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The Night They Dedicated the Library

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, May 6, 1934


By Howard Burba


     For weeks a horde of CWA workers have been swarming about the Dayton library building in Cooper Park.  They are giving it the first complete renovation it has had for a quarter of a century.  In some instances they have actually disturbed dust which has been accumulating in inaccessible corners for a much longer time than that.  But when their work is completed the building will be restored to the pristine beauty which characterized it on that gala night 47 years ago when it was dedicated.

     Walking amid a tangled maze of ladders and scaffolding, buckets and brushes, and with the smell of paints and oils assailing one’s nostrils, it is difficult to picture that historic night when this noble old institution was first opened for public service.  But back in a far corner, far off from the beaten path followed by those who came to borrow instead of to browse, we find a graphic picture of the event.

     Tucked away in old newspaper files bearing the date of Jan. 25, 1887, we find the story of this historic building, now on the fringe of its 50th anniversary.  We picture the vast crowd assembled within its walls on that gala occasion, and the milling throng that walked about the park, unable to find breathing space inside.  We sense their proud feeling of achievement as they feasted their eyes upon “the grand and massive library building that stands so stately in the public park,” to quote a newswriter of that day, and we live for a moment in the happy atmosphere of that auspicious occasion.

     The night of Tuesday, Jan. 24, 1887, was not marked by parades and fireworks, nor was its stillness broken by cannon or martial music.  It was as the old newspaper files assure us, “an occasion simple in form but embracing comprehensively every element that enters into the construction, development and completion of this temple.”  It was, as we can well understand, an event made impressive by its simplicity, marking as it did an epoch in the growth and education of the city.

     For the dedicatory exercises a temporary platform had been erected at the north end of the spacious reading room on the second floor for the accommodation of the speakers.  In addition to those who were to voice their tributes to a progressive citizenry, there sat members of the board of education, of the city council and the library board, along with the Y. M. C. A. quartet, which furnished the music for the occasion.  Long before the opening of the exercises, every chair in the room was filled, and hundreds thronged the room below.  The old files tell us that “ a countless sea of people kept coming and going until the closing hour.”

     Stepping to the edge of the platform, lovable old Dr. W. A. Hale, pastor of the First Reformed church and who passed to a rich reward within recent years, offered an eloquent prayer of dedication.  Then followed the rendition of “Silver Bell,” by the Y.M. C. A. quartet, after which Charles H. Kumler, president of the board of education, delivered the dedicatory address.

     It was a fitting review of a city’s struggle toward higher things.  It was a story complete in every detail of the founding and slow but sustained growth of an ideal.  It was a word picture of achievement such as few communities can boast.  Today that address opens to us new visions of the fine and substantial sacrifices of those who made the Dayton public library, and the building it occupies, a reality.  Let us quote the words of the lamented barrister on that occasion:

     “The subject assigned to me on the program is ‘The History of the Public Libraries of Dayton.’  A native of Dayton, I have some personal knowledge of all of them, having seen when quite young the two well-filled bookcases of the first one in the one-story room of the brick building still standing on the northeast corner of Main and Fifth sts.  Dayton, as I recollect it, at that early day was a small village.  The ground on which this library building stands was part of a prairie extending from the river to Sixth st. and a favorite resort of the boys for games of all kinds.  To the east, now the most popular part of the city, lay an unbroken stretch of pasture and farmlands, and a short distance to the west on a slight elevation stood the two brick buildings of the Dayton academy.  Among the earliest institutions established were the academy and public library, and they reflect the high honor on our pioneer citizens.

     “In 1805 the citizens of Dayton obtained from the legislature the first act of incorporation for a public library granted by the state of Ohio.  The incorporators were Rev. William Robertson, Dr. John Elliott, William Miller, Benjamin Van Cleve and John Folkerth.  A pamphlet stained and yellow with age containing the constitution and rules of this library, probably the only copy in existence, fortunately has been preserved and deposited in the library.

     “A few of the rules are peculiar and may be worth presenting.  ‘Damage done to a book while in the hands of a proprietor shall be assessed by the librarian at the rate of

 3 cents for a drop of tallow, of folding down a leaf, and so in proportion for any other damage.’  In the days of gas and electricity the fine for a drop of tallow is rather ludicrous but no doubt books were often injured in that way when the reader had to peruse them by the feeble light of a tallow dip.  Librarians are aware that the folding down of a leaf is one of the common and annoying misuses of books at the present day.

     “Another rule prescribes that the method of drawing books shall be by lot, that is to say ‘It shall be determined by lot who shall have the first choice and so on for each proprietor.’  Unfortunately, we have no information how the lottery was conducted.  Rule 18 declares: ‘If a proprietor loans a book belonging to the library to any person who is not a proprietor or suffers a book to be carried into a school, he or she shall pay a fine equal to the value of one-quarter of the said book.’  It is not easy to see but great damage could result to a book from being carried into school, but the whole tenor of the rule illustrates the precariousness of books at that early day and the vigilant care taken of them.  This library existed for the more than 20 years, when it was dissolved and the books distributed among the proprietors.

     “A slight sketch of some of the corporators of the first public library may serve to show the style of men who founded Dayton.

     “Dr. John Elliott was a surgeon in the army of the revolution and of subsequent Indian wars.  One of his descendants in this city cherishes as a precious heirloom his commission as a surgeon signed by Washington.  He was the father of Mrs. Crane and Mrs. Pierce, two prominent pioneer ladies.  We get this glimpse of him from a cutting from an old newspaper.  ‘Dr. John Elliott was disbanded with the regiment to which he belonged in the year 1802.  In the summer of 1804 I saw him in Dayton, a highly accomplished gentleman in a purple silk coat which contrasted strangely with the surrounding thickets of brush and high bushes.  ‘The purple silk coat appears rather bizarre when compared with the subdued colors now worn by men, but high colors were the fashion in the time of the Revolution.  Dr. Elliott died in Dayton in 1809 and was buried with military honors.’

     “The name of Benjamin Van Cleve is found in the list of first settlers to arrive at Dayton from Cincinnati in April, 1796, by boat up the Miami river, which at that time was hoped to be a navigable stream.  He was clerk of the first court organized in the county and was appointed the first postmaster of Dayton in 1804, which office he held until his death in 1821.  He came to Cincinnati in 1790 and kept a journal of daily occurrences throughout his life, which has been of greatest use in all the compilations of western history.  He was evidently a man of keen observation and considerable literary skill.  The manuscript copy of this journal is in the possession of his descendants in this city.

     “John Folkerth came to Dayton from Baltimore among the earliest settlers.  Soon after his arrival he was elected magistrate, which position he held for 52 years.  He was a man of sterling integrity and a great reader of good books.  In the early history of the town and country much of the largest part of the deeds drawn by him, and no doubt his distinct but peculiar chirography is familiar to many of you.  He held the pen between the bent-up first and second fingers of the hand, a peculiarity I never noticed in any other person.  Quiet, and unobtrusive, in his manner, he was held in the highest esteem of those who knew him best.

     “In the interval between the dissolution of the first library and the establishment of the Dayton Library association a number of small public libraries existed, one of which bore the ambitious name of Sun Circulating Library of Dayton.

     “Impressed with the importance of establishing a library worthy of the city a number of citizens met on the evening of Dec. 10, 1846, and appointed a committee to draft a constitution.  At a large meeting in the city hall on Dec. 29, 1846, the constitution was reported and after considerable discussion and various amendments it was adopted.  Those who had constituted themselves members of the association by the payment of the required fee met at the mayor’s office Jan. 12, 1847, and fully organized by the election of a board of trustees.   

      “The library was sustained by membership fees; $50 constituting a membership in perpetuity; $30 a life-membership, and $3 an annual membership.  The first list of books was purchased by such men as Joseph H. Crane, John W. Van Cleve, Dr. John W. Hall, Milo G. Williams and others.  Several evenings were spent in discussing the best books to be purchased with the limited amount of money at the disposal of the association.  The list numbered but little over 1000 volumes, but the books were ‘books that are books’.

     “The library was opened in a second-story room near the northeast corner of Main and Third sts., where it remained until it was removed to the new Phillips building on the southeast corner of Main and Second sts.

     “Mr. J. D. Phillips, who was a warm friend and liberal supporter of the library, had proposed to construct a room on the second floor of his building especially adapted to the uses of the library and lease it to the association on favorable terms.  The proposition was accepted, and a room 40x60 feet with lofty ceiling staunchly supported through the center by handsome Corinthian columns was prepared.  This room was elegantly finished by special subscriptions at a cost of over $2000.  It is safe to say that at that day there was no library room in Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, that would compare with it in beauty and convenience.  A reading room supplied with the leading newspapers and magazines, was connected with the library and it was a favorite resort for our citizens and the first place to which a stranger visiting our city was taken.

     “For the first two winters free lectures were given at the city hall and every citizen at all available was drafted into service.  Many of our oldest professional men may recall how they tried their hand on these lectures.  After the removal to the Phillips building courses of pay lectures were given in the large hall over the library.  At that time the most noted men in the country did not disdain the lecture platform, and the names of a brilliant galaxy of lecturers who appeared before the association might be given.

     “As it may be inferred, it was no easy task to carry so expensive an enterprise in a city of less than 20,000 inhabitants.  Constant appeals were made to the liberal, and when this resource failed, resort was had to concerts which enlisted all the professional and amateur musicians of the city who gave their services gratuitously.  The first of these, called a ‘Musical Soiree,’ was given in 1849 and in 1859 a series of old folk’s concerts which were very popular and netted the association several hundred dollars.

     “All these concerts were conducted by the late Prof. James Turpin, who was always ready to give his services to any worthy public object.  The manuscript records of the association are preserved in the public library and furnish a complete history of it from the beginning to the close.  It fell to the lot of  I. H. Kiersted to serve as secretary during the last three years of the life of the association, when it was laboring under constant difficulties. He did not hesitate to part from conventional dignity and dullness of ordinary minutes, and the records kept by him are very entertaining reading.  He might rival Mark Tapley for cheerfulness under difficulty.  ‘Hercules to the Rescue’ is his comment on a successful effort headed by Gen. R. C. Schenck to pay off a heavy indebtedness.  He accounts for the failure of the board to provide the usual course of winter lectures in this way; “The public having feasted on lion’s meat may have little or no taste for the flesh of inferior animals, but lion’s meat is now $50 a meal, without the incidentals, and the hard times forbids the indulgence in such expensive luxuries.’

     “By this time the public school library had become a formidable rival to the library association, furnishing the public with a large variety of free books.  As the sole object of the members of the library association was to provide for the city a good public library, the conclusion was reached that the public would be best served by the union of the two libraries.

     “In 1860 the members of the library association by vote transferred their valuable library and furniture to the board of education.  Many of the choicest books on the shelves of the public library were obtained in this way, particularly the volumes of Dayton newspapers from 1808 to 1860. From these newspapers the largest part of local history published has been derived and could not have been written without them.

     “The name of John W. Van Cleve appears frequently in the minutes of the Dayton Library association, of which he was an active member and officer.  He was also connected with the library established in 1805, during the last years of its existence.  He was the first male child born in Dayton and was remarkable for his size, weighing over 300 pounds.  But he was quite as remarkable for his other qualities as for his size.  There were few things he could not do and do well.

     “He was one of the first graduates of the Ohio University at Athens, and was not only proficient in Latin and Greek, but also in French and German.  He had no regular profession, but was the most industrious of men, which, added to the natural gift of a retentive memory, may account for the great diversity of his attainments.  He was a musician, painter, engraver, botanist, geologist, and civil engineer.

     “By the excellent school laws of 1853 a tax of one-tenth of a mill on the dollar valuation was levied for library purposes, the money so raised to be expended and the books distributed by the state superintendent of instruction.  The law contemplated the establishment of district school libraries and the books purchased with that in view lacked a variety necessary for city libraries.  It was determined in Dayton not to distribute the books among the several schools, but to establish a central library.  After receiving such books from the purchases of the superintendent of instruction as was suitable, he was requested to pay in money any balance due the city and cheerfully complied with the request.  The amount of money received was $1400.  Twelve hundred and fifty volumes were purchased, comprising books in every department of literature.  Great care was taken in the selection of books to meet the popular want, and the library was at once appreciated and extensively used.  It was opened in the fall of 1855 on the second floor of the United Brethren building, on the northeast corner of Main and Fourth sts.  W. H. Butterfield, principal, of the second district school, was the first librarian and at that time the library was accessible only on Saturday.

    “In 1858 it was removed to the Central high school building, just then completed, where it remained until the union with the library association in 1860, when it came into possession of their elegant rooms.  The inviting rooms and the addition of several thousand volumes of choice books swept the library into great prominence, and it became an object of great city pride.

     “A librarian was employed to devote her whole time to it and since then it has been kept open every secular day and evening. In 1867 the library was removed to the old City hall, and when that building was torn down and until the new building was completed in 1876 a room in the building next north of the courthouse was occupied.  The rooms just vacated in the city hall were expressly fitted up for the library and were creditable to the city.

     “In 1866 the legislature suspended the tax of one-tenth of a mill on the dollar and subsequently repealed the law.  From that time until 1869 the library was maintained by appropriations made by the board of education from the contingent fund.

     “In 1860 the legislature passed a law empowering the boards of education in cities of first and second class to levy a tax of one-tenth of a mill on the dollar valuation and under this law the library has been conducted until the passage of a act by the legislature in 1887 establishing a library board for Dayton.  Until the passage of this act the library was managed by a committee of the board of education, appointed annually.  It is unquestionably better to have an independent board with longer terms of office and a part going out each year.  Stability is thus given to the management, and a part of its members always possess valuable knowledge of the library and experience in its government.

     “A word may be said of the character of the library.  It has been the aim of the committee who have had it in charge to make it as complete as possible in every detail and to build up a symmetrical library.  To accomplish this, experts in every branch of literature and science have been consulted from time to time.  As Dayton is a manufacturing city, it has been the aim to furnish such books as would be useful to those engaged in mechanical and manufacturing pursuits and the library contains a large number of the best books that treat on these subjects.  The reference books are numerous, and there are few subjects on which satisfactory information cannot be obtained.  In the departments of history, biography, travel, poetry, drama and essays, it is no exaggeration to say that a very large part of the best books in the English language may be found here.

     “We may anticipate an annual increase in the future of from 1500 to 2000 volumes and can readily imagine what a grand library it will become, a jewel worthy of the splendid casket which has been provided for it.”