July 1999 Feature
It's Summer Reading Time Again!

J.C. Hart Memorial LibraryOne of the pleasures of summer, beside swimming, baseball and hot dogs, is catching up on all that reading we love to do, but have no time for the rest of the year. And where is the best place to find those wonderful mysteries, romance novels, or children’s books and tapes? The public library of course, and Yorktown is blessed with an outstanding one!

For the past 80 years, the John C. Hart Memorial Library has served the public as, not only a place to find good material to read, but also a community-gathering place for programs of interest to children and adults alike. In recent years the library has added computer technology and training to its long list of upgrades in services that it provides, getting it ready for the next century of Yorktowners.

The beautiful old home, which has been the anchor of the John C. Hart Memorial Library, once belonged to the Hyatt and Hart families. It was donated to the town by Catherine M. Dresser, daughter of John Coleridge Hart, who died and left in her will the house and 48 acres for the express purpose of founding a library.

In the Town Board minutes of December 20, 1917, the John C. Hart Memorial Library Fund, with the sum of $11,532.69, was established by the terms of Catherine M. Dresser’s will. On October 14, 1919 the very first Library Board of Trustees was appointed by Town Board Resolution and voted on in the next election of November 4, 1919. On October 9, 1923 the Town Board agreed to hire a librarian…the rest, as they say, is history and no one has told it better than Charlotte Martens Lee in 1970! Charlotte was the wife of Arthur C. Lee and one of the first members of the Board of Trustees.

A History of the John C. Hart Memorial Library
by Charlotte Martens Lee
May 17, 1970

It was about 1916 when Shrub Oak residents heard the news that Mrs. Catherine Dresser, who had recently died, had left her property to the Town of Yorktown for the purpose of founding a library. This library was to be established on the property and was to be called the John C. Hart Memorial Library. It was her desire that the house on the property be used, if possible, for the library building, and income from the principal be used for its support. But the sad truth was that there was no principal, nothing but real estate and that was mortgaged.

Mrs. Dresser had been a wealthy woman at the time she made her will, but had suffered reverses in the stock market prior to her death. She had been living a secluded life as a recluse in a few rooms of the house.

Without any money to support a library, many townspeople looked askance at the bequest. It was thought that it would be a financial burden on the Town and as it must be located in Shrub Oak, it would not be easily available to the rest of the town.

This may seem ridiculous to you now, but Shrub Oak and Yorktown were very different 50 years ago. Relatively few people owned cars, and these were usually laid up during the winter, as there were no large mechanized plows to clear the roads, and no snow tires. Transportation was, for the most part, by horse and wagon or sleigh, by bicycle or by walking. In Shrub Oak some were farmers. There were two stores, a post office, a saloon, two blacksmith shops, the present Methodist Church, and St. John's Roman Catholic Church, directly opposite what is now the library. There were a few wealthy landowners, one of whom had a racetrack and several city families who owned summer homes in the area. The school had two rooms containing eight grades. There was no kindergarten or high school. The nearest was in Peekskill. The one at Yorktown Heights offered but two years of high school.

Wages were very low by today's standards; three dollars a day for a ten hour day. Taxes, too, were low, but any project that might raise taxes was frowned upon. People worked hard and long hours, and many couldn't care less about a library. Many of them had never had a chance to go to high school, and still fewer went on to college.

On the other hand, there were many interested citizens who thought a library would be a wonderful thing. They got busy, formed a committee and were able to convince the Town Board to accept the bequest. Still in order to establish a library the townspeople must vote for it. So it was on Election Day, November 4, 1919, that there were two resolutions to be voted upon:

1. Resolved that a public library, to be known as the John C. Hart Memorial Library, be established by the Town of Yorktown.

2. Resolved that Charles W. Carpenter, Jonathan B. Curry, Francis B. Chedsey, Charlotte Martens, James C. Fowler and George W. Salter be elected trustees of the John C. Hart Memorial Library in accordance with Section 1123 of the Educational Law. Both of these resolutions passed and the library was on its way.

But how to start a library with no money? In addition to the present property, Mrs. Dresser had owned another piece of land, which in those days we called the "long lot". It encompassed the entire length of the present James Avenue in Shrub Oak, and was used for pasture. By selling this land enough money was obtained to pay off the mortgage and other debts. There was some discussion about selling more of the land and just retaining a corner portion, upon which to erect a small library building. In the end it was decided to retain all of the parcel containing the house and use the house as the library. This was what Mrs. Dresser had desired.

Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Carpenter had been renting the house. She agreed to act as librarian and he, who was also a carpenter by trade, was to build shelves and be the janitor — this in lieu of their paying rent. Having never built any library shelves, he made the distance between supports too great, so they sagged when loaded with books. I believe these original shelves can still be seen in the small room to the left, as one enters the main door.

The house was unheated except for fireplaces. Nor was it wired for electricity. Enough cash was donated by interested persons to purchase and install a pipeless furnace. Cost of furnace was $185, installation $15.00. This had one very large register in the front hall that spewed out heat, and was supposed to heat surrounding areas.

Actually it was not too satisfactory. Rooms were painted and repaired and electric lights installed.

Donations of books of all sorts flowed in, and made the nucleus of the book collection. A Library Organizer came from Albany to get us started. She stayed a week and instructed Mrs. Carpenter and others who were willing to work, as to how to accession the books, classify them, write the cards, shelve the books and check them out to borrowers. Thus we were open for business and in 1920 a charter was granted us by the State.

At the end of that first year the number of borrowers was 69, the circulation 1,282, and the books numbered 2,200. The population of the Town was 1,441. About the only expense, other than occasional repairs was for fuel and an appropriation of $100 a year for new books, which was matched by an equal amount from the State. An annual appropriation of $500 covered expenses for the next five years.

The Carpenters eventually resigned and there were several successors. Always the rental of the building offset the services of the librarian and the janitor.

A Mr. John C. Travis, a New York lawyer and grandson of John C. Hart, became interested in the library. He used to ship us large wooden crates of books. I think he must have bought up libraries from estates. Many of these books were not exactly suited to Shrub Oak needs. He would appear a week or two after a shipment and be somewhat annoyed that the books were not shelved. It was simply impossible to get this done so quickly, with the limited help we had. Many volunteers spent evenings at the library to accession books and write out cards. They were all hand written no typewriter in the library in those days.

In 1930 I resigned from the Board as I moved out of the town. During the Depression, money became available to the library through The Civil Works Administration. With this, hardwood floors were laid throughout the first floor and the rooms painted and renovated. Shortly thereafter the pipeless furnace gave out and a new furnace with steam heat was put in.

For years the residents of Yorktown Heights, had wished that the books were more readily available to them. So, in 1937, a deposit station was established in the old Grange Hall. A set of books would be brought over from Shrub Oak and checked out to borrowers there. Then every three months, the books would be exchanged for a new lot, Since the Grange Hall was also used by many other groups, it was necessary to have glass doors on the shelves and keep them locked except during library hours.

After a succession of several librarians, who stayed but a year or two, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Purdy came to Shrub Oak in 1932. Mrs. Purdy was to remain as librarian until her retirement in 1966. She was always courteous, efficient and helpful. Though she had no professional training, she soon became quite knowledgeable about books, and could find any particular book at a moment's notice.

By 1946 I had moved back to Yorktown and was again appointed to the library board. In 1920, there had been six trustees, elected at a town election, for a period of six years, the terms of two of them expiring every two years. By now the State law had been changed, so there were five trustees, appointed by the Town Board, for the term of five years one term expiring each year.

At about this time several things of importance happened. The Trustees entered into a contract with the firm of Dean & Ottaviano, contractors, to buy gravel from the extensive gravel bank on the rear of the library property. The Town had already been using some of the gravel for repairing town roads. By this contract we were assured of at least $1,000 a year of income. At about this time, too, the Shrub Oak School rented one of the back rooms, which was not being used for library purposes, for its kindergarten class. There was a shortage of space in the school. This arrangement continued for several years.

A report from Albany in 1947 on our library efficiency record, showed that the John C. Hart Memorial Library stood at the bottom of the list of libraries in its class. This came as quite a shock to us, and so we tried to improve our standing. Miss Mildred Strang, who was at that time a member of the board, and I went to Albany to consult with Mrs. Moshier, State Director of Libraries. She advised us to hire a professionally trained librarian. We had never had one. Such a person would know how to attract more borrowers, increase circulation and round out the book stock. Books had been purchased more or less haphazardly up to now.

At about this same time, too, the Yorktown Women's Club became interested in improving the Yorktown Deposit Station. They organized a Friends of the Library Group. Many of them were from the Croton Heights area, and several were retired librarians. Miss Agnes Cowing was one. She made a survey of the library and its needs. Through her we were able to hire Mrs. Julian Bond, a young woman, professionally trained. She especially worked to improve the Yorktown Deposit Station, by adding the necessary reference works and making its own card catalog, so that we could apply for branch status. Many valuable reference books were given by these Friends. We began looking for a better place to house the branch. As an example of what we had to contend with at the Grange Hall, on the day Mr. Vershoor, State Library Official, came from Albany to inspect us, a church group was there, preparing for a rummage sale and lines of old clothes were strung up in front of the shelves. The place really looked terrible. However, he was very understanding and we did qualify as a branch. Much credit goes to Mrs. Bond for this. Unfortunately and tragically, before long she was stricken with cancer and died within a few months.

After that we had a succession of several part time professional librarians, none of whom stayed very long, but each one helped to improve things. Meanwhile we were still looking for a more suitable place for the branch. Finally in 1953, the Fowler house was for sale for $12,000. We were able to buy it with funds accumulated from the sale of gravel. After renovation, we were happy to move in, and held open house there on May 23, 1954.

During this time there had been several successful art exhibits held at Shrub Oak, and at least two madrigal concerts. The town was slowly, growing. The 1950 census showed a town population of 4,731. At that time the number of borrowers was 571, the circulation 6,692 and the book stock 12,376. Little did we dream of the population explosion that was ahead.

In 1956, Mrs. Eleanor Weirman was hired as part time director. The workload increased so fast that by the 1960's she was working full time and over, with much additional help needed.

In 1958 the Westchester Library System was formed and the John C. Hart Library became a member of it.

The Art Exhibits were continued and other interesting exhibits were shown to celebrate National Library Week, and to publicize the library. A summer reading program for children was started and also story hours. Hours were increased to meet public demand.

By this time the Croton Heights Friends of the Library Group had become inactive, and a new Friends was formed. This group made a detailed survey of library facilities and use in the entire town, which showed a very definite need for more room, more books and more services to meet the increase in and changing character of the population. The urgent need for new facilities was evident so an Expansion Committee was formed. In consultation with State officials a new building was considered, taking advantage of Federal funds, available through the State. Unfortunately it was found that we were not eligible for a Federal grant, chiefly because of our extremely low budget. A minimum of $2.00 per capita was required, and this we did not have.

In September 1966, Mrs. Purdy tendered her resignation as librarian, since she wished to retire after thirty-four years of service. She was honored with a dinner in appreciation of her many years of faithful service.

Also in 1966, Mrs. Weirman notified the Board that her duties as director as well as librarian, were becoming much too heavy for her, especially with the proposed expansion coming up. She suggested that we hire an experienced director for that job and she would stay on as librarian. Accordingly, early in 1967, Mrs. Marjorie Bayley was hired as director. Under her able leadership we are still growing! Last years' circulation was 122,721; the number of volumes 26,031 and the estimated number of borrowers 15,928. The town has grown rapidly too. The special census of 1965 showed a town population of over 22,000. The 1970 census figures are not available. Meanwhile the library budget has risen to $111,776, of which $56,066 goes for salaries and $28,000 for new books. We have not been able to start the new building, proposed for Yorktown Heights, just now, but it is in our future plans. We are, as you know, completing an addition at Shrub Oak, which will give us much more space and resources.

I have been reading over the old minute books of the Trustees meetings. I get an overall picture of auditing countless bills, making up budgets, repairing leaky roofs, painting, adding more shelving, buying books, hiring personnel, and so on, ad infinitum. Always, until quite recently, trying to operate with an inadequate budget, in order to keep taxes down.

Time does not permit me to go into the detail of the numerous individuals and organizations who have contributed of their time, talents, money and books, all with the common goal of improving the library. There have also been many dedicated Trustees, who have served during these years. I have dwelt more at length on the early days, for most of you are familiar with recent developments.

However, since we are celebrating the fifty years of existence of the John C. Hart Memorial Library, I think it is only fitting and proper that you know something about John C. Hart. This information has been gleaned from Scharf's History of Westchester County, and from Mr. Hart's great grand daughter, Viola Travis Crawford, with whom I have been in touch.

John Coleridge Hart was the son of James Hart and Ann Eliza Roake. He was born at Shrub Oak June 22, 1823, and died in New York City May 3, 1872, the ninth of ten children. Mr. Hart attended the district school at Shrub Oak, and left there at the age of sixteen for New York City, where he went to work as a clerk in a drug store at 20 Beekman Street. His salary was $100 for the first year and $200 for the next. In a few years he became a partner in the business. Later on, he bought out his partner and became sole owner. In 1843, he married Mary Ann Allen, daughter of Stephen Allen, former Mayor of New York. He was also a director of the East River Savings Bank. This sounds like a classic example of a country boy making good in the big city.

In 1854, he bought from John Hyatt, the house that now houses our library, together with 48 acres. He had admired the place since boyhood and hoped to own it some day. The Hyatts built a new house nearby. That house is now the Gateway Apartments.

In 1866, Mr. Hart was on the committee for building the present Shrub Oak Methodist Church, and was its secretary and treasurer. He is referred to in Scharf's as a useful citizen and kind neighbor. No doubt he was highly respected by the community.

He had a great love of the country, as shown by the diaries he kept. He tells of planting crops and trees, and of his interest in birds and wild flowers. Many of the unusual trees he planted grace the spacious grounds today.

Mr. Hart had four daughters, Mary, Viola, Catherine and Virginia. Viola married Charles Carpenter, who was, you may remember one of the first trustees. Catherine married Dr. Dresser, and apparently inherited the real estate from her father. Since she had no children, it was her wish to leave it to the Town of Yorktown for a library and as a memorial in Shrub Oak to her father.

Now, more than fifty years later, we are still reaping the benefits of her bequest. I have often wondered whether the Town of Yorktown would have had any library at all had it not been for her.

Introduction by Linda L. Kiederer

Photo and Charlotte Martens Lee’s "A History of the John C. Hart Memorial Library"
was provided courtesy of the Town Clerk’s Office.

More information about the John C. Hart Memorial Library:

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