Making ‘shush!’ happen: Ladies Library Association of Dowagiac celebrates 150 years

Published 10:19 am Friday, October 14, 2022

DOWAGIAC — Though the way people seek information has changed over the years, one local educational organization has stood the test of time. 

The Ladies Library Association of Dowagiac is celebrating 150 years of existence this year. Dowagiac’s oldest organization, the LLA founded the first library in Dowagiac and still assists the Dowagiac Public Library with funds for services.

The association relies on three fundraisers to generate support for the library – two book sales and a membership campaign.

“We’ve given money for collections, we’ve given money for equipment. We’ve given money for programming workshops and things like that,” said LLA Board Member Kathy Johnson.

The Ladies Library Association was formed on April 9, 1872 in the Young Men’s Hall, which was located on the second floor of what is now The Hairitage. Charter board members include Mrs. G.C. Jones, Mrs. Samual Johnson, Mrs. F.J. Atwell, Mrs. W.K. Palmer, Mrs. S. Try- on, Mrs. Dr. Mulvaney, Mrs. E.C. Chappell, Mrs. P.D. Beckwith and Miss Florence Cushman.

A constitution and by-laws were adopted and a nine-member board of directors was elected.
Beckwith’s wife, Catherine, led the Dowagiac Ladies Library Society and had P.D. build the city’s first library in 1872, which sat on the site of the parking lot next to China Garden until it was torn down in 1962. 

In the early 1900s when it was learned that Andrew Carnegie would build a library if a town had the suitable property for one, the trustees of the P.D. Beckwith estate and William G. Howard and Fred E. Lee were persuaded to deed two lots at the corner of Commercial and New York Avenues to the Ladies Library Association.

The $13,000 Carnegie library was turned over to the city on March 16, 1903, by the association. The 3,000 volumes from the Front Street Library were transferred to the new library and the Front Street building was rented to other businesses until it was demolished. 

The Ladies Library association has a long history of helping the library, including raising the money to purchase items the library cannot afford. 

According to a clipping from the 1885 Dowagiac Republican reporting on one of Beckwith’s early campaigns, when electric lights were still a novelty, he charged people a dime to look at Round Oak’s and used the proceeds to benefit the library.

While the association was founded by women, men have been involved in the success of the association over the course of its history. Steve Kazar is a current member of the LLA Board.

“We have a number of volunteers who come to sales and things like that and we help the library when we can with any kind of side issues, but we have just held out,” said LLA Board Member Linda Lorenz. “I think this 150th anniversary gave us a feeling of solidarity and has injected a little bit more energy after the COVID shutdown.”

The organization played a pivotal role in passing the Dowagiac District Library’s millage in 2018, which paved the way for the expansion and renovation of the library in May 2021. The LLA purchased the children’s nook for the newly-renovated library, which is located on the second floor in the children’s section, and was dedicated to the group during a ceremony last year.

For member Chris Van Husan, being able to be a part of the LLA and carry on its rich tradition is very important.

“A lot of them were going that aren’t anymore,” she said. “We’re one of the few communities that still has the Carnegie Library in use and the Ladies Library Association. We’ve gone through all kinds of changes over the years.”

While much has changed with the advent of computers and technology, the LLA’s mission remains the same as it did when nine women met in the Young Men’s Hall 150 years ago.

“Libraries in general have completely changed but the heart is there,” Johnson said. “Having a place to come for a community gathering place is still important. It’s still about getting people information and books and by the way, books are still popular.”