Books were hard to come by at the turn of the century. Expensive when they could be found at all, books from religious writings to Shakespeare to popular western novels were a treat for the wealthy. But in Bay Minette, all of that was about to change. In 1922, the Bay Minette Public Library was founded by the Women’s Civic Improvement Association – an organization that itself was founded in 1913. These ladies, under the leadership of Mrs. T.W. Gilmer (Anne), placed bookcases in one of the jury rooms in the courthouse and filled the shelves with some 400 books netted from a book shower.
The Library Committee, having no material assets, had to its credit only the founders’ hopes and faith and the willingness to serve the people of the town. With no funds to operate a library, the ladies’ group was forced to run on a subscription basis through the support of the various city merchants. Through the library board, appointed by the Civic Association, money was secured for bookcases and more books, and the ladies of the board served as librarians, keeping the library open three afternoons per week – Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m..
The library, formally named the Bay Minette Public Library, charged a $1 per year user fee, payable in advance. Patrons also had the option of paying 50 cents for six-month periods. Books were checked out for seven-day periods with fines for overdue books being set at 3 cents per day. The library committee established a “pay shelf” of the newest fiction, charging 10 cents per week until the books’ prices were met. The book was then retired to the regular sections. The committee establishing these policies included: Mrs. Gilmer, Mrs. Matthews, Mrs. Beebe, Mrs. Mac Donald, Mrs. McLeod and Miss Sibley.
Two years later, the library moved into a rented room on Courthouse Square in the Stapleton building at the approximate site of what was later Chancellor’s Grocery. The rental for the next six years, totally $2,160, was collected from interested patrons with donations ranging from 10 cents to $1 per month. In addition, during this six-year period, $1,874.78 was raised by the library board to purchase books, equipment and mending materials, and for other expenses.
During these years, the use of the library by the public increased with its material progress and in 1925 the library was standing so firmly on its own feet that the Women’s Civic Improvement Association resigned all control of the library to the board then in charge. In accordance with a state code for the establishment of a public library in Alabama, a five-member board of directors has continued to conduct the affairs of the library.
In January of 1923, the possibility of the downstairs club room of the Masonic Lodge – formerly the Baldwin County Bank – was discussed as a permanent site for the library. On a Wednesday evening, May 15, 1929, a special session of the City Council accepted plans and specifications presented by city architect R. L. Williamson. Hampton D. Ewing, brother-in-law to Mrs. Gilmer, proposed that a building – to be used for the library, an office for the chief of police and as a town hall – be built on land he was willing to donate through the Bay Minette Land Company, if construction of the building were to take place.
A petition was drawn up calling for construction of a public library building and was signed by practically every man and woman in Bay Minette. According to the August 1, 1929 issue of the Baldwin Times newspaper, Mayor E.A. Moore and the Bay Minette City Council appointed a library committee comprised of J.B. Blackburn, E.D. Noonan and J.C. Burns to examine titles and other preliminary matters pertaining to the projected public library.
The May 15, 1930 issue stated that City Council members had approved the plans drawn up by a Mr. Clark of Owen & Clark Architects in Mobile. The plan called for a one-story colonial valued at $7,000. This building design included two library rooms, a council hall, a work room and a small cellar to accommodate the heating plant. The June 26th issue state that Lamar Eubanks had been awarded the contract for laying the foundation and was in the process of doing so with an anticipated completion date of 60 days.
Bay Minette’s council financed the building and was deeded the lot and building with the understanding that “in the event of the failure of the library association and of any corporation which may be organized for library purposes and which shall have taken over the property of said association to continue as a public library, then the entire use and occupancy of said building shall pass to the town of Bay Minette forever to be used exclusively, however, and as a condition of this grant, for municipal purposes only.”
The City Council serving with Mayor J.S. Burns in December 1930 – when the formal opening of the Hampton D. Ewing Library occurred – was made up of E. D. Noonan, J.B. Blackburn, S. J. Whitley, M.M. McMillan and H.H. Mixon. Natalie Whitley was the city clerk at that time. Hampton D. Ewing, by giving the land and other contributions, was instrumental in securing the library building and for that reason the building was named for him.
With the coming depression, when many libraries were forced by lack of funds to go on subscription basis, the Bay Minette library was made free and that resulted in a tremendous increase in its use. Twelve hundred books were borrowed during the first month, but with the increased use of the volumes and almost nil funds, it was a desperate struggle for Mrs. Gilmer and her helpers to keep things going. In spite of their best efforts and help from others, the books became shabby and the service entirely inadequate. In the early 1930s, the board accepted the offer of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project which meant increased service furnished to the public, the library opened every day, and competent book mending. At the same time, the Public Library Service Division of the Department of Archives and History matched dollar for dollar what the library spent on books and also helped with the advice of a visiting librarian.
With the closing of the WPA, the library was again faced with the problem of maintaining adequate service for the increased needs of the public. Bay Minette had almost doubled in size since the library’s beginnings and it was impossible for volunteer service to function adequately as before. Feeling that the library had become a vital part of the community’s lives and a material asset to the town, the board appealed to the council for help, and in response the council appropriated funds for the salary of a competent library worker. Money for purchase of books and expenses was obtained from gifts and an annual book sale which netted several hundred dollars.
Mrs. Gilmer served as the first librarian from its inception until Mrs. Pearlie Overstreet took the position on October 4, 1943. Mrs. Overstreet served as a full-time librarian until her health caused her to drop back to part-time in 1983. Rose Beveridge Smith received her first paycheck as librarian in September 1973. The two ladies worked together until 1985 when Mrs. Overstreet’s declining health forced her into retirement.
The library was directed and lovingly managed by Rose Smith up until her retirement in 1994. She retired to enjoy time off with her family, leaving some very large shoes to fill. At the time of her retirement, she had an excellent staff made up of Faye Martin, Becky Bryars, Karen Mosely and Charlotte Jones Robertson. Mrs. Mosely was named interim director and served in that post for six months until Mrs. Robertson was named director of library services in October 1994. Mrs. Robertson served as director of the Bay Minette Public Library for nine years, from October 1994 through October 2003.
Joanna Moseley Bailey was named director in January of 2004.