By Jim Bloch
The St. Clair Library, now one of the eleven branches of the St. Clair County Library System, is celebrating its 150th birthday.
It might even be older.
“A town library has existed since at least 1857, but it remained a minor community resource until 1869,” writes Charles Homberg in “St. Clair, Michigan,” his 2007 history of the city.
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Using the earlier date, the library would by 162 years old; its start would have predated the Civil War by four years.
Homberg and library officials consider 1869 to be the true date of its founding.
“In that year, the Ladies Library Association was formed with Mrs. John C. Clark as the president,” Homberg writes.”They had 62 members and 34 subscribers that first year. Members paid dues and subscribers paid to use the books of the Library Association. A month after forming the Association, 140 books were ordered at a cost of $200 and soon $100 was spent on library furnishings.”
By 1870, the city had given the association all of its books and a stipend of $40 per year to operate the library. In 1874, officials offered the library a room in city hall from which to operate. The library’s collection had grown to 1,870 volumes by 1901, but tough days lay ahead. The library opened only on Saturdays, 2-4 p.m. A lack of revenue forced the library to shutter its doors, 1914-1920.
Then the Charles J. Fulton Post of the American Legion came to the library’s rescue, agreeing with the city to operate the library for a year. The Ladies Library Association reconstituted itself, taking over from the post and running the library until 1939. Then the city stepped in, appointing a board to oversee operations. In 1943, the library moved into the Schwab Building on the waterside of Riverside Avenue at the foot of Thornapple Street.
“In 1964, the library under the leadership of Franklin H. Moore, Jr. made plans for one more move,” writes Homberg. “A new library building was constructed next to the city hall at Second at Cass streets. In April 1967, the St. Clair Jaycees moved the library into the new building and the library was open to the public on April 17, 1967.”
The building became one of the first new structures in the city’s radical urban renewal project, which saw the demolition of the old downtown and created Palmer Park and Riverview Plaza.
Old photos that show the new library, with its low, 1960ish lines being dwarfed by the old pillared city hall to the north, soon to be demolished.
To recognize key contributors, the library put together a Memorials and Gifts book to coincide with the dedication of the new building. Among others, the book acknowledged the work of Rose Eddy, Jessie Buell and Estella Joachim; they each worked for the library for 21-28 years. The book also noted Carrie McCartney’s contributions to the library.
“Carrie not only worked at the library for $6 a week, she cleaned the library,” said Julie Alef, the longtime branch lead.
McCartney had worked for the library for 33 years at the time of the dedication.
“The early years were ones of struggle in the face of an unsympathetic attitude on the part of city authorities and inadequate funds for library supplies, maintenance and librarian’s salary,” according to the book. “Often, Mrs. McCartney found herself of necessity doing custodial service on her own time. Six dollars was for many years her weekly stipend for three days work. When in 1931 the city hall allocated $500 a year, later reduced to $400, for books and salaries, the situation eased a bit. Her salary rose from $10 to $15 a week at the time of her retirement.”
In 2012, Moore again played a key role in the construction of a room dedicated to children.
“He made the money happen by spending out the Commercial Saving and Loan Foundation Fund,” said Alef.
Moore was the longtime president and chairman of the Commercial Savings and Loan, which served St. Clair 1872-1996.
“The Friends of the Library’s donation of $10,000 covered the carpeting,” said Alef. “When the architectural study was done in 2007, the estimate to build was $240,000. In 2009/2010, after the housing crisis, no one was building and Frank had the plans rebid and sourced locally as it was so important to keep those companies and employees working. The cost ended up being about 60 percent of the initial estimates.”
Alef suggested naming the addition “The Moore Children’s Room.”
“They opted, with grace, for ‘The Friends Room,'” said Alef.
Moore died in 2018 at age 83.
“Franklin Moore served on the Library Board for more than 50 years, a third of the library’s span,” said Alef. “A gentleman and a banker.”
The walls of the Friends Room are alive with murals.
“Jason Stier and Sandy Attebury, of the St. Clair Art Association Public Art Committee, spent a summer’s worth of mornings before we opened painting the murals that cover the walls in The Friends Room,” said Alef.
Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.