By Jared Olar
In recent weeks we have renewed our memory of the founding and early history of Pekin’s library. As we recalled earlier, the library began over a year after the end of the Civil War, when 23 of the more prominent women of Pekin organized the Ladies’ Library Association on Nov. 24, 1866. This week we will review the library association’s first 16 years of existence, up to the point when the association decided to formally incorporate under Illinois law.
During most of the years of the library association’s existence, the association had no building of its own, but would rent rooms in various building in downtown Pekin. The 1870-71 city directory says the Ladies’ Library Room was over the drug store on Court Street between Third and Capitol, opposite Empire Hall, and that the association met Wednesdays and Saturdays each week.
In 1873, the trustees of the Congregational Society in Pekin offered to permanently donate the basement of their proposed new church to the Ladies’ Library Association so the association could have a permanent location rent-free. However, after considering the offer, the association’s board unanimously voted against it.
By the time of the 1876 city directory, the location of the Ladies Library Association’s Library Room was indicated by the vague and unhelpful words “in Court Block, up-stairs.” That would refer to a room in one of the buildings in the 330-360 block of Court Street. A few years later, the Ladies Library Association is stated to have been operating out of rooms rented in Friederich’s Block on Court Street (according to Miss Mary E. Gaither’s 1902-3 library history).
As a private civic association, the Ladies Library Association raised operating funds through regular social parties, formal dances, and “dramatic performances and other entertainments by home talent,” Gaither said in her historical account.
Shown here is the front cover of a lady’s dance card for an April 25, 1882 formal dance to raise funds for the Ladies Library Association of Pekin. A lady at a formal dance would give her card to gentlemen who desired to dance with her, and the gentlemen would write their names on the card indicating which dance would be theirs. (Although the association did not legally incorporate under the name of ‘Pekin Library Association’ until March-April 1883, this card shows the association was already using that name by April 1882.)
Another way the library association raised money during these years was by sub-letting its room to other community organizations and social clubs, such as the Sons of Temperance or the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Some of the association’s community activities were not as successful as others, however, as indicated by an extract of an 1870 report of the association’s secretary Miss Mary Clemens that was quoted by Miss Gaither in her historical account:
“Repeated experiments have demonstrated that entertainments of a literary character are not well sustained in this city. For that reason the cherished plan of offering a course of popular readings and lectures to the public, was, with many regrets, abandoned.”
The following excerpt from Miss Gaither’s library history is significant, because it reveals that she herself had been a member of the library association at least since 1875, when she became one of the association’s officers:
“The officers in 1875 were Mrs. Barber, Mrs. Henry, Miss Addie Turner, Miss Eunice Sage and Miss Mary Gaither, followed a year later by Mrs. Clemens, Mrs. G. F. Saltonstall, Miss McHenry, Miss Sage and Mr. C. Alexander. Thus, a gentleman was a second time appointed Librarian.”
The first gentleman, as we previously recalled, was William S. Prince.
The next significant development in the history of Pekin’s library is recorded in Gaither’s history of the library in these words:
“In March, 1883, a special meeting was called to consider the question of incorporation under the laws of the State. On motion, the names of nine ladies were selected, by lot, to be the incorporators, as follows: Mrs. J. F. Schipper, Mrs. H. W. Hippen, Mrs. B. Swayze, Mrs. E. Vincent, Mrs. R. D. Bradley, Mrs. F. E. Rupert, Mrs. C. C. Cummings, Mrs. Worley, Miss Luella Miller.
“On April 11, the articles were drawn up by Mr. A. B. Sawyer, the name being changed to ‘The Pekin Library Association.’ There was a Board of twelve directors named, to be chosen annually. Mrs. Rupert was elected President; Mrs. D. C. Smith, Vice-President; William Blenkiron, Secretary; and Mrs. Schipper, Treasurer.”
In this way, the Ladies Library Association, which had been organized and run as a privately-run community service club, officially became the Pekin Library Association, Inc.
Years later, when items were selected to be included in the library’s 1902 cornerstone time capsule, among the items included were the Pekin Library Association’s original charter of incorporation, granted by Henry D. Dement, Illinois Secretary of State. The charter, filed March 5, 1883, and issued April 5, 1883, was perfectly preserved during the seven decades they spent in the time capsule.
Shown is the State of Illinois charter of incorporation, issued April 5, 1883, by which the Ladies Library Association of Pekin became the Pekin Library Association, Inc.
The decision to incorporate was taken with an eye toward possibly reestablishing the library association as a free community service that would be owned and provided by Pekin’s city government. Thus, Gaither’s history tells:
“In June, 1883, a committee called upon the City Council with a proposition to make the Library a free city Library, but the Council committee, to whom was referred the request, reported adversely.”
With that, the idea of turning the library into a department of city government was to lay dormant for another decade.
Next time we will pick up the historical thread with the story of the Pekin Library Association, and how it became the Pekin Public Library.
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