A Dream Comes Alive: the Story behind the Old Library Sign
Published in the Ojai Valley Library Friends & Foundation Library Reader, Summer 2010
by Elise DePuydt
On the wall in the original wing of the Ojai Library hangs an old bronze sign reading: “GEORGE THACHER MEMORIAL FREE LIBRARY OPENED SEPTEMBER NINTH 1893.” This sign was on the first public library building in Ojai (called Nordhoff back then.) What is the history behind this sign? How did the dream for a lending library in Ojai begin?
Congregational Church Reading Corner
The story of the development of the first library in Ojai begins in September, 1892 when the Congregational Church of Nordhoff opened a “reading corner” in the church for all citizens to use as a free lending library on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. The Congregational Church was built in 1888 on the site of the present-day library on the corner of Ojai Avenue and Ventura Street.
The library committee of the newly-formed Ojai Club (an improvement club and town council precursor) began raising funds to buy new books. By early 1893 it became evident that a larger reading room or library would be needed. On April 21, 1893 the Fortnightly literary club held a garden party under the oaks at the Woolsey ranch near Gridley Road to raise library funds. Ice cream, sherbet, cakes, candy and lemonade were sold from booths and tables by “young ladies arrayed in white, and bright ribbons.” The yard was reportedly decorated with Japanese lanterns, bamboo and ferns. The well attended event, complete with afternoon and evening entertainment, raised $80.
At a meeting of the Ojai Club held in the church in May, 1893, Sherman Thacher, founder of the Thacher School and President of the Ojai Club, announced that the Thacher family would donate $500 worth of books provided a building could be erected to house them. He stipulated that the library would be named in honor of his younger brother George, who had died several years before while still in his teens.
Library Trustees Named
A public meeting was held in the Congregational Church at which time trustees were named to accept the $500 gift of books. The trustees named were: Mr. Edwin Baker, Mrs. F. Barrows, Mr. Benjamin Gally, Mr. Joseph Hobart, Mr. John Murray, Mrs. J.K. Newton, Mrs. W.I. Rice, Mr. Edward Thacher and Mr. Sherman Thacher. They were also entrusted with the task of establishing a library and rendering it operational.
Frank Barrows, owner of a mercantile store and the Congregational Church member who spearheaded the opening of the “reading corner”, offered a free lease on a lot for a library building. The trustees accepted the offer from Barrows. The lot was located east of Stewart Creek (also called East Barranca) and 100 feet south of Ojai Avenue. In addition the church donated $100 towards the building fund and the Fortnightly Club donated the money it had raised at the social.
A committee was formed to raise the rest of the building funds, which was estimated to be about $300. The sum was quickly raised and by September of that year the small wooden building with its large front porch was complete. The following notice appeared in “The Ojai” newspaper of August 23, 1893: “The Nordhoff Library building is one of the most graceful, most inviting little buildings in Ventura County or any other place. It seems to say, ‘Come in, rest your body and regale your mind’.”
In 1904 the library trustees purchased a lot located just southeast of where the library stood, in the vicinity of the current Art Center and Masserella Pottery building on South Montgomery Street. With the debt finally paid off in 1908, Nordhoff’s cherished library was moved onto its new foundation. Several years later the building was enlarged.
The George Thacher Memorial Free Library was moved to the corner of Lion and Aliso streets in 1938. It was then used by the Boy Scouts and later the Girl Scouts, but is now privately owned.
Two Churches Merge
In 1900 the Congregational Church was absorbed into the Presbyterian Church. A lot was purchased on Ojai Avenue just east of Montgomery Street for their merger, and both churches were move onto it. The Presbyterian Church had been built in 1884 on Ojai Avenue where Fairway Lane is today. The newly formed church used the Presbyterian building for services and the Congregational structure for Sunday school classes.
The Presbyterians outgrew their church and built a beautiful new one on Foothill Road, dedicated in1930. The original Presbyterian Church was eventually used by the Nazarenes, who moved the structure to the corner of Montgomery and Aliso streets in 1937, where is stands today. The 1884 church underwent a magnificent renovation in 2002 and is now known as Nordhoff Hall.
The Dream Comes Full Circle
A campaign to build a new library in Ojai was launched in April of 1927, and quickly raised nearly $20,000, more than half through the sale of Libbey stock held in the Ojai Improvement Company and donated to the library trustees. The lot on the corner of Ojai Avenue and Ventura Street, where the Congregational Church had stood years before, was among the land holdings of Ojai patron Edward Libbey. Before his death in 1925 Mr. Libbey had expressed a wish to see a library built on this corner and so in 1927 his estate donated the lot for the new library building .
Remarkably, the new Ojai Library, which opened in April of 1928, sits on the very site of the Congregational Church with its “reading corner.” The library dream had come full circle.
Today the aim for public access to books and learning is still very much alive in the work and dedication of the Ojai Valley Library Friends and Foundation. It would be difficult to find a public library more loved and utilized than Ojai’s and the community looks forward to its future growth.
Elise DePuydt is the author of “A Photo Guide to the Fountains and Sculptures of Ojai: Art, History & Architecture”.