’s here in Webster, a town of fewer than 1,000 about 65 miles north of Tampa, inside the building that bears the name of the man who donated the bulk of the collection more than 20 years ago.
“It’s history,” Chesser says, looking over shelves upon shelves of aging books. “You teach it in school it’s one thing, but to read what has been written by people who were there is another.”
Most library patrons respect the age of the books, though occasionally, children come in and need to be watched closely so they don’t pull out an irreplaceable book and tear through it.
“The kids treat these as regular books,” he says.
The original documents or copies of original government records are a treasure trove for historians or for people trying to look up the Civil War connections of ancestors. A lot of Civil War re-enactors come in to research period attire.
“We have two sets of the official records, published in different years,” Chesser says. “They may not be exactly the same, but between the two, it’s a pretty complete set.”
The official record includes dispatches between generals and troop movements during the battles as well as communications between the warring armies and their governments. The 147 volumes were published by the government a couple of years after the war ended in 1865. The books take up shelves stretching along the west wall; one of the two sets is the first edition, which recently was re-bound, its age revealed only when the books are opened up.
The rest of the collection includes periodicals, novels and photo and reference books.
“We have 62 shelves of Civil War books, a bunch of different things related to the Civil War,” Chesser says. “We have quite a collection here and quite a few people come in for research.”
Public school and college students come by to do research for papers. Historians visit and authors penning historical novels stop by, he says. The area has a good amount of Civil War enthusiasts. After all, this is Sumter County, named for Gen. Thomas Sumter, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, who later lent his name to a fort in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired 153 years ago.
Most of the collection was donated, Chesser says, and donations continue to come in.
“People find out we have a collection,” Chesser says, “and they don’t want to just get rid of their books so they bring them here.”
Some books are put into the collection, some don’t make it, he says.
The bulk of the collection came from one man, for whom the library is named.
E.C. Rowell, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and Civil War buff who died in 1992, donated his entire collection to the library’s archive in the early 1990s. Then, the collection was held in a locked room in an even smaller library in Webster.
In a 1995 interview, his widow, Marjorie Rowell, who died in 2006, said her late husband loved history and the Civil War was of particular interest.
He bought the collection from someone in Dade City, sometime in the late 1970s, she said in the interview. After that, he added to it and added a room to his house in Wildwood to accommodate the collection, which grew to 379 books and 246 periodicals and miscellaneous documents.
“He was very proud of the collection,” Marjorie Rowell said.
He considered donating the books to the University of Florida, she said, but decided to keep it local. So the collection went to Webster, where there is a written agreement that the materials would be available for anyone to view, but none of the books could be checked out of the library.
“He was very happy to donate the collection,” she said, “and I was very happy for him to do it. It gave me some extra room.”
Leslie Burch, an administrator with the Sumter County Library System, the collection is irreplaceable, noting many of the archive’s books are first editions and many still have their original binding.
“It’s an important collection,” she says. “It allows patrons to see first-edition materials dating back to the mid to late 1800s.”
When the archives were first donated, researchers came from far and wide, she says, “but now that a lot of that information is available online, the interest comes from locals who want to find out about the Civil War.”
“There’s a pretty impressive amount of material there,” she says.
The age of some of the books is obvious. Many have bindings that are skinned, and some titles are so faded the reader has to open the cover to find the title and author’s name.
That was the case with “Wearing of the Gray,” by John Estes Cooke, printed in 1867. The cover and spine are so aged the title has disappeared, just a memory.
There are the four first-edition volumes of “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years,” written by Carl Sandburg in 1939.
There’s a poster-size book of paintings and photos of Civil War battles, printed 54 years ago. Chesser says it’s so delicate, he brought it to the library in his own car rather than chance it with the inter-library courier service.
Most of the books are so fragile that their reference numbers, usually glued or taped to the spine of the book, instead are on index cards and tucked between the pages, standing up from the top of the books.
“This,” Chesser says, “is the original stuff.”