Home Life-Free The History of the Webster Parish Library Continued

The History of the Webster Parish Library Continued

Today, the Webster Parish Library is celebrating its 90th birthday with a reception at the parish headquarters in Minden. Last week we looked at the founding of the library in 1929. In this week’s column we pick up the story of the library with a series of significant events in the mid-1960s that changed the course of the facility. By the summer of 1963, the Webster Parish Library was approaching its 34th birthday. For those 34 years the Minden Branch and the Parish Headquarters had been housed in their original building, a converted car dealership rented by the Police Jury for $200 a month. Attempts over the years to get voters to approve funding for new buildings had failed on several occasions, most notably in 1955, when an amazing plan put together under the leadership of Willard Roberts of Minden had been narrowly defeated.  Prospects for any improvement seemed dim, until the will of a member of a prominent Webster Parish family was probated, and a new era in the library’s history began.

The public first became aware of the developments with a public ceremony on Tuesday, August 20, 1963. On that date, parish officials met with Miss Dell Brown at the Ferguson-Stewart home on the corner of Elm and East and West to sign the paperwork necessary to transfer the home to the parish for use as a library.

The Ferguson home had been built by Joseph Glass Ferguson and his wife Nancy Mullins Ferguson in the early 1920s. Ferguson was the brother-in-law of William Buchanan, owner of the L&A Railroad and the Bodcau Lumber Company. The Bodcau and the L & A had been instrumental in saving Minden economically in the early days of the century and the L & A would again “save” Minden as the railroad shops and offices would be transferred to Minden later in the decade of the 1920s. Construction on the home began in 1920 and was completed in 1921 – after shortages of construction materials in the post war boom times stalled progress. The original cost was estimated at $60,000 (about $860,000 in today’s terms), but of course as part owner of a huge lumber company, Buchanan got a good discount.  The home was constructed in Spanish-style architecture, a style that soon become more common in Louisiana when the “new” LSU was built using a similar style. There were seven rooms on the lower floor, five on the 2nd floor and a full basement. The home had a unique feature – an elevator – believed to be the only one in a private home in Minden. 

The Fergusons lived in the home until his death in 1927 (at which time his widow gave a large donation to the First Baptist Church leading to the erection of the Ferguson Memorial Tabernacle. In 1925, Ferguson had donated $25,000 (about $365,000 today) that paid for the completion of the 1925 First Baptist Church building. Later, Mrs. Ferguson would donate another sum of money to the church that paid for the Ferguson Educational Building.) Nancy Mullins Ferguson lived on in the home until her death in 1941. At that point, the home was inherited by Mrs. O. P. Avinger, a niece of Mrs. Ferguson.

In August 1944, Mrs. Avinger sold the home to Mr. and Mrs. Edmond Stewart; Mr. Stewart was an attorney and businessman with interests in the cotton, timber and oil and gas industries. The Stewart family, particularly his brother Dan Stewart and wife Ruth, were big supporters of the Webster Parish Library. Ruth Stewart served on the Webster Parish Library Control Board for a then record 32 years, from its creation in 1929 until 1961. (I must point out at this time that the young attorney who filled Mrs. Stewart’s seat on the Library Board had something to do with the phrase “then record”. The late Henry Hobbs assumed Mrs. Stewart’s post and he would shepherd the library forward for about a half-century before leaving the board in the early 2000s.) Those two elements, the Stewart ownership and their interest in the library are the catalysts to the eventual use of the Ferguson Stewart Home.

The Stewarts, Edmond and Jim (yes, his wife’s name was Jim), occupied the home for nearly two decades. In that time, some changes were made. The basement was converted into a fallout shelter (a change that later produced big headaches in renovations, because, if you hadn’t noticed, basements in Louisiana flood. I remember seeing so much water in that basement at one point I was convinced I saw a shark swim by.) Edmond Stewart died on January 11, 1956. Shortly thereafter, Miss Dell Brown, sister of Jim Stewart moved to the home to live with her widowed sister.

As they talked over the years, Dell Brown learned that her sister wanted to leave the home for use as a library after her death. When Jim Brown Stewart died in January 1963, her sister set out to follow the wishes of her sister as expressed in her will.

So, on that August day in 1963, the deed to the Ferguson-Stewart Home was signed over to the Webster Parish Police Jury by Miss Brown. Representing the Parish was Library Board Chairman Warren Dietrich – along with Police Jury President Leland Mims, Minden Mayor Frank Norman and Springhill Mayor Jesse Boucher.

The terms of the gift were straightforward; the parish would receive title to the property and the 1-½ acres on which it stood. In addition, the parish would receive title to what would be called Edmond L. Stewart Park, a triangle-shaped area of about 1/3 acre just across East and West Street from the home. In addition, the library also received a gift of $10,000 in cash to help pay for renovations. The Parish received title to the property under the stipulation that the building must be used as a library and if sold, the proceeds must be used to pay for a library building.

Finally, after 34 years, the Webster Parish Library would have a building to call its own. The library would take possession in January 1964, allowing Miss Brown enough time to make her planned move back to Shreveport.

The Minden Herald, in its August 29, 1963 edition expressed delight over its gift in an editorial titled “A Citizen’s Gift”:

“Every citizen of Minden and Webster Parish owes a debt of gratitude to Miss F. Dell Brown and her late sister, Mrs. E. L. Stewart for their foresightedness in providing a new home for the ever-growing parish library.

“In giving the large home, renovations funds and Stewart Park, the donor insured that the facility will have sufficient area for expansion for many years to come. It will open the door to the addition of even more services by the library.

“Miss Brown said the home was given to fulfill the wishes of her sister, who long was interested in the local library system. During the presentation ceremony here last week, she commented that she hopes the library staff and patrons will make it their “home” and enjoy it as she has.

“The valuable home and property represents a sizable gift to the parish and to the future education of its residents. The foresight of Miss Brown and her late sister will mean much to the area – both now and for many years to come. Even when the library outgrows its new home, proceeds from its sale will serve as a major contribution to any further construction, something that was not possible so long as the library rented its quarters.

“This gift cannot be measured solely in a material sense, thought it is very valuable. This is a gift that will continue giving for many years and perhaps decades, providing facilities for the education and entertainment for residents of all ages.

“We are sure that the people of Webster Parish join us in thanking these citizens for contributing to a better life for this area. We know that the home was a cherished possession and that the citizens of Minden and the parish will continue to cherish it in the coming years.”

After formally taking possession in January 1964, the Police Jury was delayed in moving forward while certain legal matters about the transfer and terms were sorted out. But at its July meeting the Jury authorized a call for bids on the renovation of the home into the Parish Library. On August 4, 1964, the bids were opened with McInnis Brothers bid of $24,968 winning the contract. It was understood, that even with the additional $10,000 in the Stewart will, costs might well run higher than the bid. What would be the necessary costs in converting the home to a library was an inexact science until the actual work began. In the bid was an agreement that McInnis would absorb costs up to $1000 for such unforeseeable costs over the bid, but anything else would be borne by the Jury.

When work began, those additional costs did arise. At the November meeting, the Police Jury loaned $17,000 from the General Fund to complete the renovations, which were expected to be done by the end of November. The funds would be repaid by applying the $200 per month rent the Jury was paying for the library building toward the debt. In addition, Chairman Dietrich announced that the City of Minden and the Louisiana Highway Department would be doing the work to convert the existing circular drive into a useable drive for the library. The city would supply the labor and the state the material.

By late November, the building itself was complete, but problems arose with the driveway. Clearly the old circular drive in front of the home was not useful and it was removed. The state materials were held up in the bidding process and it would be late January before the new drive to the north of the building and 7 parking places would be completed.

But the new home itself was ready for occupancy. The library closed its doors in the original location for the final time on Saturday, November 28, 1964. Moving of materials would take place during the week of November 30 – December 5, 1964. According to Doris Lessel, Parish Librarian, students from the Evergreen Presbyterian Vocational School and inmates from the Webster Parish Penal Farm would be doing the moving. Over that week they moved over 21,000 items of supplies and equipment, not including books. The total books moved were 21,772 – 17,412 from the Minden Branch and 4,360 from the Parish Headquarters. While the administrative offices would not be ready, the library would open to patrons on Monday, December 7, 1964

On that date, the doors were opened to large crowds, perhaps larger than imagined as the parish school were dismissed that day for a teacher’s meeting and many parents took the chance to let their children see the new library. Mrs. M. L. Carter checked out the first book in the new location.

By late January 1965 the work on the driveway was complete, the administrative offices were in order and it was time for the Grand Opening. That even was held on Sunday afternoon, February 21, 1965 from 3 until 5 p.m. Special guests for the day included Miss Brown, the donor of the property, Kathryn Adams from the Louisiana State Library, former parish librarians and trustees and the current parish administration and Library Board. 

The Minden Herald announced the Grand Opening in this way:

“This Sunday afternoon from 3 to 5 the public is invited to inspect the new library facility at the corner of East and West and Elm streets. This occasion marks the formal opening of the new library, which houses the main parish library offices and serves the Minden branch. Incorporated in the building are book stacks, reading rooms, record and picture lending services and general offices of the parish system.

“The new facility was made possible when Miss F. Dell Brown, sister to the late Mrs. Edmond Stewart, gave the building to the library to carry out a dream of Mrs. Stewart that the structure could one day serve this purpose. The Police Jury rightfully saw fit to accept this gift and add additional monies to the donated funds to undertake the major renovating work. Today, the former residence lends itself perfectly to use as a library, and with possible future additions, will become a center of cultural growth in the community.

“We urge everyone to visit the library this Sunday and see the fine facilities available through this new center.”

For more than three decades after that day, the Ferguson home served as the Minden Branch and Parish headquarters. For most adults living in Minden today, it was the library of our youth. The old building was severely stressed by the sheer weight of books and other materials and was difficult to maintain. In the mid-1990s local votes approved measures that allowed the construction of the modern main library that we enjoy today and the “old building” was set aside for administrative and storage usages. But it was so badly compromised by years of use that eventually it was largely unused because it had become unsafe – particularly upstairs – for any purpose.

Thankfully, those years came  to an end in 2009. Voters approved additional funds and after years of trying renovations – marked by unexpected setbacks and delays because of the building’s condition – and the Ferguson-Stewart building was reopened to the public as the Stewart Center of the Webster Parish Library. The bequest of Mrs. Stewart is still enriching the life of our community by providing a wonderful location for the parish headquarters plus an area for casual reading and public meetings. It is probably impossible to measure how the Webster Parish Library in its 90 years of existence has made our town a better place to live.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald