Because of the educational heritage of Minden, with the first public school being founded in 1838 and its successors, the Male Academy and the Minden Female College opening in the 1850s, literary pursuits were always popular in our town.
As early as 1880 a group of young people banded together in an attempt to bring a public library to Minden. However, an economic downturn during the recession of 1882 – 1885 ended those hopes.
Later, in the 1890s, a local literary club was formed and briefly operated a lending library. It too closed, as did another attempt in the early 1910s.
Finally, in 1925, the Women’s Department Club began a campaign to acquire a library for Minden and Webster Parish. They circulated a petition among area residents that they submitted to the Webster Parish Police Jury and Webster Parish School Board.
The club also began lobbying the newly organized Louisiana State Library for assistance. All area government bodies chipped in with support including the governments of Minden and Springhill.
Eventually, the drive received a sizable contribution from the Rosenwald Foundation and an experimental public library opened in October 1929.
The library headquarters and the Minden branch were located in a rented vacant automobile dealership building in downtown Minden (today’s home of The Children’s Center.) The library branches operated in the parish schools, so the public library was in charge of both systems until 1950, when the school libraries were made separate.
By 1954, when the library celebrated its 25th anniversary, a move was underfoot by the Library Board to provide a system owned library building and an updated facility for library patrons, instead of the same building that was still being rented.
At the January 15, 1954 meeting of the Library Board, Willard Roberts of Minden was elected Board President. He soon began working with Vice-President and original library board member Mrs. Dan Stewart and parish librarian Miss Marion Taylor to lay the ground work for a new library.
Mrs. Stewart, beyond being an original board member, had also been President of the Women’s Department Club when the group steered the library project to fruition.
Roberts and the Board reached out to their traditional base of support, the local ladies’ clubs, for backing in the plans for a new building. By February, both the Women’s Department Club and the Business and Professional Women’s Club passed resolutions to work with the Library to gain better facilities.
Roberts, Taylor and Stewart all began making appearances at local groups, seeking input from the public, while discussions were begun with bonding attorneys and architects to gain tangible ideas about the cost and scope of any future expansion.
By February 1955, the ground work had been laid and Roberts appeared before the Police Jury at their February 1, 1955, meeting with a formal request. Roberts, Taylor and Stewart explained their plans to the Jury.
They requested permission to hold a $200,000 parish-wide bond election for the purpose of improving and expanding library facilities. Approval by the voters would create an additional one-mill tax, which would generate approximately $30,000 per year, requiring seven years to pay off the bonds.
The board’s plan called for new library buildings in Springhill and Minden. The board also requested an expedited date for the election, prior to the closing of school in May, as the PTAs of Minden and Springhill were actively involved in promoting the project and those groups would be disbanding for the year when school closed.
By a unanimous vote of 12-0, the jury approved the calling of the election and the issue was forwarded to the state Bond and Tax Board for approval.
Roberts moved ahead on the next step of his plan, obtaining a site for the Minden library. He appeared at the meeting of the Minden City Council on February 7. He asked the city to deed to the library part of the area known as the “hitching lot” in downtown Minden between the 1905 Courthouse and the new 1953 Courthouse.
(For a brief bit of local history, in the 1840s, Charles Veeder, founder of Minden, deeded to the city all lands west from Union Street to Prothro Branch at the bottom of what is now known as Depot Hill between the parallel main streets of Minden. The land was to be dedicated for public use. Over the years it would serve as the home of the first, second and third Webster Parish Courthouses, the first dedicated Federal Post Office built for Minden and City Park. A large section was used as a hitching lot for wagons visiting town. Today that portion is still used to park vehicles as the parking lot in front of the Minden Civic Center where the Civic Center marquee is located.)
Roberts submitted drawings of the planned facility from the architectural firm of Van Os and Flaxman. The library expected to need a frontage of 85 to 130 feet for the project. The Council agreed to take the matter under consideration.
At the March 1955 meeting of the Webster Parish Police Jury the first problems for the plan arose. One was a small hiccup. The rules of the state bond commissions had been changed and their approval of the plan had been delayed; however, there was no expressed opposition from the commission, so it was just a matter of a couple of weeks’ delay.
The other problem was more serious. A delegation from Cotton Valley appeared before both the Library Board and the Jury, objecting to the plan. This group pointed out that the residents of Cotton Valley had stepped forward in 1950, when the school libraries were separated from the parish system and provided a building for a Cotton Valley branch of the public library.
They felt it only proper that Cotton Valley, in addition to Minden and Springhill, receive a new facility in the election. The Jury took the matter under consideration, but moved ahead, setting the millage on the ballot in the new election at .7 to be paid off in 10 years.
Another change in plans came up at the March meeting of the Minden City Council. The Council voted to award property to the library for construction, but not the property originally requested.
Without explanation, the council entertained and approved a motion awarding the library a tract of land located just west of the US Post Office and just east of the Minden City Hall – old Webster Parish Courthouse. The area being granted was largely occupied by a street, instead of the hitching lot property just west of Minden City Hall.
Library Board President Roberts indicated the library was fine with the change, so long as they could obtain a downtown location, as studies indicated that was vital to the success of a public library. The motion was approved unanimously and signed by Acting Mayor Jack Batton.
Following the donation of the downtown property, for the first time, opposition to the plan arose in Minden.
Local attorney Harmon Drew gave the council notice that an unidentified client of his was filing a protest of the donation of the land between the post office and courthouse and had intentions to seek legal action against the city.
While it was not clear for the reason, there was also a movement underfoot that questioned the impact of the location on any future expansion of the post office, which needed remodeling and had pending legislation in Congress to fund expansion. Building the library between the post office and city hall would largely bar any expansion on the current post office site.
Considering the opposition being expressed, the Council called for a special meeting and public hearing to be held on Monday night, April 18, to discuss the proposed location for the new library.
Even as the haggling over location continued, plans for the election continued forward. The State Tax Board granted approval and the Police Jury scheduled the election for May 24, 1955.
It was explained that passage of the issue did not require a specified location, so while the matter of a building site was still being settled, the election campaign could continue.
In an editorial in the April 14, 1955 of the Minden Herald, the newspaper while enthusiastic in support of the new library, called into question why the site had been moved from the original hitching lot location.
While pointing out how the approved site would hamper future post office expansion, Editor Major dePingre also expressed the opinion that the Council owed local residents an explanation as to why the site had been changed. The Library Board had stated either site as acceptable, so the editor felt that more information should be provided.
Before the special meeting on April 18 had hardly begun, Roberts and the Library Board took preemptive action. As the meeting opened, Roberts made a statement that the Board requested the Council to reconsider their action and accept the original request for a portion of the hitching lot.
The Board felt that was a more centrally located site but would accept either parcel of property. Roberts stated, “If you could consider that one for us we would be most happy.”
He said the Board wanted 130 feet of the 170 feet contained in the lot. He revealed that discussions with Post Mistress Annie Gambrell had revealed a likely possibility the local post office would be expanded within the next year or two, and the site now being mentioned for the library would be needed for that project.
After Robert’s statement, the Council moved directly to approving the library’s request – the explanation requested by the newspaper was not to be provided. Council members Frank Norman and Dr. Paul Campbell spoke in favor of the hitching lot site and Norman made a formal motion to rescind the earlier donation of land and replace it with the hitching lot site. The other council members, Campbell, Tony Elzen and Norman Cone gave unanimous approval to the motion.
With procedural hurdles apparently out of the way, the campaign to gain approval of the library tax moved ahead. President Roberts and Librarian Taylor began a stepped-up series of presentations at local civic groups, seeking support.
The pair spoke to the Young Women’s Service Club, Minden Lions’ Club, Kiwanis Club, Civitan’s Club, Home Demonstration Club and other local groups. Each organization passed a resolution of support for the tax being approved.
More details were revealed in these programs. The planned Minden library would have an area of 7,000 square feet. The building would have an adult reading room, children’s room and a meeting room which would seat 60 to 70. An area would also be set aside to serve as the parish headquarters.
Estimates were that the building would house 11,000 adult books and 4,000 children’s books. In addition, 7,500 more books would be held to circulate through the branches.
In Minden, it was clear that support for the project was strong. In the Minden Herald of May 12, 1955, Editor Major dePingre penned a powerful call for approval of the tax plan. He touched on how technology was developing at an amazing rate and if Minden wanted to grow, we had to keep up with the times.
He concluded, “the future is going to the fellow with the brain and the self-discipline to use it. That can be you if you will have it so.”
The Herald of Thursday, May 19, was the final edition prior to the election set for Tuesday, May 24. As such it was full of news and ads regarding the election. One front page story indicated that outside Minden and Springhill, the plans were looked on in a very different light.
In Cotton Valley, under the leadership of Mayor A. C. Borland, an organization had been formed opposing the plan. The group contended that the fund should be used to place library facilities in each community and town in the parish.
The Cotton Valley group had already met with a similar group in Sarepta and planned to reach out to residents in Dubberly and Doyline. This group, called the Citizens Committee of Cotton Valley, took out a quarter-page ad, outlining their feelings that the proposed plan was both unwise and unfair.
In response, the “Friends of the Library” ran an ad pointing out that approval of the bond issue would result in a 10-year cost of only $56 dollars to those owning property assessed at $10,000.
With the competing sides clearly drawn, the election took place on Tuesday, May 24.
In those years, voting on property tax issues was a very different process than the one we use today. First, only those who owned assessed property were allowed to vote in such elections.
Beyond that, passage was a two-stop process. First, the actual number of votes cast were calculated. Then, if that calculation indicated approval, a second tabulation was made. The second tabulation focused on the amount of property “voting” in favor of against the proposition.
In simple, terms, someone with $100 worth of property’s vote counted 100 times as much as the vote of someone with $1 worth of property. The assessment value of the yes votes and the no votes would be determined. If approval was granted by both tallies, the plan would be approved.
As it turned out, it was only necessary to do one tabulation. The small-town resistance to a plan they felt ignored their needs was too strong.
In Minden, the plan was approved by a vote of 290 to 46. Springhill and Cullen backed the plan by 113 to 18. Other than an 8 to 2 victory in McIntyre, no other community in the parish backed the plan.
Shongaloo voted no, 54 – 5; Leton 17-0; Evergreen 2-0; Sarepta 84-3; Cotton Valley 204-1; Hortman 16-13; Doyline 35-4; Sibley 18 -3; Heflin 17 – 11; Dubberly 33-0. Despite the margin of over 3 00 votes compiled in Minden and Springhill, the plan was defeated by a total of 546 – 451. Plans for a new library were laid aside.
A decade later, the Minden branch and parish headquarters would move into the Ferguson-Stewart-Brown home, deeded them in a will and finally, in the 1990s, the parish voters would approve a plan resulting in the present-day library headquarters.
Of course, the Springill branch would eventually receive a donation from the Mack Family for a location and then most recently moved into a modern building.
Library progress in Webster Parish continued despite this loss. The love of the library has continued among local residents.
While Mr. Willard Roberts did not get to see his plans come to fruition, his daughter, Mrs. Lyda Madden has taken his place on the board and help bring about many improvements that would have made her father proud. So, this story is a bittersweet Echo of Our Past.
Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.