THREE OAKS — It was a combination birthday party and baptism celebration at the Three Oaks Township Library at 3 N. Elm St. on Saturday, April 13, as the library celebrated 160 years of library service in the community and Biggest Little Baseball Museum opened its doors to the public.
The library traces its history to April l4, 1859, when the Three Oaks Township Board voted to raise $25 “for library purposes.” The library is 10 years older than the village itself and came before the town had a newspaper, a town hall, a fire department or a church building.
The original location was the original home of E.K. Warren, founder of Featherbone Company, near Ash and Hickory streets, according to Karen Lubarski, library staff member who heads the genealogy/local history section. Evidence that there were books in circulation by 1860 is found in the township record $13.36 in fines that were collected that year.
The $25 became an annual stipend and by 1880 there were 369 volumes on the shelves of the library that was by then located in a small room of the Three Oaks Township Hall on Linden Street which was built in 1866 and still stands today.
In 1928, the library made its first move to in the E.K. Warren building on Elm Street where it occupied a single, spacious reading room with expanded shelving amid the Chamberlain Museum (now The Region of Three Oaks Museum located at 5 Featherbone Ave.) which was also located in the building at that time.
In 1953, however, the library found itself homeless when the Warren Foundation was dissolved. Residents rose to the challenge and met a $10,000 matching gift from the Foundation to build a new library at the corner of Oak and Linden Streets. The Linden Street building was dedicated in 1959, already the 100th anniversary of library service in the township.
Suzanne Sheldon Levy included a picture of the Kool Aid stand she and her friends from Oak and Locust Streets operated to raise money for the new building.
“We were so excited to get that library and when I was old enough, I volunteered there … The fact that you could ride your bike to the library and spend as much time as you wanted there was pretty special to me,” Levy wrote. She went on to a 43-year career as a librarian on the East Coast and continues today as an advocate for public libraries.
By the turn of the 21st Century, the library had outgrown its quarters, especially with the advent of computers needing more space and electrical outlets. On July 15, 2000, in a move that literally took a village, volunteers formed a “book chain” for the two blocks back to the then vacant E.K. Warren Building where it remains today.
The building itself had fallen into disrepair between 1952 and 1982 until it was purchased by the Bank of Three Oaks. Under the direction of Larry Bubb, more than $1 million was spent in restoration and, while occupied by the bank, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United State Department of Interior.
Since 1999, the building has been owned by the Three Oaks Township Public Library and is governed by six library trustees elected by township residents every four years. The library is funded by a Three Oaks Township millage (currently 1.5 mils annually) plus a portion of the Berrien County penal fines, library book sales, fees and fines and donations.
The current library board includes President David Pollack, Secretary Treasurer Julie Sittig, Joan Brown, Dustin Blaszczyk, Debi Kearney and Debbie Weber.
“It may look different, but the library is still doing the same things it did 160 years ago,” Pollack said. He said that while the board provides the long-term direction, he gave credit to Library Director Cheryl Kersey for keeping the library and its day-to-day operations up-to-date.
Pollack cited the example of wi-fi hot spots as an example of the library keeping pace with the times. He said the original order of five hot spots has proved so popular the library has ordered five more. He said that next challenge is helping to bring broadband service to the community.
While enjoying the birthday cake and refreshments provided by Froelich’s and the Friends of the Library, visitors were encouraged to share their memories in the former office of city father Henry Chamberlain.
Elna Rogers, a former library board member, remembers coming when to the library was located in the front room off the entrance, across from “Mr. Chamberlain’s office,” which she said was always locked and off limits. During the hot summer days before much air conditioning, she said the library, with its thick masonry walls, was the place to be to keep cool.
Rogers says she is a still frequent library patron because “I like to hold a book in my hands and I can usually find a book I want.” She also credited Kersey with keeping the selection current.
Soon to retire, Barb Doepke, a 27-year library staff member, said she has lived through four library directors and helped during the move. During her time, she witnessed the transformation from printed date cards and card catalogs to today’s computerized records.
“It will be the people I miss the most though, and seeing folks I remember as kids from the story hour now come in their children and grandchildren,” Doepke said.