A Short History of Fenelon Falls Public Library, 1982
April 26, 2023
A Girl Returning a book at Fenelon Falls' Library on Market Street, circa 1980
By Marg Allen
From the Tweedsmuir History of Fenelon Falls
When the pioneers came to this part of Ontario in the early 1800s their basic priorities were food and shelter for their families. Once their houses were built and some food was growing they thought next about their spiritual and educational needs. So churches and schools were built.
Fenelon Falls developed much along this same pattern beginning in the early 1800s with a mill and a few scattered log houses. By the time the village was incorporated in 1874, just seven years after Confederation, it had stores, hotels, mills, churches, a school and a population of 750 give or take a few. The people who made up this population were from varied backgrounds, the most having their roots in the British Isles with a few French Canadians.
The first four priorities had been met in Fenelon Falls by the late 1870s so their next community project would be from choice not necessity. In 1878 the people chose to establish a Mechanics Institute to serve the needs of the village and surrounding area.
I will read the definition of the Mechanics Institute from the Canadiana:
“Early in the 19th century, a movement was started in Great Britain to establish institutions that would provide education for working men by means of study classes, lectures and a library. In Canada Mechanics Institutes were organized long before Confederation, the first being in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1827. Others followed quickly in Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, and in many small towns and villages. They were intended primarily for apprentices and labouring men, but membership was not restricted and their supporters included business and professional men and women and leaders in the community. As educational facilities developed throughout the country, the classes provided by the Mechanics Institute were not longer needed, and the majority of the institutes devoted their funds to the improvement of their libraries. Another feature of the Mechanics Institutes was the lecturer hall, which was in some cases a real community centre.
Towards the end of the 19th century there was a growing demand for public libraries without the membership fee that had always been charged by the Mechanics’ Institutes. In Ontario, where there were nearly three hundred institutes, legislation was passed in 1895 providing that the institutes became public libraries.
The Mechanics Institutes in their day contributed much to the intellectual and cultural development of Canada.”
After one preliminary meeting in the fall of 1878, about 30 men met to elect a board of directors and organize a Mechanics Institute in Fenelon Falls. I have a photocopy of the first minutes, the following is an excerpt:
“Fenelon Falls, Oct. 26, 1878…. At a meeting held at Scully’s Hall for the purpose of organizing a Mechanics’ Institute and electing officers for the same. Mr. J.D. Smith was called to the chair and Mr. B.W. Wood acted as secretary. Mr. Smith explained the purpose of the Mechanics Institute and stated that subscriptions had been obtained and amounted to $120.00. Moved by Mr. Keith that the admission fee for youths under 21 years of age be $1.00 whether apprentices or not. Seconded by Mr. Moore. Carried.
Moved by Mr. Shepard, Seconded by Mr. Junkin that the managing committee consist of 13 members—President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer and 9 Directors. Carried. The names for the officers were J.D. Smith for President, T. Robson for Vice President, B. Wood for Secretary, and Mr. Heming for Treasurer. These men won by acclimation.
The names nominated for Directors were: J.J. Power, John Thompson, John Nugent, James Agnew, J.E. Jarvis, John Moffat, R. Cain, George Cunningham, E.B. Borland, T. Lockhart, W.F. Burley, W.C. Moore, J. Austin, Mr. Treadrea, George Keith, John D. Naylor, T. Roberts, W.J. Embury, W. Marshall Sr., E.D. Hand, J.A. Kennedy, George J. Nye, S.S. Michel Sr., Dr. Allen, Dr. Wilson, F. Sandford and H. Junkin. The nine elected were J.J. Power, J. Austin, John Nugent, James Agnew, E.D. Hand, H. Junkin, George Cunningham, T. Lockhart and F. Sandford. So this was the first committee.” By curious co-incidence, one of the members of that 1st public meeting, George Keith was the Great Grandfather of my son-in-law in Oshawa.
The directors immediately set up three committees –Finance – Classes and Lectures and last but not least a Library. One hundred and twenty dollars had already been raised by canvassing for subscriptions so they were ready to find a location. “November 1, 1878, Smith’s Office – Moved by Mr. Austin, Seconded by Mr. Power that the President and Secretary be hereby authorized and instructed to sign the lease for Mr. Begeuns building (the late store of Mr. Turcotte) and to affix the seal of the Institute thereto.”
Once the building was leased they hired Patrick Kelly, a pensioner from the Royal Irish Constabulary and his son Martin, who got his schooling in the Police Barracks in Cork, to be caretaker and librarian. Needless to say they stood for no nonsense.
The following are a list of the papers and magazines provided in the reading room in 1879: “Canadian Dailys: The Globe, The Mail, The Witness. Weeklies: Woodville Advocate, Whitby Chronicle, Port Hope Guide, Bobcaygeon Independent, Lindsay Post and Lindsay Warder. Those weeklies were gratis, they also got Canadian Illustrated, Oshawa Free Press, Toronto Globe, Toronto Grip, Montreal True Witness, Monetary Times and Semaine Agricole from Montreal. The foreign weeklies were: Booseys Household Music, Dublin Freeman Journal, Glasgow Herald, Harper Bazaar, Harpers Weekly, Illustrated London News, LIttells Living Age, Lumbermans Gazette, American Scientific Magazine, and Weekly Times. The monoliths were: All the Year Round, American Agriculturalist, Blackwood, Cornhill, Chambers, The English Mechanic, Good Word, Harpers Magazine, St. Nicholas, Temple Bar, and Leisure Hour.” This list of 38 periodicals is very impressive and certainly tells us something of the interests of the Mechanics Institute Members.
By the New Year they were well enough established to ask the County for a grant of $25.00 (which they received) and to select books not to exceed $250.00 net [the last two figures differ by a factor of 10 in the original document]. During 1879 the class and lecture committee ordered checkers and chess games and planned a series of Entertainments and lectures, evening classes and an excursion by train to the Peterborough Central Exhibition. These Entertainments, Lectures, and Excursions continued into the early 1900s. The Mechanics Institute in Fenelon Falls consisted of a reading room, well stocked with periodicals for reading and books for borrowing, and a back room where the men played checkers, chess and dominoes. No doubt both rooms were well supervised by the Kellys.
In due course the Mechanics Institute became an Association Library, then a Public Library, which in 1969 joined the Victoria County Library System.
In the last 100 plus years, the Library has had 5 locations and six librarians.
1. Main Street – Turcotte Store, Begeum Building with Patrick and Martin Kelly, Librarians.
2. In what is now Jim Webster’s house with Mrs. Calder as librarian (a sister of Miss Hand, who is at present in Victoria Manor and is over 100 years old).
3. In an old building behind the Bank of Montreal which has been torn down. Miss Beth Austin was librarian there as well as Irene Brown.
4. Back to the Main Street into the premises vacated by the Bank of Commerce in the Fraser or Cunningham Block (which was demolished last summer). Irene Brown continued there as librarian to be succeeded by Mrs. Evelyn Snedden and then in 1977 by myself [Marg Allen].
5. In the fall of 1980 the Library moved to its present location by the post office. [Later on the building was expanded and the library moved into the addition, which was closer to the post office than the original Market Street library.]
There are several parallels which can be drawn between the present library of the late 1900s and the Mechanics Institute of the late 1800s.
The Library presently has a reading area where the following periodicals are provided for reading and borrowing: Chatelaine, Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Mechanics, Time, Macleans, Mother Earth, National Geographic, Your Big Back Yard, Ranger Rick, McCall’s Crafts & Needlework, Arts Canada, Consumer Reports, Canadian Consumers, The Fenelon Falls Gazette and Toronto Star.
An early catalogue of books in the Mechanics Institute gives a list of 3275 books which was a goodly number for a small town library. Most of these have fallen by the wayside over the years, but the Library still has a number of the original books, mostly classics and history. The Bible from the Mechanics Institute had a book plate inside.
We now  have more than double the Mechanics Institute list with many new categories, encyclopaedias, craft books, do-it-yourself books, children’s books, paper backs and large print books for tired eyes.
We also have the advantage of being able to draw on any book in any County Library in Victoria as well as inter-library loan all across Canada. This is very useful for technical books or out of print books.
A Library Membership is free now while originally there was a charge. To read again from the minutes I can show you how important a membership was in the past. At the February 10 meeting of 1879 it was moved by Mr. Lockhart, Seconded by Mr. Sandford that the subscription of the late Mr. W. Jamieson be recorded as subscription for Miss H. Cunningham and Miss Caddy. Carried. On May the 12th, 1879 applications having been received from Mr. W.H. Ellis and Mrs. R.J. Lockhart to transfer their tickets to Mr. T.H. Rutherford and Miss Bella Potts respectively. The board consented to the transfer.
When you consider that a man’s membership cost $2.00 and a lady’s or young man’s cost $1.00 you realize that the dollar had a greater value in the late 1800s than it does today.
Things have changed over the last 100 years and they will continue to change, but I don’t think the founding fathers of the Mechanics Institute in Fenelon Falls would be disappointed in the present library building and services. One thing that hasn’t changed and is just as important today is the foremost by-law of the Mechanics Institute in 1878. It reads that the object of the institution shall be to procure and preserve for distribution among its members a library of useful and entertaining books.
The library of 1982 is giving the people of Fenelon Falls and area the best facilities and range of useful and entertaining books that can be provided and that way it is continuing to contribute to the intellectual and cultural development of our country.