Towards the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century, the nation experienced an obsession with reading. Andrew Carnegie built libraries throughout his adopted country. One stood at the corner of Stonewall and Crockett Streets. Now the site of Greenville Chamber of Commerce, the classic Carnegie Building was razed in the 1950s. Today the concept still exists in Greenville. Several Little Libraries can be found throughout town. And of course, the W. Walworth Harrison Public Library in Lou Finney Park serves citizens six days a week.
But several years ago I heard about the Bull Durham books. No, they had nothing to do with the movie, but were early marketing gimmicks of the Bull Durham Tobacco Company in Durham, North Carolina. Attached to each package of Bull Durham tobacco was a yellow coupon redeemable for one paperbound book. Three hundred and three books, mostly fiction, but all classics were redeemable at local stores. Because the choices were classics, they were not copyrighted, and therefore cheaper to reproduce.
Those who grew up in ranching country know all cowboys or drovers rolled their own cigarettes with Bull Durham tobacco and paper. Those tough men could only work about nineteen hours per day. That left five hours to sleep and find something to occupy their time. Staying at a lonely line camp in the middle of nowhere, they must do something. After all, one could only listen to so many coyotes and howling winds, or watch so many sunrises and sunsets. So cowboys began to read the Bull Durham books and found they really liked them.
Many of the line camps provided a wood frame shack with a window and door on the south side for shelter. Inside was a bunk bed, a wood burning stove, maybe a cane bottom chair and table. A cabinet filled with canned food, an iron skillet or Dutch oven and maybe a spoon or fork provided meals. No running water, no plumbing, and no electricity existed but a coal oil lamp provided artificial light. Under the bunk bed was usually an old wooden box, once containing canned food but now used to stow Bull Durham books.
When a cowboy finished a book, he dropped it into the box and chose another one to read. Staying at the line camp was a long and tedious process. In daylight he rode fences looking for holes in barbed wire or fixing water gaps, found old cows with new baby calves, pulled livestock out of mud holes, and routinely counted livestock. At night he read and slept. There were no radios, no telephones, and definitely no Internet. Most of the time, the drover was alone. Going to town was not an option for weeks at a time. Occasionally the chuck wagon brought new supplies. The driver brought all the news to the isolated cowboy. So the old cowboy worked, read, cooked his meals, and waited for relief drover to arrive so he could move on to the next line camp.
The Bull Durham books lasted about a decade. Since there were 303 titles, the books took up valuable space in the local store. Merchants began to complain. Soon the books began to disappear. They were made of low-grade paper so few survive today. But what a unique American custom.