Lafayette Public Library history rooted in 1890s public reading rooms

First Congregational Church from an early 1900s post card. The town’s first public library opened in the church in 1923.

The Lafayette Public Library’s history and origin traces back to town founder Mary Miller, who established a reading room in Lafayette sometime between 1888 and 1891. The town’s public library — a place where anyone could take a book off the shelf and read it at home, then bring it back — started in Lafayette in 1923.

Public reading rooms or libraries were pioneered by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a national organization that launched in Cleveland, Ohio in 1874. The public library in Boulder began as an educational and community service endeavor of the Boulder chapter of the WCTU. The WCTU had chapters nationwide and held a core belief that the manufacturing and distribution of alcohol should be outlawed.

The Boulder WCTU had established a reading room in Boulder at Spruce and Broadway in the 1880s, and books in that collection included “Roberts Rules of Order,” “Complete Works of William Shakespeare” and “Uncivilized Races of the World.” Public reading rooms were usually placed in churches, but also popped up in commercial areas, either in an empty office or tucked in the corner of a retail storefront. Reading room books were so limited in quantity that they couldn’t be borrowed or “checked out.”

The first reference to Mary Miller establishing an east Boulder County reading room was May 1, 1883 when Boulder WCTU meeting minutes state that “Mrs. Miller, President of the Louisville Reading Room, visited the Union and reported the condition of this undertaking and asked for some help from the society in the way of reading matter which has already been purchased for the [Boulder] Reading Room.”

Although Lafayette wasn’t founded until 1888, Mary Miller’s pre-Lafayette connections to Louisville (founded in 1877) would have been numerous. Her children attended the Willow Glen school located near Louisville and the general stores in Louisville would have been the only places to get supplies. Additionally it would have been the only place to attend a church on Sundays.

Mary Miller belonged to — and likely founded — the Lafayette chapter of the WCTU. We know that such a chapter was in existence in December 1891 when meeting minutes of the Boulder WCTU show that Mary Miller asked the group to loan her a “reading paper rack” for the “Lafayette Reading Room.” This was probably some sort of rack that would hold newspapers or magazines, but could have been something as simple as a shelf.

Full-fledged library

Lafayette News and Lafayette Leader articles from the 1920s reflected urgency in getting a full-fledged public library off the ground. In 1920, the Lafayette Community Church, under the direction of Pastor C. Conal MacKay, launched an initiative to open a public library in Lafayette. The community church occupied the First Congregational Church at 300 E. Simpson Street. In 1921 the Lafayette Lions Club joined the effort to “get behind the movement to establish a public library and reading room.”

In April 1922, ladies of the Community Church asked for book donations for the new public library. On May 5, 1922 the Lafayette Public Library obtained hundreds of book donations from local residents. The Lafayette Public Library opened in the Community Church on Feb. 10, 1923.

About a year later, a Lafayette Leader article detailed the library’s transition into a town-wide initiative:

“In response to a call issued by the ladies in charge of Lafayette’s public library, a good number of citizens met in Union hall last Monday evening [Aug. 11, 1924] and formed an organization which will be known as the Lafayette Library Association.

This library was started a year ago last February under direction of the Ladies Aid Society of the Community Church. At the beginning there were about 300 volumes on the shelves [with 300 patrons’ cards issued]. Now there are 1,000 volumes. But the ladies feel that the undertaking is now becoming too heavy for a very few and they decided and wisely so that the library should be made a community affair.”

Members who helped found the public library association, and helped fill some of the association board of directors seats, included Mrs. John Wilson, the public library’s first librarian; Mrs. B.J. Radford, wife of the Lafayette Leader editor; town mayor Lee Baker, who was leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan; F.M. Carhartt and Mrs. E.J. Busch. There were about 30 charter members and operational expenses and book purchases were paid via donations and fundraisers.

Local Klavern pitches in

The 1924 launch of the Lafayette Library Association and the formation of the local Ku Klux Klan were not coincidental. Active from 1923 to about 1936 (and possibly longer), the local Ku Klux Klan was headed in the mid-1920s by Lafayette mayor Lee Baker. Other prominent local KKK leaders included school superintendent B.V. McCready and Mary Miller’s grandson, Frank Miller.

The local Klavern shrouded its hate and racism in community projects — supporting public education and building a new public school, and the launching of a community-wide and nondenominational library. (Up to this point the public library had been sponsored and run by the Community Church. And the Community Church tried to separate itself from the Klan, but the Methodist and Baptist churches embraced the group. And “community-wide” is a bit of a misnomer in that the KKK was anti-Catholic, so after 1923 there is predictably no mention or participation from St. Ida’s Catholic Church parishioners or from Latino families in Lafayette. Pre-KKK, two prominent Catholic families, the Connells and the O’Days, are mentioned in a 1922 newspaper article as having donated books to the library.)

A local column published in the Rocky Mountain American, a KKK publication based in Boulder, detailed a 1925 public library book-buying journey to Denver, made by “Rev. Bird, Mrs. E.J. Busch, Prof. Carhartt and Mrs. Rumley.” The book selections were vetted by KKK members Rev. J.C.B. Hopkins and B.V. McCready.

“These books, and others, will arrive in the near future, result of the donations made by the Choral club, town board [and Mayor Lee Baker] and the Klan,” stated the newspaper article. “We are getting a library that Lafayette may be proud of.”

The Klan donation is detailed in another 1925 Rocky Mountain American article, in which a $50 donation to the public library “fell from the sky without any explanation of its origin except that it bears three initials — K.K.K.”