Building Bookshelves

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2005,
Summer 2005

Author: Grace Shackman

Citizen passion helps libraries grow.

In 1909 the women of Manchester defied their township government and started their own library. In other Washtenaw County towns, women also led volunteer efforts to build and stock local libraries. Long before the era of library boards and dedicated millages, these places became cherished sources of community pride.

For more than a century, local libraries have exemplified the character of the towns they serve. To get them started or keep them going, citizens painted walls, built bookcases, and raised money with card tournaments, puppet shows, and other events. When libraries relocated to larger quarters, members of service groups, from Boy Scouts to Kiwanis clubs, moved the books.

Townspeople also defended their libraries' independence. In the 1930s, Frances Hannum, head of the Ann Arbor library, tried to organize a countywide system but got a cool reception. In the 1960s, when the Washtenaw County Library was established to serve unmet needs, there was again talk of a combined system. But communities preferred to keep their own libraries, even if it meant staying in cramped quarters.

Today, financed by property taxes and run by professionals, local libraries offer materials and services never dreamed of in the era of volunteers. With larger and more modern facilities, the challenge is to give residents access to global resources while preserving tradition and a hometown feel.

In the nineteenth century, readers in western Washtenaw made do with tiny libraries in township halls, schools, or churches. Often these consisted of a single shelf of books. Some local merchants kept lending libraries, from which customers could borrow books for small fees. A drugstore in Dexter had one; so did a Chelsea jewelry store, which carried mostly western novels. As the twentieth century dawned, women started organizing real town libraries. They found space, collected books, ad raised money, often with the help of a benefactor, usually the wife of a prominent local businessman.

That's what happened in Saline in 1900, when a group of civic-minded women formed the Saline Library Association, and the community rallied to help them. The village council provided space in its chambers, the Methodist church provided bookcases, and people donated books. The organizers raised money through lectures and lantern slide shows to operate the library, which originally was open only on Friday afternoons.

By 1907 the Saline library had outgrown the council chambers, and Zilpha Davenport, wife of William Davenport, founder of the Citizens Bank, convinced her husband to house the library in a little building in back of the bank. In 1917, when the bank needed that space, the Davenports paid for construction of a new library at 105 North Ann Arbor Street (now the Drowsy Parrot).

Ken Heininger, who grew up in Saline, recalls that it looked like "an English manor library," with tall bookshelves all the way up to high ceilings. Max Collins remembers the sliding ladder used to reach the higher shelves; he also remembers the mezzanine, where as a young child he would play while his grandmother did her volunteer stint. Neither Heininger nor Collins remembers ever taking out a book. "I don't think they had children's books," says Collins.

As a high school student in the 1940s, Wayne Clements used the library, but he didn't find it a very welcoming place. The strict librarian monitored all activity from her desk in the middle of the room. "She ran a tight ship," Clements recalls. "There was no fooling around. You got the book and left." He doesn't remember there being any tables to sit at. The Saline library remained in the building until 1967.

Manchester's library got an early start: organized in 1838, it was the state's first township-run library. It originally consisted of a row of books on a table in the township office. The township clerk received an extra $25 a year for serving as librarian during its hours of operation, 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

Early in the twentieth century, the women of the community stepped in. According to a 1926 history written by then-librarian Florence Case, the books in the old library were deteriorating. In 1909 Manchester had four women's study clubs—the Shakespeare Club and the Twentieth Century Club (both of which still exist), the Academy of Forty, and the Saturday Club. Evelyn Spaford, president of the Saturday Club, called a meeting of these groups to form a library association. "They braved the silent disapproval of the township board and installed the library in a room of its own in the Conklin building," an anonymous historian wrote in the library's archives. The women went to work building shelves, gathering books, and raising money.

In 1923 the library moved to upstairs quarters in the Mahrle Building on Adrian Street, opening to the public one evening a week. The late Glenn Lehr recalled in a 1998 interview that the library was in a long, narrow, fairly dark room heated by a potbellied stove. By the time he was fourteen, Lehr said, he had read every book in the collection.

Women also launched the first libraries in Dexter and Chelsea. Dexter's opened in 1927, under the sponsorship of the Dexter Woman's Study Club. Club member Cornelia Copeland's brother, U.S. senator Royal Copeland, let them use a little building he had restored. He kept an office in the back to use when he was in town. Now housing the Cookie MOMster, the building, a former post office, had once been owned by village founder Samuel Dexter. At Senator Copeland's request, the library was named the Alice Frances House, after his mother. It was open mainly on weekends. The librarian, Flora Smith, wrote local history articles for the Dexter Leader and lived across the street in a yellow brick house, since torn down.

Libby Davenport recalls that she and her sister Doris used to go to the library on Saturday afternoons after having cones at Connor's ice cream shop. "We had to show our hands when we came in to the library," she says. "No sticky hands were allowed."

Chelsea's library started as a project of the Child Study Club (now the Woman's Club) in 1932, a few weeks after a speaker from the Michigan Child Study Association gave a talk on libraries. Winifred Palmer, wife of a local doctor, chaired the effort. A store donated a room, and club members dyed sheets maroon to hang as dividers. They painted donated bookcases and tables the same color and opened with twenty-two of their own books and 100 more on loan from the state library. Open three hours twice a week, the library was staffed by pairs of volunteers from the club. Its backers raised money from bake sales, card tournaments, and puppet shows. They also held "give-a-book weeks" to encourage donations. In the next two decades the library moved several times to various rented quarters.

Manchester was the first of the four towns to have a dedicated library building. In 1934 library organizers bought the Lynch House at 202 West Main Street on the village square. The monthly payments to buy the house were lower than the rent for the room in the Mahrle Building.

Once again, the move was a community-wide effort. Local churches put on a benefit play, and volunteers cleaned, painted, and built shelves. The Boy Scouts moved the books. At first the entire collection fit in the home's living room. The upstairs was converted to an apartment for the librarian, Jane Palmer, who planted flowers in the front (some of those plantings remain).

Unlike Manchester's library, which had a history of township funding, the libraries in Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter ran entirely on voluntary contributions. During the Great Depression, though, gifts dwindled and citizens wanted government funding. In 1938, when Senator Copeland died and bequeathed the library building to Dexter, the village agreed to take over financial support. Saline's city government allocated some tax money for the library. In 1940 Chelsea villagers taxed themselves a half mill to support their library, raising the rate the next year to one mill, the legal limit at the time. The libraries also began to receive state aid, mainly from court fees, and sometimes surrounding townships made nominal contributions.

By the 1950s the Chelsea library was looking for more space. Gertrude Daniels, wife of the owner of Chelsea Lumber and a library backer, asked Catherine McKune whether she would will her house to the library. Since 1870, McKune's family had lived at 221 South Main, in a house built in 1860 by Elisha Congdon, who with his brother James had founded Chelsea. McKune agreed, and upon her death in 1958 the library acquired the building.

"There was a lot of overlooked maintenance," remembers Katherine Wagner, Catherine McKune's niece, but the citizens of Chelsea were up to the task. Wagner's bridge club painted the front room; it became the children's area. A caretaker lived in a small apartment upstairs, and another room was furnished by the Woman's Club for its meeting place. Eventually the library expanded to fill the entire house.

In 1963 the Dexter library bought a house at 3173 Baker Road with voluntary contributions from surrounding townships. Katie McKillen ran the library for more than thirty years. "It was said that she knew every book and if it wasn't in, knew who had it out and when it was due back," says longtime board member Marti Davis.

In 1967 the Saline library, having outgrown its 1917 building, moved to 201 South Ann Arbor Street. The building had been built as a church in 1904 and later was used as a private residence, a furniture store, and a hospital.

State legislation passed in 1989 allowed two or more units of government, including a school district, to form a library. The new law was very timely. The libraries in Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline had built additions onto their converted buildings, but all three, as well as Manchester's library, were outgrowing their spaces. They needed bigger tax bases to finance their moves to new buildings.

Saline was the first to take advantage of the law. In 1991 the city and school district asked for a joint millage—0.9 mills for operating expenses and 2.2 mills for a new building. Local architect Michael Pogliano designed a modern glass-filled, open-roomed library, at 555 North Maple Road; it was organized by Leslee Niethammer, the first Saline librarian to have a master's degree in library science. Niethammer also worked with the U-M School of Natural Resources and the Saline Eagle Scouts to create a woodland trail on eleven acres surrounding the library.

In 1994 voters in the Dexter school district approved a half-mill levy for library services. The library hired its first master's-degreed librarian, Paul McCann. Using proceeds from the sales of its Baker Road house, the board bought the former Methodist Church Education Building at 8040 Fourth.

With more space and a larger budget, McCann expanded the library's holdings and programming. Circulation rose from about 20,000 books a year in the old building to 20,000 books a month today. Dexter now has the smallest building and the smallest millage of the four western Washtenaw libraries, but it's very busy. McCann says, "You would be hard pressed to find a library with our circulation with our budget."

Chelsea organized its district library in 1997. In 1999 voters in the school district approved 1.75 mills to run a larger library but rejected a building millage. "They turned it down because there were too many uncertainties," says librarian Metta Lansdale. Most folks wanted the library to stay in McKune House, but the library needed space for parking and expansion. Getting it proved complicated. First, Gloria and George Mitchell agreed to relocate their business, the Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home, which was across the street from the library. That building was then torn down for a parking lot. Next, a house on Orchard Street was moved so that Frank and Kathryn Staffan could move their house, directly behind the library, onto the Orchard Street lot, giving the library room to expand to the rear.

While this was all being negotiated, the library had to leave the McKune House because it was not handicapped accessible. It relocated to the media center at the old high school on Washington Street.

Biding her time, Lansdale used the operating money to prepare for a bigger library, adding books, training new staff, buying more computers, and organizing programming. In May 2004 voters agreed on a millage that will provide $8.2 million to build an addition behind the McKune House. Ground was broken April 17, and the library plans to move by September 2006.

Manchester was the last of the four towns to form a library district, in 2000. Its service area includes portions of the school district in Manchester, Freedom, and Bridgewater townships.

The old library was centrally located but very crowded—every time it bought a new book, it had to get rid of an old one. The former home also was not handicapped accessible. So when Manchester's village government acquired the old Ford factory on the east side of town in 2000, it agreed to rent space to the library. A 1941 Art Moderne building overlooking the Raisin River, it was originally one of Henry Ford's mills. The library has large windows with light pouring in and beautiful river views. Voters recently renewed the millage for another ten years, and Freedom Township, which was considering leaving the district, voted to stay.

Many residents of each town had mixed feelings about trading in their cozy small-town quarters for more modern facilities. "It's louder, busier - there's more energy, more milling about," says McCann, the Dexter librarian. The four librarians try to keep things personal; all have their desks near the fronts of their libraries. And all offer full schedules of programs.

The libraries share resources and information. Heather Sturm, who started as Manchester librarian this year, uses a planning consultant suggested by the other librarians and a survey form created by Paul McCann. The Washtenaw County Library serves the blind and handicapped of all the districts, and county librarian Mary Udoji holds seminars to acquaint area librarians with county services.

Manchester, Dexter, and Chelsea belong to a library co-op that allows them to borrow from about seventy libraries in southeastern Michigan. Patrons usually have to wait only a few days for the materials they request to be delivered.

A feeling of community ownership remains a key ingredient in the libraries' successes. In 2002, Dexter voters turned down a millage to build a new library on Parker Road because it was too far from town; the board is now suggesting building downtown behind the fire station. In Manchester there is no room to expand. "We may someday need to move to bigger quarters, but I'm not worrying about it now," says Sturm. Saline already is outgrowing its building and will probably go to the voters for an expansion millage in 2006. Growth and change continue, but every library is striving to maintain a strong tie to its community and its long history.

Photo Captions:

When Saline's Drowsy Parrot was the town library, Max Collins used to play on the mezzanine while his grandmother volunteered.

After making do with rented or donated quarters in other buildings, libraries found their own homes: the McKune House in Chelsea, the Lynch House in Manchester, and in Saline (center) a library constructed in 1917 (now the Drowsy Parrot).

Dexter's Paul McCann and Saline's Leslee Niethammer are the first master's-degreed librarians to serve their towns.


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