Early libraries across Central Alberta region

This year, the Red Deer Public Library is celebrating a remarkable milestone – the 100th anniversary of its founding. While this is one of the oldest public, tax-supported, libraries in the province, there were other earlier libraries in Central Alberta and Red Deer.

The oldest library in Central Alberta was created in the early 1890s at Tindastoll (Markerville) by the local Icelandic debating society (Lestrarfelgith Ithun). The founders purchased $20 worth of books, mainly ones written in Icelandic. This investment was a considerable sum at a time when $1 per day was considered a good wage.

The library was housed at the Tindastoll Post Office until 1907, when it was moved to a small building in the hamlet of Markerville. Jonas Hunford served as the librarian.

The library was open every Monday. There was an annual fee to use it, but the money collected was used to purchase more books. This small pioneer library continued to operate until the start of the Great Depression in 1930.

Another early library was established in Innisfail in 1902. It was known as the Innisfail Public Circulating Library. Initially, it had about 20 members and around 100 books. However, it was very popular. Within five years of its creation, the membership rose to more than 80 and the number of books jumped to more than 500 volumes. Moreover, the library had built up a surplus of $50 with which to buy more books.

Meanwhile, a public reading room was established in Red Deer in July 1902. It was located on the second floor of the Michener Block on the southeast corner of Gaetz Ave. and Mann (49) St. Money for the service was initially provided by a number of interested local businessmen and residents.

According to the news reports of the time, this new reading room had “All classes of periodicals and newspapers available for perusal and writing materials and ink available to all comers.” The service proved to be popular. Eventually the Town council agreed to subsidize its operation with a $100 grant, payable quarterly, towards the rental of the room.

Unfortunately, the Michener Block and the reading room were destroyed in a spectacular fire on Sept. 17, 1904. One fortunate outcome of the disaster was that the Town council decided to establish the Red Deer Fire Brigade within days.

The reading room was not re-established, but the Town did support the creation of a library for the Fire Brigade. This little library got a major boost when Everett Martin, the departing secretary-treasurer of the Fire Brigade, gifted a large number of Ryder Haggard books to the firefighters’ library.

Before long, a new push was started to establish a public reading room and recreation centre in the community. One of the major initiators of the proposal was the local Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.). Another was Rev. W.G. Fortune, the local Presbyterian minister.

Rev. Fortune wrote a letter to the editor in support of the cause. He stated that Red Deer “Like all other places in the west is a community of young people.” He claimed “Many of our young men have not access to the homes of Red Deer and necessarily are restricted to their rooms or forced to the street.”

He stated “Restraints must be laid on youth lest it wander from the pathway of sobriety and virtue.”

He concluded that what was needed was “A reading room with daily papers and current magazines… in connection there with recreation rooms,” thereby providing “A place where the young men may spend their evenings.”

His pitch was well received. The local ministry gave sermons in support of the reading room and recreation centre. A public meeting was also organized to build support. The I.O.O.F. led the fundraising efforts. They also succeeded in winning a 100 volume library and bookcase in a special contest organized by a number of local businesses, including the Gaetz Cornett Drug and Bookstore. The I.O.O.F. garnered more than double the number of ‘votes’ made in favour of the Red Deer Public School District, the Fire Brigade and the Memorial Hospital.

It is not clear where those 100 books and case ended up. Perhaps they were put in the I.O.O.F. Hall. However, the drive to create a public library faltered. Instead, Dr. Henry George, who had moved his medical practice and museum to Red Deer from Innisfail in 1907, opened a library as part of his museum. A membership fee of $1 per year was levied, plus a charge of 5¢ per volume borrowed per week. Special arrangements were made for out-of-town patrons. The library was open each weekday from 2 to 5 p.m. in the afternoons and then again from 7 to 9 p.m. in the evenings.

Dr. George’s museum library proved to be very popular with the public. He used the fees collected to buy more books and shelving, while he continued to collect artifacts for the museum. When plans to launch a public library in Calgary were being finalized, Dr. George was offered the position of librarian. He declined as he, his wife Barbara, and family preferred to remain living in Red Deer.

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