SHERIDAN — This year’s annual Friends of the Library Auction, the Sheridan County Library’s largest fundraiser, will be held in honor of longtime library employee and local historian Helen Graham.
Graham passed away in July at the age of 94. Her contributions to the library and to the preservation of local history are wide-ranging and will be felt for decades to come.
Graham began her career as a teacher in 1937, teaching at different schools in Crook County. She eventually transferred to Sheridan and taught at Sheridan High School for five years before beginning a new job at Sheridan County Fulmer Library in 1969. Her career at the library spanned 32 years.
Although she has been the recipient of many awards, her signature achievement was the creation of the The Wyoming Room.
During her career, Graham transformed the room from a small collection of local history books and documents held in a bookcase and stashed in a corner, to a regionally recognized research center that has been a tremendous resource for many people, from school kids researching local history projects, to professional writers and researchers investigating historic people or events and individuals tracing their genealogy.
The room now holds thousands of historic photos, books, documents, recorded interviews, newspapers, maps and more that collectively tell the story of the Sheridan area and its people.
“She was a keeper of Sheridan County history,” said Nancy Elliott, a Friends of the Library board member. “She had a passion for history and especially local history. She made sure if anyone in the community had made a significant contribution to the community there should be a file in The Wyoming Room on them. She dedicated her life to the history of Sheridan County and the surrounding area.”
“She was really the major collector of what this was all about. She just knew what would be important some day,” added Judy Slack, director of The Wyoming Room, who noted that over the years, Graham collected everything from oral histories of local ranchers to receipts and invoices.
“She knew what she was after when she was collecting the books. And she was really instrumental in pulling together the genealogy collection. She started the obituary files many years ago and I don’t know if there is any library around that has the death records we have.”
Slack pointed out that what is truly impressive about Graham’s research is that it was all done prior to the computer age. She had no Internet to assist in her research and no information was available digitally. Instead, she relied on the card catalog and her own encyclopedic knowledge.
“Her memory was astounding,” said Slack. “She could tell you exactly who the author was of a particular book and probably even the page in the book with the information you were looking for. Through all those years of doing research, it was all just right there.”
In addition to the creation of the THE Wyoming Room, Graham twice served as director of the library, first in 1979 and again in 1981.
In 1998, she won a Distinguished Service Award from Wyoming Library Association for contributions toward the improvement of library service. In 2000, she was recognized by the Wyoming State Historical Society with a Cumulative Contribution Award for lifetime achievement “of more than thirty years of service in the preservations of western Americana history.”
In addition to her work at THE Wyoming Room, Graham was very active at the Sheridan County Museum and other local historical entities. She also authored two books, was a watercolor artist and avidly collected artwork by local women artists. Her collection, which includes over 50 full-size and miniature art pieces, was shown at the library in April 2010. The majority of the pieces are now part of the permanent collection at THE Wyoming Room.
She compiled the 100-year history of her home church, First Congregational Church, and also researched captions for the popular historic photos that run on the legal page of The Sheridan Press, up until a few months before her death. She was also a contributor for the information in the Sheridan Downtown Historic Walking Tour.
Graham’s continuous activity was one of the keys to her longevity, but Elliott said Graham shared another secret with her years ago.
“You know what she told me that has kept her young, and I’ll probably take this to my grave, is that she associated with younger women,” said Elliott. “Of course she never stopped moving for one thing, but she said ‘Nancy, I associate with younger women and younger people and it keeps me young’. And you know what, I think there is a great deal of truth in that.”