Deja vu: Town had similar discussion about library 112 years ago

  • Greenfield Public Library on Main Street.  FILE PHOTO

  • The check-out desk at the Greenfield Public Library.  FILE PHOTO

  • Diana Roberts picks up audio books at the Greenfield Public Library. FILE PHOTO

  • A vintage photo of the building housing the Greenfield Public Library. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • CONTRIBUTED IMAGE  CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 3/17/2019 6:23:50 PM

GREENFIELD — The year was 1907, and after “another long evening of oratory,” taxpayers agreed to establish a public library after “forces (that) marshaled to beat (the) library” were defeated at a special Town Meeting, which “for length of session and vigor of debate surpassed any special meeting within memory.”

That was the newspaper’s description of Greenfield’s first debate over its public library July 24, 1907, when the current library building was purchased. Many of the debates that night are echoing through the deliberations of today's City Council as it considers spending $19.5 million to replace that library established 112 years ago.

“Take Hovey House,” read the headline in the Greenfield newspaper of the day. “Town votes to condemn property for library.” The decision to take the Hovey House was approved by residents, 129 to 99, costing the town $35,000 over four years to buy the historic property and renovate it. 

It was a special Town Meeting where “for two and a half hours the battle raged, nearly every vote going to a count, the vocal responses being so close as to be undeterminable.” It was a vote that Bob Williford, a local historian and supporter for the current library plan, has pointed to recently as old history repeating itself. “The more things change, the more they are exactly the same,” Willford noted. 

By the end of the month, it is expected a long-anticipated vote will be taken on whether the Greenfield City Council will build a new 26,800-square-foot library adjacent to the current 15,300-square-foot library, the Leavitt-Hovey House built in 1797 and incorporated as the town’s library in 1908. Some similar themes from more than a century ago have already come up, and more of them are likely to return to the floor in the coming days. 

The 1907 library vote

Before the 1907 vote on the library property even came up at the July special meeting, there was heated debate about whether to take it up in order, according to the Recorder article in follow-up to the meeting. Frank J. Lawler claimed William A. Davenport had made a “threat to kill that library business.” 

The price for the building was in flux, and by this meeting it had come down to a question of whether to take the building by eminent domain. 

There was an understanding that the cost would $20,000, but after an earlier vote to buy the building at that price, the owners of the house had elevated it to $25,000. This change prompted the library committee to shift its strategy and recommend the town take the building by eminent domain for the use of its public library. This would allow it to negotiate a more reasonable cost, bringing it back to the $20,000 figure. 

A Greenfield Gazette-Courier article on July 26 explained the “two factions locked heads quickly on the library matters.” 

Davenport pushed to forgo the Hovey House because by his estimation it was not worth more than $15,000. He said he knew a carpenter who had done work on it for the last 20 years, explaining it was all patched up. 

Instead, Davenport wanted the old Main Street schoolhouse, the Deane property, which he said could be bought for $12,500. It was said to be a larger property, which was debated and arguably debunked later on, as well. 

The Hovey House was centrally located and would benefit the young men in Greenfield, giving them a place to read up on mechanical and technical literature, Lawler argued. 

Luther Miller debated the need for this public library in general.

“The common man won’t go there,” Miller said. “It’s alright for these lawyers to talk, they can talk about anything except a decent tax rate.” 

He said the library would only be used by “bluebloods.” 

Ultimately, the town agreed to a loan of $35,000 for buying the building, a two-story book stack and repairs to the building, which was to be paid over four years. The library purchase won over 57 percent of the voters who attended the meeting. 

Fast-forward to today

The proposed new library would come in a lot more expensive than the original, at a projected cost of $19.5 million, but with a price tag to residents of $10.1 million because of a $9.4 million grant from the state, which needs to be approved by April or the city loses the funds to another community.

In December, a call to shelve the vote was proposed by Councilor Sheila Gilmour after a speech by Councilor Verne Sund in which it became clear his vital vote was not going to be in favor of the library. Since then, library supporters have been working to raise money to show Sund there is more than just public support of the library but financial backing as well. 

As a century ago, at the center of the debate, which has split the council, has been whether the Greenfield taxpayers can afford this project, especially at a time without booming industry, like some councilors remember from their youth. 

The new library would be fully accessible, which is a constant criticism of the current building. There are different plans with what to do with that town-owned building, including selling it to a local business. 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264


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