The Havana Literary Society
Montour Falls Memorial Library
Louise V. Stillman
In 1872 a group of young people in Havana, New York, presented an "entertainment" which included living pictures, tableaux, and recitations and music. They were members of a literary society and their performance, given in Langley Hall, now the Village Hall of Montour Falls, was put on to raise funds for the purchase of books. The proceeds were used to start a circulating library. Any person who paid a fee of five cents a week could borrow books from the new library.
A little later, another program called "An Old Folks Concert" was given to raise more funds. A group picture of the performers: William Page, Alma Gillespie, Frances Hinman, Florence Huntington, Nettie Beers, Clara Beebe, Lucy Broderick, Lucy Tracy, Timothy Palmer, Frank Beers and Baxter T. Smelzer can still be seen in the Montour Falls Memorial Library.
The Havana Library Association was formed, and a room was rented in Langley Hall to store the books that were purchased and those that were given by friends. On Saturday afternoons, when the library was open, borrowers could select their books and pay their five cent fee. An old history states, "The Library contains 630 books, in the selection of which considerable literary taste has been displayed."
The first officers of the new Library Association were: Trustees, Elbert Cook, Miss Elma Gillespie, Miss Lucy Tracy (later Mrs. B. T. Smelzer); Secretary, Miss Mary Hinman (later Mrs. John Abel); Treasurer, Willis H Tracy; Librarian, Mrs. G. W. Carpenter; and Asst. Librarian, Miss Frances Hinman (later, Mrs. James Shepard).
In 1878 B. T. Smelzer became president and Mrs. Smelzer, secretary. Miss Frances Hinman became librarian and Miss Sarah Tracy, the assistant librarian. The trustees were Elbert Cook, Miss Florence Huntington and M. Brown. Miss Frances Hinman, Miss Lizzie Prince (later, Mrs. W. L. Hopkins) and Willis Tracy were the book committee. The library continued for some time. Later it was open only at intervals in a home or a store. A Village Improvement Society formed in 1892, and took over the work of the library. Some of the members of the Havana Library Association had moved away, but a number of the original members remained very active. Mrs. Smelzer, Mrs. Hopkins and Mrs. Shepard were a committee to collect and catalog books in the library. The books were loaned from both the Montour Bank and the bank that was then in what is now the library building. At this time a ticket could be purchased for one dollar which allowed its holder to borrow one book a week over a year's time. The books were moved again in 1893 and yet again in 1897.
The Library received its first tax money from the village in 1895, and no longer charged a fee for borrowing books. It had been granted a provisional charter in 1894, and in 1901 it received a permanent charter. Havana changed its name to Montour Falls, and the library changed its name on October 15, 1896, to "Montour Falls Free Library." Finally its name changed on December 3, 1903, to "Montour Falls Memorial Library."
The Library had moved from building to building from its beginning in 1872. Finally it moved to a permanent home in June of 1904, where it still remains today, housed in a Greek Revival-style brick building on the corner of Main and Schuyler Streets.
This building is one of a set of three buildings erected between Schuyler and Genesee Streets on Main Street. They were built by Charles Cook, who had come to Havana as a contract builder of the canal that connected Seneca Lake to the Chemung River at Elmira. Cook became an early developer of the Village of Havana. He was largely responsible for the creation of Schuyler County. In 1854 he had a one-story brick Greek Revival-style building constructed on the corner of Main Street and Genesee Street to serve as a county clerk's office. Then in 1855, next to the clerk's office building, a two-story courthouse for the new county was built. It stood in the middle of the block and faced south onto Main Street. Later a third building was built on the east side of the courthouse that resembled and balanced the clerk's office on the west side. Like its twin it had a four-column portico facing Main Street and another portico with four columns facing the side street. The brick columns of this building, like those of the others, were laid up of curved bricks that had been formed and fired locally.
This building was to be Cook's Bank of Havana, but before it was finished Cook suffered a stroke and died in 1866. Another prominent Montour Falls man, Hull Fanton, purchased the property and finished the building. He opened the Second National Bank of Havana, later the Havana National Bank.
When Fanton died and his estate was being settled in 1900, Mrs. James Shepard persuaded Jesse C. Woodhull, who had lived as a boy in a house behind the bank building, to purchase it and remodel the building as a library to be a memorial to his parents, Gertrude and Calvin Woodhull. Mr. Woodhull was a successful lumber merchant in Brooklyn; he bought the property and hired an architect who specialized in library buildings to redesign the interior.
The reconstruction was completed, and on June 21, 1904, during the celebration of "Old Home Day," Mr. Woodhull presented the building to Montour Falls. Mrs. James Shepard and Mrs. W. L. Hopkins carried the first books into the new building.
Frances Hinman Shepard served for many years as an officer and as librarian. Elizabeth Prince Hopkins served 31 continuous years as librarian until 1931. Other devoted women followed. Mrs. George Layton served for nearly forty years as librarian. And others continue to contribute their time and good will to this unique village library.
The interior of the library remains nearly unchanged from the time in the early 1900s when it was remodelled. The designer created an elegant and quiet atmosphere that fits a room where books are to be read and enjoyed. Between the front and side projections he added a windowed corner. In the center of each of the five Tiffany glass panels of this bay window is a medallion of the "lamp of learning."
Along the west wall is a large fireplace that has glazed bricks surrounding the fire opening and surfacing the hearth. Above is an oil portrait of George Mills in a broad-brimmed hat. He was one of the first white men at Havana, was the first postmaster in 1802, and opened the first store in 1805. On the mantelpiece are pictures of Mrs. Hopkins and Mrs. Layton and Jesse Wodhull. There is a picture of Earl Ralph Ezra L'Hommedieu who had been a member of the Continental Congress and had been granted 5000 acres in this vicinity by the federal government. There is also an announcement of the opening of Cook Academy.
On the walls there are more paintings. One is of the Lee family. David Lee came in 1811 with Harmon Pumpelly and surveyed the western part of the village. His house, that was known as "the Mansion House," stood where the Village Hall is today. It was removed to make room for the new courthouse in 1854. The house was divided into three sections, and one of these became part of the Shepard Relief Hospital.
In the Library there are also paintings and prints by Havana-born artist, Halsey C. Ives, who gained an international fame. Along the walls, and placed in the room, are bookcases, tables, and comfortable chairs. On top of these cases are busts of authors and famous men. One is a modelling of Mr. Frank Severne who was editor of the Watkin's Glen Express and historian for Schuyler County for many years.
There is a tall clock close to the librarian's desk, and sitting on top of nearby bookcases there are two sets of modelled figures known as Rogers Groups. One is of children and a mother on a balcony and the other is of several men and titled the "Council of War."
Behind the librarian's desk and through a doorway toward the left is the Mary Layton History Room which has many old books of Schuyler County history. Here are old scrapbooks and collections of clippings saved by early residents. There are twenty one volumes of indexed scrapbooks already, and number twenty two is being filled with clippings of current interest. In this reading and study room is a microfilm viewer and a library of microfilms that includes copies of the old local newspapers. The library has bound volumes of the early Havana Journal from the year 1837.
Also in this research room is the Jane A. Delano Collection. Jane Delano was born in Townsend, Schuyler County, went to Cook Academy, and later organized and directed the Red Cross Nursing Service.
Off this room is the Eleanor Blair Room which contains large old maps of Schuyler and the surrounding counties on its walls. The Cook Academy Collection with records of that institution are kept in this room.
At the back of the main library room in the other corner of the building is a museum room that has blue stoneware and old blue dishes, bonnets, a spinning wheel and several doll carriages. There is a broadaxe that was forged in Bradford and used to hew logs for building frames. There are Indian arrowheads and other artifacts that were found at nearby Indian sites. The museum room contains clothing that was worn, tools that were used, and weapons that were carried by early inhabitants of the area. In the cases and on top of them are fascinating and curious objects from the early years of Havana and Schuyler County history.
The Montour Falls Memorial Library has published in a booklet the history of the Library from 1872 to 1976. This history was compiled by Mrs. H. Arthur Saunders to the year 1938, by Mrs. Walter Baird and Mrs. George Layton to 1960, and by Mrs. Frank Emmick up to 1976. It contains pictures of the interior of the building and lists of librarians, officers and benefactors. The booklet provided much information for this article.
The Library has recently joined the Southern Tier Library Association, but it continues much in its old tradition with ten women serving as trustees. Evelyn Barton is president, Jessie Petrie is secretary, and Phyllis Churches is treasurer. Mrs. Shirley Callahan is the present librarian. The Library is open from 1:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon on Mondays and Fridays, and from 1:30 to 5:00 on Saturday afternoons.
© 1990, Louise V. Stillman