From the Editor, 8/30/21, Photo By Melanie Hunt Streeter
For Wellsville natives, the David A. Howe Library is a real point of pride, the centerpiece of our village. From the street view, the sidewalk leads to the massive portal into volumes of information, knowledge, and technology. The skyline of Wellsville would not be the same without the cupola, like a lighthouse watching over the river and the village. Not many small communities have a structure so iconic, housing intellectual fortunes worth more than gold.
One can wonder if the generation of library lovers who built this gem understood it would still be the core of our community in 2021.
In 1856, some 165 years ago when Wellsville was in the pre-Civil War era, the river valley was expanding rapidly. A group of residents who clearly knew the importance of a library, held a meeting at the Baptist Church. Shortly after the Wellsville Literary Association was born and by 1870 a more formal institution was formed, the Wellsville Circulating Library. From Martha Howe’s, “A History of the Town of Wellsville, New York,” the early group’s mission was clear:
“A committee was appointed to acquire books of the highest moral and literary character; $750.00 was appropriated for books, with each member being privileged to take out two books a week for a year.”
Considering the library only had three hundred and fifty books at the time, getting two books a week was indeed a privilege. Maybe even a bigger treat in that post-Civil War world was the lecturing series held by the library. Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was a main attraction and over the winter months they held at least one lecture per month. By 1880, Mr. T.L Smith was an acting librarian of over 1400 books with reading rooms open two days per week.
Something happened during that period of time between 1880 and 1893. As Howe describes in her book, “the library fell into disuse and the books became scattered.” Considering that rapid decline, some larger force is likely to have played a role. Perhaps one of our local history experts have written an essay on that decade of decline. History “buffs” might hunt that down?
The best part of the story starts when the decline becomes restoration and revitalization, a revolving theme of Wellsville NY. In 1893, the now historic Monday Club sprung to action and achieved a legendary accomplishment by any grassroots standard: The David A. Howe Library as it stands today.
The spark to that renaissance was literally gathering up all the books that had been lost and scattered in order to restart with some inventory of books. The Monday Club worked with another fledgling group that has literally defined our national identity, the YMCA, who had collected some of the disorder from the decade prior. Within a year, the effort had established a library inside the Wellsville High School, awaiting a more permanent home in the brand new City Hall. Club members traveled to Albany to learn the Dewey Decimal System, grants were awarded, and in 1895 the Monday Club furnished both a new library and reading rooms.
In the early days, the members of the Monday Club operated the library on a volunteer system of two days per week. The club had fundraisers with great lectures, home-talent show contests, and subscriptions to fund the operation. By 1900 they had more than revived the library, having 4340 books available with exciting times ahead.
Enter David A. Howe, a nephew of Alfred S. Brown, who was educated as a child in Wellsville and moved south where he made his fortunes. During one visit to Wellsville he was taken back when Mrs. Brown, a founding member of the Monday Club, asked him what he thought about lobbying the Carnegie Foundation for the money to build a grand library. Howe replied, “Why a Carnegie Library? Why not a David A. Howe Library?”
The Monday Club took Howe to task and got to work on the building which we have today. In 1909 the cornerstone of the David A. Howe Library was laid and by 1910 the basement was available for the Monday Club to gather and plan for the future. It must have been a long wait(decades) between that fateful meeting between Mr. Howe and Mrs. Brown and the actual completion of the contemporary David A. Howe Library.
One day when Mr. Howe was in town visiting, he and Mrs. Brown had this conversation:
Howe: How is your library child?
Brown: Growing! But she needs shoes and proper clothing for one of her station.
Howe: Be patient, your child shall some day be sumptuously attired.
That was an understatement as when Howe and his wife had both died, the David A. Howe Library had about one million dollars in endowment funding, a massive sum at the time. That was 1927 and the Monday Club got to work on building a spectacular new library, with a $300,000 budget. Another decade later the building was dedicated and the Nancy Howe Auditorium was later added.
By 1961 the David A. Howe Library had blossomed into a castle, housing 56,746 books and had over five thousand members. Today the Monday Club is still a force in Wellsville and the portrait of David A. Howe hangs over the main desk, seemingly in delight of what he and the Monday Club built for you and I today.
If you are inspired by the story of this very important community institution, please consider giving a financial gift like Mr. Howe did over a century ago. Visit: https://davidahowelibrary.org/support/