On a sunny, cold afternoon in February, the Royalton Memorial Library in Vermont held a grand reopening celebration after being closed for extensive renovation. The library now bears a plaque in its historical section honoring Joseph Smith Jr.
The Royalton library — located in South Royalton less than four miles from the Joseph Smith Birthplace — is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, a year that also marks the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and, on Dec. 23, his 215th birthday.
“Joseph Smith had a prophetic call to reveal Jesus Christ to the world. And here in Vermont is where he was prepared for that prophetic call,” said President Grant D. Durtschi, historic site president of the Joseph Smith Birthplace, who attended the February event.
From the Prophet Joseph’s experience in the Sacred Grove until his martyrdom, he pressed forward despite immense challenges, Durtschi said. His tenacity was one of many “learned qualities … bread into him from his forefathers.”
Recognizing Joseph Smith as a figure in Vermont’s history, the plaque also notes the contribution of the Ensign Peak Foundation (formerly known as the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation), which donated to the library’s renovation project.
Connecting Vermont history to Church history
Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library, has done extensive research about Latter-day Saint history in the town of Royalton and offered insight into the significance of the plaque.
“The plaque in the Royalton Library symbolizes the connections between Vermont history and Church history, both at a historical scale in the story of the Smith family at a day-to-day scale in the stories of the many Vermont Saints today,” he said.
One hundred years ago, when the library was first organized, a donation from Heber C. Smith, a Vermont-born Latter-day Saint, was not accepted.
“During the 1920s, Mormons were outsiders from the West who came to visit and preach in Vermont,” Erekson explained. “Over the past century, Latter-day Saints have become part of the local Vermont communities in which they live and work and raise their children. The relationship went from us/them to neighbors.”
Richard Lambert, vice president of the Ensign Peak Foundation, said of the library’s February reopening: “Representatives of our foundation were welcomed very graciously by everybody in the community, and they expressed a deep thanks for our contribution to the library in honor of the native son, Joseph Smith Jr.”
Lambert continued, “In a small community like South Royalton, the public library is such an important social magnet for the community, a place where people can come to meet, to discuss, to check out books, to pursue education.”
Tyler Strong, president of the Royalton Memorial Library, said the renovation project attracted people in the community from various religious and political backgrounds. “They all came together in support of this one thing — the library. … There was nothing but joy and appreciation for the work that everyone put in collectively, to see this building be what they all want it to be,” he said.
Of the Joseph Smith plaque, Strong said, “Whether you’re religious or not, there’s an immense amount of history that goes into the memorial and the birth and the presence of the Latter-day Saints in general. It holds a pretty unique history, specifically to the area.”
With the library currently in limited operation due to COVID-19, “I’m just more excited to show off the building, show off our history room (where the plaque is located) and talk about Vermont history,” Strong said.
Building rapport with the community
As the former northern New England communication director for the Church, Rick Cochran noted other Latter-day Saint outreach initiatives in the Royalton community that he believes helped prepare the way for the library donation.
First, the annual Christmas lights at the Joseph Smith Birthplace. “Over the past six years we have gone from just a few thousand visitors to tens of thousands of visitors,” Cochran said. “The community has seen their area become one of the top Christmas events in the state of Vermont.”
The lighting efforts were followed by a large donation from the Church to four local food banks for two consecutive years, he said.
The donation to the Royalton Memorial Library was “clearly in the Lord’s timing,” Cochran added. “I feel like we just opened up a dialogue with them that we couldn’t have done any other way. And to have it happen during the 200th anniversary year was even more ideal.”