A summer day at the library

They’re about to open a new library at Helena.

It’s a nice location downtown in what was the Save-A-Lot grocery story. There’s even a local architectural connection: The lead architect in the redesign was Thad Kelly III of the Little Rock-based company Cromwell Architects Engineers Inc.

His father, the late Thad Kelly II, was a mayor of Helena. Thad Kelly Pocket Park was named in the former mayor’s honor.

The building that will house the library was built as a Kroger store in the 1950s, and the younger Kelly remembers the excitement surrounding the opening of that store. Renovation costs for the facility on Columbia Street were $1.6 million. The 13,000-square-foot facility will have three times the space of the current library. There will be a children’s room, a computer lab, a genealogy room and a community room.

The project was funded with a $300,000 grant from Southern Bancorp Capital Partners’ Delta Bridge Project, a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a $50,000 grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation and locally raised money.

The planned opening of a new library brought back a flood of memories for Helena native A.B. Naylor (who was nice enough to bring me a couple of bottles of Shadden’s barbecue sauce last week).

“I spent many a summer day in the old library,” he wrote. “I always checked the sign-out card in the back to see if perhaps I was reading a book that my dad had read as a kid. I never ran across one. It was an unfulfilled treasure hunt. The old library was what a library is supposed to be — dark in the corners, cool air, quiet, a little mysterious and the wonderful smell of books (in retrospect, I hope it wasn’t rotting paper).

“The limit on the number of books a kid could check out was three. I would read a book or two a day. They must have gotten tired of seeing me. They finally let me check out as many books as I could read in the two-week loan period. I would take as many as 10 sometimes. Some of the books were more fragile or special or who knows what. They were kept in glass cases, accessible only to the librarians. I would peer through the glass to see what they had. One of the books was ‘Animal Farm.’ I thought I wanted to read it, so I checked it out. That was in the early 1980s. No one had borrowed it in at least 25 years. That’s the one I was sure I had a chance of spying my dad’s name on the card. It wasn’t there.

“The one thing that stuck out the most was the smell. Several years ago, National Geographic had an article on how scent was the sense that invoked the most memories. I can almost smell the library while I’m typing this. I wanted to get down and check it out before they moved, but I’m not going to make it. If you happen to be over that way, stick your head in the door and take a whiff for me.”

A.B.’s note brought back memories for me. I too spent many summer days in my hometown library. It was in downtown Arkadelphia, just behind my father’s store. The library is still in the same building it has been in since 1903. It’s a wonderful old building.

Like A.B., I remember the smells.

My favorite part of the Clark County Library was called the Arkansas Room. It contained all sorts of books, newspaper articles, magazine articles, photos and manuscripts about our state. My favorite items were the special editions the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat put out in 1936 to celebrate the state’s centennial. Whole summer afternoons were spent reading the articles in those special issues.

Both the old library building at Helena and the library at Arkadelphia are well worth a visit.

What was known as the Helena Library and Museum was built in 1891 and is the oldest public building still standing in the city. The museum will continue to operate out of the building. The library was a center of civic life in Helena in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It was used for receptions, dances and club meetings. School classes and religious services even took place in the building from time to time. The main room was not used exclusively for library purposes until 1914.

The museum wing was added in 1929 to display Civil War relics, Native American artifacts and items having to do with the history of Phillips County. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

In Arkadelphia, efforts to build the library began in November 1897 when a group of about 30 women formed the Woman’s Library Association. The association began to collect books from area residents, and the books were stored in the association president’s home. Those books later were moved into a rent-free space downtown. By 1899, the association was forced to rent space for its book collection. A fund to build a library was established that same year.

The website for the Clark County Library System tells the rest of the story: “Through money-raising events such as oyster suppers, bazaars, spelling bees and fiddlers’ contests, about $1,000 was raised. In 1903, a loan was secured and construction of a library building began. During the 10 years following its opening, money-raising activities continued to pay off the library building loan. The most significant event occurred in 1905 when William Jennings Bryan gave a benefit lecture for the library. By 1913, the debt was fully paid.

“Designed by architect Charles L. Thompson of Little Rock, the library was built by James Pullen. An oversized portico with ionic columns mark the facade of this one-story red brick structure. The Clark County Library was completed in 1903 and remains intact today as an example of early 20th century institutional architecture in Arkansas.

“Throughout its history, the Clark County Library has served more than just the academic needs of the Arkadelphia community. It has often been used by recitals, by church and civic groups and for public meetings. During World War I, it was converted to a Red Cross workshop filled with cutting tables and sewing machines.

“From its 1903 opening until 1939, the library was owned and operated by the Woman’s Library Association. In 1939, the building and its contents were donated to the city. In 1974, the deed was transferred to the Clark County Library Board, enabling the library to better serve the entire county. It was added to the National Rgister of Historic Places in 1974.”

If you love old buildings, you owe it to yourself to visit these buildings in Arkadelphia and Helena.

While you’re at it, you should visit the Carnegie libraries at Morrilton and Eureka Springs.

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated money to fund the construction of 2,509 libraries between 1883 and 1929. There were 1,689 of these libraries built in the United States, 660 in Great Britain and Ireland (Carnegie was a native of Scotland), 123 in Canada and a few others elsewhere.

Eureka Springs received a grant of $15,500 to build a library that opened in 1912. Morrilton received a grant of $10,000 to build a library that opened in 1916. More to come in a later post on those two libraries and what happened to the Carnegie libraries in Little Rock and Fort Smith.

Do you have any favorite Arkansas libraries and library memories?

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5 Responses to “A summer day at the library”

  1. Stacy Sells says:

    Rex – Several months ago after visiting the library in Eureka Springs, I did some research on the history of Carnegie libraries in Arkansas. I was terribly sad to discover that the 1910 Carnegie Library in Little Rock was obviously leveled to make room for something else, maybe City Hall? Whatever the case, I’m looking forward to reading a little more history about this. Enjoy your blog very much!

  2. rexnelson says:

    Great to hear from you, Stacy.

    Yes, unfortunately Little Rock tore down its Carnegie library in the name of “progress.”

    In the 1960s, the ethos was almost always to tear down, not remodel or rehabilitate — Rex

  3. Paul Austin says:

    Rex, I was reminded of the library at Imboden. Mother started taking us there in the late 50’s. It was located in the old Legion Hut, a depression era cobblestone building that housed the doctor’s office (when there was one) downstairs and upstairs was this large room with hardwood floors and a stage where community meetings were held and the city council met. The library was located in a small room behind the stage. It was open three days a week. Mrs. Billie Jean was the librarian. I can remember perusing the shelves looking for a new (to me) Zane Grey or Luke Short or Tom Swift. It was always quite and cool place full of adventures.

  4. ann clements says:

    I grew up in Morrilton and the Carnegie Library was an essential part of my childhood. My Mom took me there on weekends when I was old enough to have a library card and check out books. Then I progressed to riding my bike to the library on summer afternoons to spend lots of time perursing all sorts of books. When I was attending Junior High, in the wonderful old High School building (now demolished), the library was just down the street from the school and my Mom’s office. The library functioned as my after-school care before organized “after-school care” was part of a youngster’s school day. The library offered me the opportunity to visit faraway places, learn about people from history, discover wonderful authors and read just about any topic I wanted. Except for when I wanted to check out “The Excorsist” and the library called my Mom to see if I had her permisson to read that book. I was 11 or 12 at the time – my Mom said “No.”

    The library fostered more than a love of books and reading, along with several other buildings in Morrilton, it fostered a love of historic structures and the value of a sense of place. I’m so glad it it still there, shaping young minds with knowledge and that sense of place.

  5. rexnelson says:

    Ann: I smiled when I read about the librarian calling your Mom to see if it was OK for you to check out a book.

    You have to love small towns in Arkansas.

    And, Paul, you have just given me an idea for another post I need to research — Legion huts across the state. There are some nice ones out there — Rex

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