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Mary Somerville Library

Located on Main Street in Mound City, the Historic Mary Somerville Library is the oldest contiguously running library in the state of Kansas.
The following excerpt was written by Theo. W. Morse. Published in the Mound City Republic in 1941

Mound City has The Sate’s Oldest Library
By: Theodore W. Morse


I. Background of the Mary Somerville Library

That library in Kansas, which longest without interruption, has been privately maintained and publicity used, observes its 65th anniversary this year (1941).  At Mound City, this this library is almost apart of the community all is Main Street or the picturesque sugar maple studded hills which half surround this little town, rich in early Kansas history.

Several Kansas libraries started earlier in Kansas than the one in Mound City, but suffered interruptions in their services or became parts of publicly supported institutions. But at Mound City the enterprise originating with a little group of girls or young unmarried women, continuously has served a sufficient following to deserve the patronage which has kept it on its feet.

Toward the close of 1876 (the “Centennial Year”) and after a good crop season or two had relieved the stress of the grasshopper scourges, the cultural and social yearnings of Mound City’s young crowd, began to seek expression. A new expression disassociated to some extent from the pioneer and Civil War themes, which largely had sufficed up to that time. Due, in a degree, to its good fortune in having been settled by well-bred Quakers and other easterners of more than average schooling, Mound City, from its beginning, led the county on the basis of educational and living standards. It happened, also that no other town in the county equaled it for the percentage of good-looking girls, a habit in which it seems to persist. Strangely (or perhaps naturally) jealousies arising from these two among its distinctions, contributed to the bitterness of county seat fights and municipal rivalries which in Linn as in any other county, appeared to be inevitable features of a community’s formative years.

This briefly, was the background when on November 22, 1876, a baker’s dozen of Mound City’s bright young women, decided to do something with their time, in addition to the usual work and play. Records do not show what preliminary discussions may have taken place, but on that day, these girls formally organized a literary society, with the founding of a library as a main objective. In this group it may be noteworthy that about half the number were daughters of some of Mound City’s Quaker families. Families which, however, never clannishly clung to the customs of the Pennsylvania communities from which they came, but for religious and civic activities associated themselves with whatever other available groups seemed suited for realizing essential objectives. As long as this dozen “founders” remained among the living, and in Mound City, their support of the library never failed. New members could be added only upon proposal of their names by current members, invitation by the selection, no doubt, is due the unique record of an almost 100 percent working membership for the 65 years now covered by the minutes of this association’s meetings.

Resignedly never large, this library membership sometimes has dropped as low as half its original strength, but always the membership carried on. In the early years this group, through its entertainment’s of various sorts to raise money for the purchase of books, helped to give Mound City a social distinction which long was its pride. These events ranged from “Ball Masques” to “Watermelon Festivals,” but always with features that seemed strikingly original in those conventional days and abounded in evidence of resourcefulness on the part of the ladies.

And dating Wimpy by a good, wide margin, the library association’s minutes for May 8,1880, record that it was decided “to hold on May 29, an Ice Cream and Strawberry Festival-providing there were any strawberries.” Elsewhere in the minute books (in which a perusal of the records of 64 years reveals scarcely any mention of young men of the town, though they evidently were not far in the background) we get an idea of how easily some delicacies, in season, and on occasion, were made available to this charming group. For witness the following passage in the minutes for August 16, same year: “During the course of the evening,” the minute book recites, “a watermelon came rolling into our midst.”

On a later summer, the minutes of July 8 show that “it was moved and carried to hold a Blackberry Festival and committees were appointed to get blackberries from “Mr. Stearns” and “Mr. Dewey.” Both men were New Englanders, with acreages in garden and fruits in the east part of town. John Stearns, who came to Linn County in 1857 and served in the Civil War, as most men of the county did, was a college man. Oscar Dewey was a retired sea captain, whose son his oldest, George, though much under age, managed to enlist in the army as a musician and later became the never tiring conductor of amateurs theatricals

That there was business talent as well as literary bent, among the library young ladies, many times was made evident. Soon after a charter was obtained for their association, a lecture was promoted at a cash outlay of $1.25, which grossed $15.75. The net no doubt was sufficient to pay all incorporation expenses, but no such hand-to-mouth financing was being practiced. This is shown by the treasure’s report for the quarter, revealing a balance of $102.15 of which $50 forth which was appropriated for the purchase of books. From the balance another appropriation was made to finance a mask ball, to be held on Washington’s Birthday in “Strong’s Hall.” “Strong’s Hall” by the way was the upstairs over the old Grange Store, operated by Henry Strong, whose grandson now is the town’s mortician. The building still standing (the north half the 75 foot frontage housing Ernest Irwin’s shop) was moved about the close of the Civil War to Mound City from Moneka. The latter town, tow miles away, folded up during the war, due to the inability to give lot holders good title to land once owned by Indians, with whom treaty provisions had failed properly to provide for transfer of ownership. It was a fortunate fate, since Moneka, out on the prairie, never had any such setting for a town as Mound City.

II. Library Policy. Significance of Name

Following something the same system as the land-acquiring farmer, who raised more hogs to buy more land to raise more hogs, these Mary Somerville Library business promoting young women, consistently adhered to a program of adding to their money to buy more books to increase receipts from rentals so they could buy more books again. About the only changes in later years have been in details, but not in the system. After the first two years of acquiring and lending books, the rental charge was reduced from ten cents to five-a sound approach to developing the dared “volume of business.” At the same time the rate was lowered ($50 worth of new books having just arrived) arrangements were made for a more accessible place to display the volumes-in the town’s “photograph gallery,” then operated by Emory Dewey’s uncle, George Dewey.

The seriousness of purpose (contrasting with their youth) of these library builders, perhaps is indicated by the name they chose-which was the “Mary Somerville Library Society”-though five years later, when a charter was obtained, the name was changed for purposes of incorporation, to read: “The Mary Somerville Literary Association.” Thus it now appears in the records of the Secretary of State, on the seal of the association and in the charter then issued. But for years, and even now, the original “MSLS” were beat known, as they were used on entertainment programs, bookmarks, stationary, and even as monograms by some of the members. Only recently was the discrepancy between the popular title and the legal name established, when the attorney, in preparing papers for the transfer of real estate in which the library was interested, “looked up the record.”

But back to the significance of the name chosen: Mary Somerville was a very real and purposeful person, living from 1780 to 1872, when scientific study was not considered within the province of any women. Yet she self-educated herself in mathematics and in natural sciences later, through associations following her marriage to a scientist. Still later she wrote books on astronomy, physical geography and finally on “molecular and microscopic science.” The sustained determination of the girls who named their library after so forceful a character, hardly need be wondered at. They may never have read her “stuff” but certainly they were impressed by the knowledge that she “had what it takes.” Possibly they did read her final book, “Personal Recollections,” issued after her 92 years.

Throughout a perusal of the minutes of the MSLS (or more correctly speaking, the MSLA) one is impressed with the study which the founding daughters gave to their business problems, and with the soundness of their conclusions. They came to believe in advertising, and to make it effective, within their names. On occasions, when their stock of books seemed adequate, they loaned money from the treasury, using only the interest for the purchase of new books. At other times, when new books were needed and available, they’d invest their “pile.” Appropriations of $10 to $50 for such purpose, were frequent; $100 appropriations only occasionally. At one time, following receipt of a shipment of new books, the minutes show that “The Clarion” and the “Progress” (Mound City’s two newspapers then) were paid for publishing the list in full. On another occasion the society passed formal resolutions, thanking the papers for giving friendly news mention. Paid advertisements, giving the library’s location and business hours were published. Services like the building of fires in the heating stove, sometimes were paid for by allowing use of books, but for the most part transactions were cash-both ways.

Typed on the charter, which hangs in a frame to the left as you enter the well stocked library room in the substantial building of which the Mary Somerville Library is part owner, is the list of the library’s organizers, as follows: Jessie B. Smith, Mary Smith (Blakey), Emma Vertrees (Cordin), Anna Vertrees (Kincaid), Mamie Johnson (Lowe), Helen Trego (Riggs), Cettie Haskett (Stevenson), May Broadhead (Forbes), Sophie Bartholomew, Ellen Smith (Smith). The names in parenthesis are the husband’s names, all added after the launching of this strictly maiden cult aural effort. Most of the girls who had time before marriage became valued school teachers. The lady heading the list and one of the thought leaders of the original group, was my first school teacher, having on two different years, consented to mud it out the two miles to our country district for the 8-month terms. She was the library’s first president, an office she occupied on several subsequent occasions. The nine members listed as “directors” in the incorporation papers include four who joined the original 13 soon after the library was launched.

The first directors were as follows: Josie Underhill, Jessie Smith, Mary Smith, Ellen Smith, Dickie VenBuskirk, May Anthony, Eva Quinn, Anna Vertrees, Nollie Fairbrother.

Discrimination (it might be called “censorship” now) was exercised concerning books given space on the library shelves. The minutes of July 17, 1888, set forth that a committee was appointed to return, as not suited to the library’s needs, books which had been given by an admiring and prosperous widower, undoubtedly with the best intentions. And if you had known the girls at that time you certainly could not have blamed the widower for wanting to be in their good graces. By this time several members were married and one of the few sizable additions of new members recently had been made. The addition included Belle Wright, Inez Anthony, Lura Adams, Jennie Swift, and Mamie Gregory-the considered selections of the society and all voted on at the meeting of December 28, 1887. Prior to that time additions had been made by ones and twos. That year the society lost the first of its original members from the state-Miss Sophia Trego, who went to California, became Mrs. Riggs, and now, a widow, still resides there.

From its founding in 1876, until time and the depression of the 90’s began to scatter the families of the town, the minutes of the library meetings afford a fair abstract of Mound City’s social and cultural life. During the period of this depression, the remaining original members, with new ones of equal loyalty-now including women with the many responsibilities of homes and families-kept up the work, to preserve their property and deliver a continuing service to the town. To such an extent did those who had other cares, take over the load, that in the election of 1896 married women were chosen for three of the four elective offices. The low point in finances came in 1894, when book rentals for 11 months totaled only $9.64. By 1900 the rentals had more than tripled. An inventory taken at the beginning of that year showed 726 volumes. These were listed and classified for the convenience of patrons and a substantial purchase of new books-partly with borrowed money-was authorized.

But throughout such trying times it was “business as usual” with the Mary Somerville Library Association. Its library was opened regularly for withdrawal and return of books on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as of you’re and as still is the rule. The old plan of “taking turns” at being librarian had given way, in the summer of 1888, to the employment of one member to be paid by a percentage of the receipts. The first chosen was Ellen Smith, one of the three Quaker girls named Smith in the original group. Her death in 1940 ended nearly 64 years of faithful service to this undertaking of her girlhood.

III. Marriages. Experience. Cooperation.

One of the first mentions of a married member in the library’s minutes also occurred in 1888, when reference was made to Mrs. Madden, who, as Lena Curry, had been one of the first girls invited to join the founders. A committee assignment brought her to mention. And from the record of committee assignments in the minutes one sometimes gets an idea as to the adaptabilities of the members of that time. In January 1889, Mollie Soward was made the “committee on advertising.” She arranged with the town’s two newspapers for advertisements to fun three months. The service must have been OK for at its expiration she was ordered to have the advertising renewed. To this same efficient Mollie Soward was given the job of repairing and rebinding books and buying a library table. You almost suspect her hand in another minute entry of about that time-moved and carried that all bills be collected and the library be invoiced.

Helped Odd Fellows Buy Organ

A hint of the varied and cheerful cooperation which MSLS girls enjoyed is found in a resolution of June 30, 1889, as follows: “Whereas, Mound City Lodge No. 20, 100F, has kindly allowed space and facilities in its hall for library books; it was resolved to give $10 from the library’s funds toward the purchase of an organ for the Odd Fellow Hall. The housing problem was an almost constant one with the library ladies. Possibly a natural tendency on their part to “mother” this project of their hearts, accentuated that worry. At one time, the minutes show, several parties were approached with view to purchasing from them, lots for a library building. But none wished to sell-a condition somewhat hard to visualize now, since 75 percent of the land in the city’s corporate limits is in garden, field crops, or pasture-or should be.

County Seat Fight Alarm

At one time the shadow of an impending county-seat fight hung over the MSLS and caused its guardians to seek quarter other than those they were using in the old court house. Mound City, however, retained the county house and no one had to move. The sought-for lots were not bought at that time; the projected 16×24 library building did not have to be built; the library always had a roof over its head and finally, at long last, through cooperation by its members with those of other women’s organizations, The Mary Somerville Literary Association came into its present home in one room of the substantial and decorative building on Main Street, owned by the Mound City Council of Women’s Clubs, of which the library group is the oldest.

Border Days Museum Hinted

Of late consideration has been given to the thought that this historical library enterprise might be expanded to include Mound City historical or “Border Days” museum and the enlarged enterprise be made more of a community responsibility. Certainly if any civic service in Mound City, either publicly or privately owned, has justified, and benefited from, a community cooperation. One of its entertainment’s, when the town population must have been below 750, including a lot of babies showed 284 paid admissions. The ladies held such support by a worthy cause and the sincerity of their gratitude for the freely given help; how freely, one may glimpse from this item in the minutes of a May meeting 50 years ago; “Moved and carries that Frank Wright and Harlan Underhill be requested to put up the library signs.” Just like that was needed to get the job done. Now, Harlan Underhill, the town’s “rich man,” may be a little heavy on his feet from carrying the responsibilities which go with property, but he still is willing and able to “put up library signs” if asked.

Tight Shoe Night for MSLS

This library did something in its earlier days which may be unique. Each member took the name of some author, and in the meetings (as the minutes record) spoke and was spoken to, only in that character. Thus we discover, for instance, that William Shakespeare (the minutes do not reveal which of the girls hid behind this anonymity) was fined one evening for being unable to remember the password…Yes, the girls had that among their secret things about their affairs, which made membership in their group all the more desired. This masquerade may have been instructive or entertaining while it lasted, but gradually all mention of Lord Byron, Charlotte Bronte, the Brownings, Alfred Tennyson, and all, disappear from the chronicles of member-deliberations. Another stunt-this was the 25th anniversary entertainment of the MSLA was to gauge the price of admission by the size of the patrons’ shoes. Could that have been the origin of the expression: “It’s tight shoe night in the old town?” Anyway it went over, in spite of the fact that times were hard enough, without big feet becoming a liability as well as an embarrassment. The town’s two newspapers had agreed to print anything which would help to make the show a success and the folks with the larger feet were touted as the leading patrons of the arts. With this sort of persiflage and descriptions of the “impersonations” which featured the show, one newspaper filled two columns.

More Anniversaries Observed

In 1908, when the library counted 1100 volumes on its shelves, a 32nd anniversary of the association was celebrated. In 1914, when the library, then 38 years old, had increased its holdings to 1500 volumes, only three of the founding members remained in Mound City. Two had died; the others had moved away, but came back, in person or by message for the “musical and literary entertainment” given in one of the town’s first church buildings-now the Community Church but the Congregational. Here the history of the library and its builders was presented in a six-stanza epic poem and pageant. The words were sung to the tune of “Long, Long Ago” words written by the mother of Clifton Adams, whose photographs, a few years back, were known the world over through their publication in the National Geographic Magazine. The church building used on this occasion had housed the library’s first pretentious entertainment, a “fair”, put on 37 years earlier. On the first occasion the committees making arrangements for prizes, exhibits, and a place to show them, included (according to the minutes of May 18, 1877) Lord Byron, Henry Ward Beecher, Wm. Shakespear, Alfred Tennyson, Fannie Gage, J.G. Holland, and George Elliott, representing the girls who were play-acting behind these names.

IV. The Two Eras of the Library’s History

The history of this library, so far, divides readily into two nearly equal and definite periods. The first, covering most of what already has been recounted, including its years of youth of ideals and adventure-the hopeful years of the 70’s and 80’s; then the prosperous of the boom that followed; then the depression of the 90’s and the beginning of recovery as the new century dawned. As the West emerged from the “little depression” of 1907, the second period began-a period of applying the lessons learned in the fist 32 years. By this time the library’s membership had mostly married women-with less time for originality and experiments and more thought to security. No decline of interest was discernible. Meetings were well attended; the purchase of books continued to keep the library abreast of the times. And the social, literary and financing activities were “pepped up” by the cooperation of a fine crop of non-member daughters.

Town Didn’t Fancy “Boughten Shows”

Lacking the time for preparation these home-making members tried to ease off on the home talent features of their entertainment’s and put on some “boughten” shows for money raising. It soon was plain that the town wanted to see its own people “behind the footlights” or in the booths. A violinist and impersonator, for whom the MSLS had to pay $5 rent to the “opera house” yielded them only $6.76. A “dramatic recital” netted only $4.30. But alliterating with these, two home talent events brought in respectively, $7.20 and $23.45-and a little later a “Dutch Supper” put on by the members and their daughters, netted $22.60. The town was behind them when they put on their own shows.

Building a “Building Fund”

The building fund now became more definitely an objective than ever before. And with these Mound City mothers, an objective was something to be realized- not just talk about. The minutes of every one of their meetings closed with a statement of the association’s financial progress and condition. A system of “food exchange” was initiated-monthly market days for good things to eat not available in the stores of the town. For the times, the first time, a cash appraisal was being made of the culinary skill of the best cooks. One of the first of these “exchanges” just before World War time brought $9.65. From this start returns amounted to around $20 for a good day. A “bazaar” held just after the World War grossed $91.86 on a cash outlay of only $7.10.

A long with these efforts and the continued addition of new books, receipts from rental improved, running from $10 to $15 a month regularly in the good years. Plainly such returns on an investment represented by over 1500 volumes and a lot of hard work, did not constitute a money-making enterprise and the library project never had been so intended. But they did prove that the sustained and determined support of the library was showing the cultural results sought for. The record of books purchased throughout this period, shows, also, that the Mary Somerville library was no mean patron of the book publishers.

Saved in 50 Years, $1000

At the close of World War, 39 “Baby Bonds” had been acquired toward a building fund. A “Curbstone Social” was given as a finale to the Fourth of July celebration in 1920. An election day lunch that fall netted $35.95. A check from Mary Capper, sister of the Senator and a relative of the late Ellen Smith (who gave more years than any other member to the library’s affairs) was turned in to the building fund by Mrs. Smith. The members set about gathering the accumulated waste of paper of the town and shipped a carload, which netted $63.99 more. Another bazaar brought in $63.63, and at the close of 1923 the building fund stood at $769.19.

By the end of the library’s 50th year the fund, boosted by receipts from a 50th anniversary entertainment approached $1000. Through these and other devices the fund continued to grow until, finally, when the late depression cut down its operating revenues, the library was in position to counter attack. The neat brick, tile concrete and marble building of the failed bank came on the market. The Mound City Council of Women’s Clubs wanted it for a home. Of the organizations in the council, the library association was one of two incorporatied to own such property and in possession of funds to help make payment therefore. An agreement was made by which, in behalf of itself and its sister clubs, the Mary Somerville Library Association took title to the building and 52 feet of ground fronting Main Street.

Serious Membership Losses

The membership which now had carried through most of the final half of the library’s 64 years, represented, almost 100 percent, the substantial citizenship of the town. It included, besides the following four of the original organizers: Ellen Smith (Smith), Emma Vertrees (Corbin), Anna Vertrees (Kincaid), and May Broadhead (Forbes); these later members, Alice Gregory (Wiley), Clara Crocker (Bacon), Ellen Wentzer (Kenney), Delia Walden (Kingsbury), Hannah Wickham, Mattie Jones, Naude Campbell (Thorne), Etta Somes (Reese), Dickie VanBusrick (Cannon), Sarah Barnes (Garrison), Alma Dennison (Cole), May Anthony (Kincaid), Lena Curry (Madden), Mary Cochrane (Kellerman), Eva Shill (Haly), Myrtle Stearns (Bronson), Helen C. Dallas, Mary Madden (Strong), Helen Rogers (Munson), Nettie Barrick (Phillips), Della McVeagh (Adams), Lois Strong (Moody), Elizabeth Dolson (Nantey), Inda Fleming (Brooks), Anna Waymire (Foster), and others, whose efforts, none the less important, may not have been recorded in the minutes.

This second period was one serious membership losses. Death and change of residence took so many that over 30 members active during parts or all of the period, only four or five of those just named, including Mrs. Wantey, Mrs. Foster, Mrs. Brooks, and Mrs. Moody.

During this period of heaviest losses, important additions in books and equipment came from some of the members and from families of members who had died. Heirs of Miss Mattie Jones gave books and book cases. Following repeated and valuable gifts by Mrs. Muson in her lifetime, her daughter, in memory of her mother, provided and endowment of $500. Gifts of books were made by the heirs of Mrs. Bacon. A gift of 60 volumes were made by Mrs. Frances Wuttke and there were many others equally worthy of chronicling. Yet it was not until after its 45th birthday that the library began carrying insurance on this property.

When the policy of insuring was decided upon (there had been no fire losses recorded in the minutes) the members, unwilling to dip into their building fund or operating capital, resorted to the plan of “giving a tea” or something once a year, to raise money for the premium. Faithfully this was done until moving into its own almost fireproof building, considerably lowered the cost of insurance. It was well the library’s new estate as the owners of its home, brought a reduction in some expense, because upkeep of the building, affiliation with the various groups and federations of women’s clubs and a prominence gained through its remarkable record, brought increasing calls for expenditures which could well be avoided.

Its 60th Anniversary Observed

The library’s 60th anniversary was observed in 1936. Gifts at that time included 60 volumes from Miss Capper. An attendance of 60 members, ex-members, and relatives or close friends included now a number of daughters and daughters-in-law who had spent the preceding summer respectfully in Hawaii and Alaska, there was a performance by new, young talent of the town under the direction of Mrs. Anna V. Kincaid, one of the two original members present. Mrs. Kincaid, who is now 81, last Spring returned from a trip to Mexico, during which she made an airplane flight from Brownsville to Tampico and then to Mexico City and return.

At the close of 1938, the library’s minutes mention a report from the Congressional District Federation meeting, recognizing the Mary Somerville Literary Society, not only as the oldest library of its class in continuous service, but also the oldest federated club in the state to maintain continuous activity from the time of its founding

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