Poor Man's Effort
Ernest B. Gaston (1861-1937) once said that Fairhope and the Single Tax
Colony had essentially been a poor man's effort. Gaston was referring
to physical or material wealth. The fact cannot be denied that the community of
the very beginning attracted individuals of the highest
intellectual and spiritual wealth and character. Fairhope has fostered an
atmosphere of idealistic equality and democracy which, let us hope, will always
be one of Fairhope's charms.
Less than six months after the first pioneer Single Tax families began grubbing
out homesteads from the harsh environment on the Fairhope site, a Single Tax
friend, George B. Lang of Seneca, Missouri, donated a collection of books for
the "Fairhope Free Library." This basic library material brought pleasure and relaxation to the hardy settlers after days of toil and
during rainy periods when work outside was not possible.
We can be very proud that our little town has had access from the very
beginning to a collection of books and other reading material to keep its
citizenry informed. The Single Tax Colony envisioned the formation of a public
library in Fairhope even before they came to "Stapleton's Pasture" on
the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay.
An Intellectual Atmosphere
One of the first Fairhope Single Tax Colony's projects was to
develop a community library to meet the needs for pleasure reading,
literary reference and research. Very early the colony had to decide
which was the most important, school or library facilities?
Naturally a school won first priority, so a considerable sum of
money, which had been accumulated in a "library fund", was loaned or
diverted to a school building. It was many years later before the
original library fund could be replaced and used as first intended.
Edward Howland (1832-1890)
The story of the Fairhope Public Library began many years before the
books were placed on the shelves. Many of the original books,
came from Amsterdam, Leipzig, Paris, Oxford and London where they
were collected during the 1850's by Edward Howland. Edward Howland,
born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1832, and a graduate of
Harvard in 1853, was an author and a lover of fine books and
literature. As a professional buyer of fine books for New York
antiquarian dealers, he traveled abroad and attended many book
auctions all over continental Europe. On these buying trips Howland
accumulated many items for his own personal collection. It was about
this time, that Howland and several other intellectuals of the
period, including Walt Whitman, published a New York literary
magazine, The Saturday Press. A lack of finances and the
beginning of the Civil War ended this literary venture and
necessitated the sacrifice of some of Howland's most cherished
literary treasures. In 1865 Edward Howland married Mrs. Marie
Stephens Case, whom he had met in his travel. Marie Case was a woman
whose tastes and interest complemented his own. They first lived in
New York City, but eventually they moved to a little farm near
Hammonton, New Jersey and established a home in an atmosphere of
several thousand choice books.
Intellectual and progressive-minded men and women were attracted to
the Howlands. Among the many forward-thinking visitors was Albert K.
Owen. Desiring to demonstrate the feasibility of his financial
theories coupled to community living, Owen developed elaborate plans
for establishing a self-help community in Mexico at Topolobampo,
Sinaloa. The Howlands sold their pleasant farm home in New Jersey
and joined his group.
A Mexican Utopia
The Story of the Mexican colony has been recorded in books such as
Cat's Paw Utopia by Ray Reynolds. Edward Howland, already in
failing health when he left New Jersey and no doubt weakened by
strenuous pioneer living conditions in the bleak Mexican colony,
survived but two years after joining the Sinaloa, Mexico colony. He
died December 24, 1890. His widow, Marie Howland, remained in
Sinaloa, edited the tiny newspaper, and being concerned with the
intellectual life of the community, set up a library with the
Howland collection as a nucleus. When the utopian Mexican colony
failed a few years later, Mrs. Howland returned to the United States
with her library almost intact.
Having heard of a "Single Tax Colony" based on the theories of Henry
George and newly established at Fairhope on the Eastern Shore of
Mobile Bay, Alabama, Marie Howland investigated. She inquired by
mail to her friends in the United States as well as by
correspondence with the fledgling colony at Fairhope. As a result in
1899, she came to the embryonic village of Fairhope to make here
Marie Howland's experience with newspaper reporting, both in New
York and the Topolobampo, Mexico colony, made her a useful editorial
assistant to Earnest B. Gaston, a prime mover in the founding of the
Fairhope Single Tax Colony and editor of the world-wide circulated
newspaper, The Fairhope Courier. Marie Howland contributed "open
letters" to the Courier, addressed to friends throughout the world,
telling of her own life and times and Single Tax experiences in this
new town of Fairhope, Alabama.
Marie Howland at her
home in "The Pines".
Mrs. Howland's Letters
After her small cottage had been built among the Fairhope pines,
Mrs. Howland's letters dealt with her roses, plants and trees. She
was a prolific writer and her letters in The Fairhope Courier were
always interesting. They had a most favorable influence among
world-wide readers, by showing the unusual intellectual life to be
enjoyed in Fairhope. Among her letters appeared an answer to a
reader who presumed that Fairhope, being such a small village, was a
very dull place lacking in culture, places to go and things to do.
Mrs. Howland's answer enumerated the multiplicity of events
currently being enjoyed by the townspeople, plans for the future and
the vast possibilities of
entertainment for individuals and groups of persons. She even
lamented the fact that so many interesting things were available for
enjoyment, no one person could possibly attend them all and at the
same time perform the necessary household duties!
Fairhope's First Library
When Marie Howland's new home had been completed, she had her
library of books removed from storage in Kansas, where they had
rested from shipment from Mexico, and shipped to her at Fairhope.
Marie Howland had expressed hopes of establishing a small public
library in her home and many distant corresponding friends
contributed generously from their own libraries, in order that they
too might share in the library project in Fairhope. In her letters
she recounted the making by friendly neighbors of shelving and
furniture to supplement her own bookcases. As time passed, it was
necessary to add yet more shelves and cases, even some on her porch
against the house walls, where they were beyond reach of inclement
weather. About the year 1900 the townspeople of Fairhope began
to fully utilize the generous library services and the books
provided by their pioneer neighborly citizen. Lending books required
records and, as circulation of the Howland books increased, the
demands on Mrs. Howland's personal time became too numerous. Several
volunteered to relieve Mrs. Howland of the personal sacrifice which
she was making in the public interest. So, in 1900 the Fairhope
Public Library became truly a public library supported in part by
small, voluntary membership fees from interested citizens, and in
part by community tax funds being collected by the Fairhope Single
A Pioneer Librarian
Marie Howland's system of conducting a public library would not be
used today though it did work very smoothly and served quite well as
long as she personally had charge. She knew nearly every volume in
the library and could lay her hands on any wanted book almost
blindfolded. It has been said in amusement that Mrs. Howland had
used physical size as a basic for cataloging; in other words, the
small books were shelved together and the larger ones were similarly
segregated. A system of letters and numerals were used on the cases
and shelves. A person would find Henry George's Progress and Poverty
at "E-3" or Longfellow's poems on shelf 5 in section A.
The collection of books in the embryonic Fairhope Public Library
continued to increase in number and quality and the fledgling
Library Association began to concern itself with plans for more
commodious quarters. Mr. Joseph Fels, a wealthy soap manufacturer
and long-time friend of Fairhope Single Taxers, had previously given
one thousand dollars toward a library building. However, since the
hurricane of 1906 had destroyed the school building , the gift was
used temporarily to provide facilities for a school, and the library
plans were held in abeyance.
Meanwhile, the growth of the village necessitated a new street. As a
result, Summit Street was cut through from Fairhope Avenue to
Magnolia Avenue, including many feet on the west side of Mrs.
Howland's grove of pines. This left her cottage to face the new
extension. Midway between her cottage and North Summit, a new one
room library structure was built, using largely volunteer labor and
materials furnished by civic minded citizens. The books in Mrs.
Howland's cottage were then transferred and shelved in the new
quarters. In the year 1908, Mrs. Howland generously presented her
collection to the Single Tax Corporation to operate and hold in
trust for the community of Fairhope.
One of the first
continued as librarian for another nine years. She was
assisted by many eager and willing school children who loved working
with books and with the library lady who was always so cheerful and
laughed so easily. As her health began to fail, Mrs. Howland was
unable to keep the new library open as much as she wished, but with
limited funds and volunteer assistance, she managed to open at least
two days a week.
As a tribute to Mrs. Howland when she died in 1921, the simple
funeral service was held in the library building that had for so
long been the object of her care and affection. Ernest B. Gaston and
the Reverend George W. Wood conducted the service, and her body was
laid to rest in the Colony cemetery located at the corner of Section
and Oak Streets.
Mrs. Lydia Comings
As with all growing things, the Fairhope Public Library again ran
out of space for its ever-increasing collection of books. With the
aid of the now-available gift from Mr. Fels, a larger room plus an
entrance and front porch were added in 1919.
Mrs. Lydia Comings succeeded Mrs. Howland as librarian in
1917. Mrs. Comings pioneered many of Fairhope's initial
cultural advances and served as president of the original Library
Association. She maintained enthusiasm and public interest among
Fairhope's citizens toward the upkeep and advancement of the
library. She gave up the position as Librarian in 1921 but continued
to serve as president of the Library Association until 1941.
Mrs. Mary Heath Lee became the first regularly paid librarian in
April, 1921, and in collaboration with Mrs. Comings, she increased
the library hours to an eight-hour, six-day-a-week job. Mrs. Lee was
ably assisted during her nine year tenure by her daughter, Mildred.
Library patrons of today owe Mrs. Lee a tremendous debt of gratitude
for the high standards of library management she developed in those
early days of long hours and scant remuneration. During her tenure
Mrs. Lee attended library conferences at Signal Mountain, Tennessee,
Birmingham, Alabama and Biloxi, Mississippi. She also attended
a library school conducted by Emory University.
The library presented
a new look when it hosted the
Alabama Library Association meeting in 1925.
Even in those early days, the Fairhope Library was a member of the
Alabama State Library Association and became an affiliate of the
Southeastern Library Association as well. In 1925 the Alabama State
Library Association held a widely-attended meeting in Fairhope
celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Fairhope Public Library. The
state library association members were guests for a second meeting
in Fairhope in the year 1938. Mrs. Lee often spoke of how light her
library duties seemed and of the great joy she received working with
so many and varied volunteers who had traveled widely and had
such interesting personalities.
Mrs. Martha Albers & Mrs. Bertha Mershon
When Mrs. Lee's health began to fail at the end of 1930, she was
replaced by Mrs. Martha Albers, with Mrs. Bertha Mershon assisting.
The tempo of library activity increased and volunteers were kept
busy. Mrs. Ellyn Beaty taught a
group new library methods, and a Mrs. Gilmer from Bay Minette
conducted numerous seminars in bookbinding and book maintenance.
About 1933 the government Works Progress Administration (WPA)
subsidized a work program that considerably benefited our local
library. All available space was given over to a group of women
engaged in rebinding and lettering books and other activities
necessary for library maintenance. The WPA project was still in
motion when Mrs. Mershon became librarian in 1934. Her
assistant, Miss Mary Bishop, was appointed to manage and direct the
Project until 1942, when the government discontinued these projects.
In 1946 Miss Bishop took over the duties of librarian with Miss Ruth
Jeffcott as her capable assistant. When Miss Bishop relinquished her
duties, it was necessary to bring Mrs. Lee from retirement to again
direct the library, and Miss Jeffcott continued as her assistant.
Miss Anna Braune
Miss Anna Braune was the librarian from 1948 to 1956. Miss Braune
had moved to Fairhope from New York and was a renowned illustrator
and author of children's books. In spite of failing health, she took
an interest in all phases of library work and was popular with the
town's citizens. Her art work as well as the illustrations in her
books appealed to both adults and children. She was so beloved in
Fairhope that the children's wing in the present library bears her
During Miss Braune's tenure the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation
approved and paid for the addition of a much needed large room for
the library. In addition, natural gas was installed and new
electrical lighting added. Then both the interior and exterior were
renovated and repainted, and the entire building was re-roofed.
appealing line drawings
from The Bojabi Tree by Edith Rickert.
It was through the generous support of the Single Tax Corporation
that the library was able for so many years to provide library
services for all the citizens of Fairhope. The library patron,
whether a Single Taxer or not, was offered the services free of
charge. On numerous occasions, the Single Tax Corporation suggested
the City of Fairhope assume the public library operation, and at
last, on May 1, 1964, the Colony Library came under the management
of the city. This action was taken in order that a more equitable
distribution of financing could be attained rather than have a
minority of the citizens financing this valuable community heritage.
Tuesday Book Reviews Evolve
Mrs. Roland P. Carr, a native of Iowa, succeeded Miss Braune as
librarian in 1957 and served
until 1972. Miss Joyce Antinarella was her principal assistant
during that period. During the years of Mrs. Carr's tenure as
director, the annual circulation was triple that of any other town
in Alabama with a comparable population of approximately 6,000!
One of the outstanding services the library offers is its weekly
book review. During Mrs. Carr's directorship, an interested group
began to meet in the library's lobby to discuss literary matters,
and thus the Tuesday Book Reviews evolved. They have continued
by popular demand.
Friends of the Fairhope Public Library
It was also during Mrs. Carr's tenure that a group of interested
patrons formally organized a group whose goal was to raise funds
needed to alleviate some of the monetary and physical difficulties
of the library. Thus, in 1959, the first "Friends of the Fairhope
Public Library" was formed with Mrs. Gay Caffee as Chairman. Through
the years the organization has performed smoothly
and has attained the greater part of its original goal.
In 1972, however, it was determined that the "Friends" could be even
more effective by amending the Constitution so that donors might
have the privilege of writing-off financial contributions to the
non-profit organization. With the approval of the Internal Revenue
Service, donations to the organization became tax deductible.
The Friends of the Fairhope Public Library have proven to be friends
indeed. Their many activities have culminated
in substantial financial gains for the library, making available
numerous physical assets. They have also provided needed services,
and their planned events have increased interest in library
activities. The organization sponsors the weekly book reviews as
well as the annual book sale. Since its inception, the
accomplishments of this fine group of volunteers have been praised
highly by each librarian.
The annual book sale was initiated during the tenure of Mrs. Frances
Black (librarian from 1972 to 1977) when it was decided to cull some
of the obsolete books on the overly-crowded shelved in the library.
Patrons and friends added many of their personal books to the supply
and eagerly came forward to assist in that first sale. This sale has
become a successful event bringing in several thousand to the
Marie Howland Room
While Mrs. Black was librarian, a large meeting room, complete with
kitchen facilities and restrooms, was constructed. Located on the
northern end of the building, the room was made attractive with
hand-embroidered linen draperies at the spacious windows.
Appropriately, the room became the "Marie Howland Room." At last,
comfortable quarters were provided for book reviews, lectures, films
and receptions. Mrs. Black's resignation was accepted with deep
regret when the Blacks moved to Columbus, Ohio. Her record of
achievements was outstanding.
Automated Circulation System
Becoming librarian in June, 1977, Miss Claire Oakes, a
Mississippian, served for only a short while,
and her duties were then taken over by Mrs. Nena King Shelly of
Point Clear. She was assisted by Mrs. Betty Suddeth and Mrs. Donna
Soto, both Fairhopians. By this time an automated circulation system
had been adopted, requiring borrowers to have identification cards
in order to check out books or other library materials. A little
later, non-residents of Fairhope were required to pay ten dollars a
year for library cards, which was equal to the amount paid in
library taxes by Fairhope residents.
Betty Suddeth became the Director in 1982 and continued to serve
until 2007. During her tenure several major changed affecting the
library have taken place. The most extreme change was the
move of the library's location from Summit Street to Section
Street. The City of Fairhope purchased a shopping center
complex on Oak Street for a much-needed Civic Center, and the
architectural plans included space for the library at the western
end of the complex. In March of 1983 a reception welcomed everyone
to the library's spacious new facilities. There was ample room for
the many volumes and other materials and even a reading room,
complete with fireplace, chairs, and cases for rare books, special
collections, and cherished mementos from the old library.
Regrettably, the book reviews were relegated to a suite in the Civic
Center. After a few years, however, the library's eastern wall was
removed and an attractive children's wing was opened. Beyond that, a
meeting room was added.
501 Fairhope Avenue
In January, 2007, the library opened in its present facility on
Fairhope Avenue. The Library has become the "hub" of the city
with programs, services and meetings. In 2011-2012, over
200,000 people visited the library. During the library's last
fiscal year, Oct. 2011 - Sept. 2012, 332,692 books,
magazines, DVDs and CDs were checked out; 116,64+
reference questions were answered; 60,456 computer users
were logged; 11,591 children attended
children's programs; and 513 adult
programs were attended by 11,076 people. What
are these services worth?
Use Calculator estimates the value at over $6,815,029.
The one constant that has remained since Marie Howland's day is the
library's purpose to meet the information needs of our community.