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Happy 60th! Hart Library Celebrates Its Birthday this Saturday
by Pat Sillery,

Early in 1919 when Catherine Hart Dresser died and left her house, barns, lands and investments to the Town of Yorktown for a library, residents of the town thought her dream would never become a reality.

The story that circulated around town about Mrs. Dresser's death was an unusual one. She was said to have made and eaten biscuits containing rat poison. The story holds that she realized she had probably taken the rat poison down from the shelf instead of the flour and, being conservative about a dollar, ate them anyway, rather than to waste all the ingredients. She then walked to her sister's house nearby to tell her what had happened and died the next day. However she died, the generous Mrs. Dresser left the community with a valuable gift.

Mrs. Dresser set her will up so that her home in Shrub Oak would be used as the building for the library and the balance of the principal of the estate would be held as a fund for "purposes, uses and maintenance of the said library." She also requests that the facility be named in honor of her father, John Coleridge Hart.

John Hart

John C. Hart was a self-made man born in Shrub Oak on June 22, 1822 in the house now known as the Tobias house on Stony Street. He left home at the age of 16 to go to New York City to work in a cousin's pharmacy. Things went well and in 1842 Hart bought the business from his cousin, becoming its sole owner. In the next year Hart won and wed Mary Ann Allen, daughter of Stephen Allen, a former mayor of New York City. Four daughters were born to the couple. Hart was also a director of the East River Savings Bank.

In 1854 Hart bought the "old Hyatt place," which he had long admired, from his sister Rachel and her husband John Hyatt. The property consisted of 48 acres located on the main road running though Shrub Oak, with 600 feet of road frontage. A spacious old-fashioned 15-room house occupied the center of a beautiful lawn. To the left of the house was a sturdy wagon house, with a lovely brook near a barn, with open fields leading toward the top of Piano Mountain. An orchard and a spring interrupted the land, which became thickly wooded at the top.

There is a history of the property, which is fascinating. More than 250 years ago, the Van Cortlandts owned this land as well as much of Westchester and Putnam counties. The site was at first rented by the Hyatts who later sold it to Joshua Hyatt, a colonel in the Revolutionary War. During this period, the village now called Shrub Oak became known as Hyatt's Plain. An old house dating back to Van Cortlandt days sat near the spring on the property. There Colonel Hyatt may have entertained Washington and Lafayette. A new house was built by Colonel Hyatt and his children and grandchildren were born here as the house was passed down from generation to generation in the Hyatt family.

When John C. Hart, who yearned to return to Shrub Oak, took possession of the estate he quickly remodeled the house in the Italianate style so popular during the 1850s and 1860s, using the home as a summer residence. In 1864, Hart and his family moved in year-round and he became concerned with the building committee and contributed generously to the building of the Shrub Oak Methodist Church in 1866. He was interested in the schools as well as the beauty of the neighborhood. He planted 57 varieties of trees, some of which still stand on the grounds of the library. It is no wonder that Catherine Dresser wanted to leave an educational center in memory of so fine a man.

Mrs. Dresser had been a wealthy woman when she willed the bequest to the town, but prior to her death in May 1916, she suffered serious reverses in the stock market. She had become a recluse and was living in a few rooms of the house, which is now the library.

At the announcement of the gift, the town was eager to accept while the townspeople wondered if the project would ever happen since there wasn't any principal from the estate, only property left with an $8,000 mortgage. Catherine's husband had died during the time she had made the will in 1910 and her death in 1916. The land with the lovely home, a carriage house, and a barn were all that was left to a once affluent estate. Back taxes and other debts had to be paid.

The beginning

Nonetheless a public meeting was called on Saturday evening, August 23, 1919, at 8 o'clock in the Mohegan Lake Military School, for the planning and development of the John C. Hart Library. About 75 people came including James N. Strang, chairman of the Board of Supervisors of the Town of Yorktown, who was elected chairman of the meeting. Mrs. Jessie H. Childs was elected secretary.

Two resolutions were voted on the 4th day of November 1919, and passed. It was resolved that a public library known as the John C. Hart Library, be established in the Town of Yorktown. It was further 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 library.

Now the big question was how to start a library without any money. Fortunately, another piece of land called the "long lot," owned also by Mrs. Dresser, encompassed the entire length of James street in Shrub Oak. The land was sold and part of the problem was solved. Enough money was raised to pay off the mortgage and other debts.

The house which would eventually become the library had people living in it. Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Carpenter agreed to stay on, she as the librarian, and he as the janitor who would build book shelves for the library. Some of the original bookshelves still stand.

More money was necessary because there wasn't any heat or electricity in the house. Fortunately there were a lot of Hart supporters and enough money was provided by their donations to pay the bills for the needed work.

Donations of books started to come in and the library began to accumulate the materials so important to a good library. The state sent an organizer who stayed a week to instruct Mrs. Carpenter in the art of classifying books, writing cards, shelving books and checking them out for readers. The John C. Hart Library was on its way.

In 1920, a charter was granted by the state and at the end of the first year, there were 69 borrowers, 1,282 books circulated, and a collection of 2,200 books. Yorktown had a population of 1,441 people living here at the time. Except for occasional repairs, the only expense was for fuel and new books. With every $100 the Town provided, the state matched the local money for new reading material.

When the Carpenters resigned, successors filled in for a year or two at a time always to offset the services of the librarian and janitor, in return for free rent. Soon a New York lawyer and grandson of John C. Hart took an active interest in the library. John C. Travis used to ship vast amount of books in crates to the library which were probably bought from estates. After the shipments arrived in Shrub Oak he would suddenly appear and want to know why the books weren't on the shelves. Little did he realize the work involved to accomplish this and, with the limited help the library had, it was impossible to accomplish such a task to quickly. Many volunteers spent many a night classifying books and preparing cards, all hand-written.

The Purdys

In 1932, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Purdy came to live in Shrub Oak to take on the job of librarian-caretaker and they raised three children in the house. There wasn't any central heating at the time and very often Mrs. Purdy could be seen walking around the yard searching for sticks to be used in the pipeless fireplace which she stocked and fed early in the morning before the library opened.

When the Shrub Oak School district rented the first floor rooms for a kindergarten, the Purdys moved upstairs.

Three years after Mrs. Purdy came to Shrub Oak, Mildred Strang became a member of the board. Her family dated back to the Van Cortlandt days. She used to travel to the library in all kinds of weather by horseback from her house down the road. She became a trustee in 1935 and remained a member until 1955. While Miss Strang was on the Board she claimed her tenure was discouraging because most of the money from library funds had to go back into the building.

In 1937 a deposit station for books was set up in the old Grange Hall in Yorktown Heights. Books were brought from the main library for people to borrow who couldn't get to Shrub Oak. In those days it was difficult to travel and this made it easier for readers to check out books. Every three months a new lot was brought into the Hall that had locked glass doors on the shelves because the hall was used by other groups.

About 1946 the trustees of the library had a contract with the firm of Dean and Ottaviano who were contractors wanting to buy gravel from the large gravel bank in the rear of the library. Through the contract, the library received $1,000 a year in income. This, plus the rent from the Shrub Oak School District, helped to pay the bills.

The population had grown to 4,731 by 1950. There were 571 borrowers, circulation was 6,692 and the book stock had increased to 12,376. By 1958 the Westchester Library System was formed and the Hart Library became a member.

In September 1966, Mrs. Purdy resigned as librarian after 34 years of service. Eleanor Weirman had been hired as part time director in 1956 but the job had increased to more than full time and she notified the Board that the workload was becoming too much for her. She suggested that a professional director be hired and she would be glad to stay on as librarian. In 1967, Marjorie Bayley was hired for the position of director.

In 1969 the library closed for a modern addition to be built onto the old structure at a cost of $150,000. Between 7,000 and 8,000 books were packed into cartons and stored during the construction period.

Yorktown library officials celebrated the 50th anniversary of the John C. Hart Library with a golden anniversary dinner in May 1970. Trustees and Friends of the Library gathered to hear the recollections of Mrs. Arthur C. Lee (Charlotte Martens) who was an original trustee back in 1919. She was serving on the board at the time of the 50th celebration and she was honored at the dinner for her years of service. Hearing about the early days of the library was the highlight of the evening.

At the time of the celebration, the sturdy Victorian house was open six days a week under the direction of Mrs. Bayley. The staff consisted of Mrs. Weirman, Clair Guttman, Elsie Priestly, Irene Popper, Catherine Phelan, Ruby Hardman, Florence Stevens, Carolyn Potemski and Joan Frost. The library board consisted of Mike Poster, chairman, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Peter Klemchuk, Ted Hill and Munson Frost. The shelves supported 13,850 books with non-fiction as the most popular.

The community room opened in the summer of 1970 as a meeting place where groups and organizations could gather for exhibits, meetings, cultural programs, and workshops

Mrs. Bayley remained as director until 1972, when Elaine Sklar, a former reference librarian, assumed the post. William Lynch II followed in 1977 and resigned in August 1980. The present acting director is Betty (Cobb) F. Stewart.

Florence Stevens is the children's librarian who delights young and old with her story hours. Registration for the fall series of Tales for Tots will begin in both branches of the library on Monday, September 8. Preschoolers 3 and a half to 5 years of age from Yorktown and Cortlandt are eligible to attend the 10-week series of half hour picture book programs.

Harriet Gross, adult services, and Joyce Coe, technical services, have announced an amnesty day proclaimed by the trustees for overdue books. This is planned to coincide with the 60-anniversary celebration at the library to be held from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 13. For one day, fines will be forgiven on any overdue books which are returned that day no matter how long they have been overdue. "Just return our books," said Betty Stewart, "no questions will be asked."

Patricia George, Rhoda Levin and Gloria Mack, clerks in the technical services department, will assist in the amnesty program.

Lois Lackey, circulation department, Kye Raimondo, clerk, Elsie Priestly, clerk, Irene Popper, serials, Mary Pat Quigley, branch coordinator, and Liz Baron, clerk at the branch, will also be on hand for the celebration, as will Mrs. Ruth Juskowitz, president of the library board and the trustees Eugene Doody, Ivan Gavrilovic, Mrs. Ruby Schulberg and John Savoca.

What the John C. Hart Library has accomplished in 60 years is truly remarkable. The collection of books stand at 49,878, pamphlets at 4,324, college catalogs 250, periodical titles 350, new paper titles 23, phonograph records 2,139, cassettes 139, and filmstrips 189. The adult registration has increased to 13,740 while the children registered 4,885 for a total of 18,625 borrowers. The staff feels certain their successes will continue to grow as they look toward the future.

Source: North County News, September 10 - September 16, 1980

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