The Iredell County Public Library recently noted a historic milestone. It was 100 years ago on Feb. 22, 1922, that what we now know as the Iredell County Public Library began. It can trace its beginnings to the Statesville Woman’s Club which organized in October of 1921 with Mrs. B.F. Long (Mary Alice Robbins Long) as the first president. Their first civic project was the creation of a permanent public library for the city of Statesville. The Statesville Woman’s Club Library formally opened on Saturday, Feb. 25, 1922.
The founding of a permanent library for Statesville had not come easy though efforts were being made almost from the county’s creation in 1788. The Jan. 4, 1822 issue of the Weekly Raleigh Register on page one announced “A LIST OF ACTS,” Passed by the General Assembly of this State at the Session of 1821.” Act No. 27 was “To incorporate the Union Library Society in the county of Iredell.”
Dr. Phillip F. Laugenour reported in The Sentinel, April 27, 1916, that “The people in this section took great interest in educating the young and the diffusion of knowledge. For this last purpose there was an association with a library, kept at the house of J.P. McRee, where the books were distributed every three months. The association was dissolved in 1825 and the books were sold out.”
The March 31, 1882, issue of The Landmark reported that “in 1841 a public library was established in Statesville. A number of valuable books were bought and the library did a vast amount of good in educating and developing the literary tastes of the people.” The article reports that Rev. Prof. Elisha F. Rockwell is attempting to locate the books from the original 1841 collection to start a new library.
On Sept. 4, 1885, The Landmark reports on a “Circulating Library” being operated by local bookseller, Mr. T.M. Mills who for a one-dollar subscription will provide access to a whole year’ worth of reading. The problem for these early attempts at establishing a library was a lack of public funding. This changed on March 9, 1897, when the N.C. State Legislature passed, “An act to permit the establishment of public libraries.”
Tax laws prior to this act did not allow the spending of tax payer money for public libraries. The 1897 Act established “That it should be lawful for the board of alderman or the board of commissioners of any city or incorporated town in the state of N.C. having more than one thousand inhabitants, to provide for the establishment of a public library in said city or town.” Despite the change in tax law no move was made on the part of Statesville to establish a library.
I sometimes wonder if the newspaper made Edith Ausley cry that day. I wouldn’t be surprised. She had worked on it for so long and had everything planned out. She probably could see it when she closed her eyes. It would be white marble with tall columns to the right and left of the entrance. You would ascend from ground level up steps to large prominent double doors. The steps would symbolize a person’s elevation by learning while the lamps on either side of the door would symbolize enlightenment.
It must have been particularly painful as the vote wasn’t even close. The results were given in the May 9, 1913, issue of The Landmark. “The Carnegie Library proposal was defeated in the municipal primary Tuesday by a majority of 80 votes. The total vote for the library was 164 and the vote against it was 244.”
The municipal election to authorize the Statesville Board of Aldermen to levy a special tax to support a Carnegie Library was held on Tuesday, May 6th, 1913. The election was in accordance with an act of the N.C. State Legislature requiring that such an election be held if 25 percent of the voter’s petition for it. It was Edith Ausley who led the campaign to gather the signatures of the voters to present to the Alderman. There would be no beautiful Carnegie Library in Statesville.
Edith Louise Fawcett was born March 16, 1872, in London, Ontario. She moved to Mount Airy, N.C. with her parents when she was sixteen where her family started the First National Bank. On April 20, 1898, she married Daniel McNair Ausley from Lumber Bridge, N.C. Edith had met Daniel after he became the Railroad Agent for the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad Co., in Mount. Airy. The couple later moved to Newport News, Va., where Daniel went into the bank business with the City Bank.
In 1900 Edith and her husband moved to Statesville where Daniel started the Statesville Loan and Trust Company which later becomes the Commercial National Bank. He built the bank building on the north-west corner of South Center St., and Court Street. The building with its huge granite columns is still there today beside the old court house.
In 1903, Edith Ausley starts a free public library in Statesville called the “Reading Room Library” in rooms given freely in a building on West Broad St., owned by Dr. John J. Mott. Edith is member of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs and serves as the librarian. She contacts the” Lend a Hand Library” in Boston to start the library’s book collection. To raise funds for materials and operation she creates an “Everybody’s Day” celebration in Statesville.
On Aug. 25, 1903, The Semi-Weekly Landmark announces, “Everybody’s Day, next Saturday, promises to be of unusual interest. “Everybody” is talking about it and “everybody” is expected to be here.” Since the library is to be open to everyone Mrs. Ausley creates a holiday for everyone as a fundraising event to benefit the new library. Everybody’s Day became a Statesville tradition for a few years.
The holiday was a huge success as The Semi-Weekly Landmark reported on Sept. 1, 1903, that between 2,500 and 3,000 people attended the event and $85.15 was raised for the library fund. Contests held included a fat man’s race, a bicycle race, a wheelbarrow race, a bag race, a parade through downtown Statesville and a contest for the best decorated vehicle. Prizes were awarded for the family with the most children and to the oldest person in attendance (Louis Moore from Bethany, age 94).
There was a fiddle contest (old style), a greasy pole-climbing contest, a bicycle race, and a wheelbarrow race. A wedding was held in the show window of the Statesville Housefurnishing Co. store with an admission fee of 10 cents. The ceremony was performed by Squire W.C. Mills, who married Mr. Louis Franklin Carpenter and Miss Bettie Gant. The happy couple received a bedstead as a wedding gift.
A large board was erected with painted pictures of a baby and raccoon and holes where their heads should have been. People would stick their heads through the holes and other people would pay to throw at their heads. Mr. J.S. Fry won, but was disqualified for having previous practice. He had bet policeman J.N. Morgan that he could hit his head from a certain distance with a rock the day before. Morgan was game, but Fry missed and instead hit a ten-year-old boy standing nearby. Fry gave the kid 10 cents to keep quiet about it, but he squealed and Fry was disqualified.
The Nov. 20, 1903 issue of The Landmark reports that Mrs. Ausley has asked philanthropist and steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie for $5,000 to build a Carnegie library in Statesville. Books from the Reading Library are also being circulated among the rural schools as they have no libraries. The Landmark reports on March 9, 1906 that Carnegie has agreed to give $5,000 for a library in Statesville once the conditions are met and a site selected. Shortly thereafter on March 27, 1906 a fire destroys the “Reading Room Library” though many of the books are saved.
The library is then moved to the D.V. Mills building for a year and a half and then to the W.L. Heller store. There is a photo of the interior of the Statesville Reading Room Library on Mulberry Street in 1907 on display now at the entrance of the library. A site for the Statesville Carnegie Library is found when Mrs. S.A. Sharpe offers to donate a lot on the corner of Meeting and Sharpe Streets for the library, but the May 10, 1910 Landmark reports that the Statesville Board of Aldermen have rejected the proposed library citing the costs. To receive the Carnegie donation the city must appropriate 10 cent per year for maintenance which would have amounted to $500.
This brings us back to 1913. Edith Ausley has over the past ten years established 42 rural libraries in Iredell County with 1,288 volumes, but she is still pushing for a Carnegie Library in Statesville. She is now chairwoman of Statesville’s Women’s Twentieth Century club and has 1,750 books to put in the library. She has the site being donated for free on the corner of Meeting and Sharpe Streets near downtown Statesville and only two blocks from the graded school.
She leads a campaign to gather enough signatures on a petition to allow the Board of Aldermen schedule a referendum to allow voters to accept a library tax of $500 per year. She gathers support from the community. The newspaper quotes Mary Charles who says, “Build your library before it is too late. The interest on the capital invested in this building may not come back to you in dollars and cents, but it will be repaid, it will be doubled, even tripled, by the many strong-hearted men and women that will emerge from its doors in future life.”
The Carnegie Foundation does not give money to build libraries in small towns, but with Statesville they have made an exception. In fact, they have offered to give the city $10,000 if they will support it with $1,000 per year, but Ausley seeks only a $5,000 building. The results given in the newspaper in her hands means there will be no beautiful white marble Carnegie library with columns in Statesville.
By Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article was published in the Statesville Record and Landmark on March 25, 2022 as “Iredell County Library began 100 years ago”, p. 1 & 3A.