Rowan Public Library History: 109 Years of Excellence
“The best way to start a library is to start one,” stated Mrs. J. P. Moore at a meeting of the Travelers Club held on...
In April of 1753 a petition bearing 348 names from the inhabitants of the western section of the Colony of North Carolina requested that a new county be formed. This county sectioned out...
In April of 1753 a petition bearing 348 names from the inhabitants of the western section of the Colony of North Carolina requested that a new county be formed. This county sectioned out from Anson included all land that lay in the Granville Tract north to the Virginia line and was essentially boundless to the west extending to the ‘South Sea’ (Pacific Ocean) or more practically to the Mississippi. Lord Granville’s land was north of the current Rowan County southern boundary and at its eastern end included two-thirds of what is now Guilford County. Not until 1840 did the county reach its present configuration, so for 87 years Rowan was one of the largest and most important counties in North Carolina.
These early residents of Rowan had come primarily from Pennsylvania and Virginia down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley, past Pilot Mountain into the fertile land near the Yadkin River. They were primarily of Scotch-Irish or German extraction. The Scotch-Irish settled primarily in the west and north western sections of the county beginning in the 1740s. The German settlers arrived a few years later establishing communities in the south eastern portion of the county. There were fewer African-Americans in the western portion of North Carolina than the east, but both slave and free blacks appear in the records from the 1750’s on. The primary benefit of the county was to provide a location for a court house nearer than that of Anson to those colonists in the Western part of the state. Our court records begin in June of 1753.
Rowan, the western frontier of the thriving American colony in the 1740’s and 50’s, continued to play an important roll as the nation developed. Rowan and its neighboring county Mecklenburg, with their strong Scotch-Irish Presbyterian bend towards independence and liberty, became the “hornets nest” of the rebellious southern colonies in the War for Independence. The Rowan Resolves declaring the citizens’ support of the town of Boston in its bid against the injustices of the British Crown was the beginning of the Revolution for North Carolina.
Renowned scholars, preachers, patriots and statesmen began careers here. Elizabeth Maxwell Steel restored hope to General Nathanael Greene by supplying money to the Patriot Cause. She was also the mother of John Steele, who was to become the first comptroller of the United States appointed by George Washington and retained by the next two presidents. Spruce Macay, attorney and judge, taught William R. Davie and Andrew Jackson both instrumental in the early years of our republic. Judge Richard Henderson, founder of the Transylvania Company and a colonial judge, along with, Daniel Boone, began their explorations of the western lands that would become Tennessee and Kentucky right here in Rowan around the year 1775. Samuel Eusebius McCorkle, Presbyterian minister and educator was president and teacher of the Salisbury Academy in the early 1790’s.
Judge Richard Henderson, founder of the Transylvania Company, along with Daniel Boone, began their explorations of the western lands that would become Tennessee and Kentucky right here in Rowan.
As advocates increased representation for the Western part of North Carolina in state government, Charles Fisher urged support for Calhoun and Jackson through the newspaper The Western Carolinian, founded in 1820. The Carolina Watchman, established in 1832, was created as an anti-Jackson Paper. Both papers were based in Salisbury and served the Western half of the state.
No history of Rowan would be complete without mentioning a few tidbits about industrial development. Gold was discovered in 1799 by John Reed and a booming mining town prospered in the mid 1800’s at Gold Hill. Transportation was an important consideration as well. In 1850 sixteen plank road companies including the Salisbury and Taylorsville Plank Road were chartered. Plank roads were later abandoned in lieu of railroads. Noted Salisburians, Charles F. Fisher, who became president of the Western North Carolina Railroad, John Ellis, Nathaniel Boyden and Burton Craige all took an interest in this growing industry. In August of 1860 Fisher had completed the railroad up to 13 miles east of Morganton.
In May of 1861, North Carolina seceded from the Union and the Confederacy sought a site in Rowan for a military prison. An old cotton mill near the railroad line proved to be a splendid location. In the early part of the war, prisoners were well cared for and even indulged in baseball as is recorded by Otto Boetticher. His drawing at Salisbury Confederate Prison is the first drawing ever of a baseball game in America. Later when the prison became overcrowded and the death rate rose from 2% to 28%, mass graves were used to accommodate the dead. The area of the prison is now a National Cemetery and continues to be a place of historical interest.
Rowan has produced supporters of education from the beginning of its existence. Davidson College owes much of its stature to the men of Rowan who founded and supported it, among them Maxwell Chambers. Many with ties to early Rowan were instrumental in the creation of the University of North Carolina as well. From the small but vital academies like Crowfield and the Female Academy to the Freedman’s School funded by the Friends Philadelphia Freedman’s Aid Society, the Crescent and later Livingstone and Catawba Colleges, education remained vital. Continuing into the 20th century Rowan was the home of renowned educator and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Duncan Koontz. Koontz was the first black elected president of the National Education Association and, under President Nixon, the first black director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Woman’s Bureau.
The years after the Civil War saw slow growth in industry. Farming as well as tobacco and cotton factories were predominant in the 1880’s. Along with the textile mills, Rowan saw lumber, saw and grist mills prosper. From the Civil War to 1908 the liquor distilling industry flourished as well. In the early 1900’s, the Southern Railroad roundhouse and Spencer shops created a great deal of prosperity for Spencer and other sections of Rowan County. Entrepreneurs founded successful companies such as Stanback, Cheerwine, Food Lion and Power Curbers.
Rowan was home to Civil War Colonel Charles F. Fisher, for whom Fort Fisher is named and who perished on the field at Manassas. His daughter, Frances Fisher Tiernan, better known as writer Christian Reid, later penned the epitaph of North Carolina, the Land of Sky. Other intriguing characters in Rowan’s history include Peter Stewart Ney, Otto Wood, Theo Buerbaum, Elizabeth Dole, Sydney Blackmer, Skinnay Ennes, and Bobby Jackson. Rowan County continues to play an important role in the unfolding history of both North Carolina and the nation.
“The best way to start a library is to start one,” stated Mrs. J. P. Moore at a meeting of the Travelers Club held on March 31, 1911. And start one they did. Rowan Public Library began its 109th year of operation in 2020.
The last 109 years have seen numerous changes in library locations, services and programs, but the original goal of maintaining a library to serve the information needs of local citizens has remained the same.
Under the sponsorship of the Travelers Club, a library was opened in the Henderson Law Office at the corner of Fisher and Church streets. In 1921 when the county built a new courthouse, the library was moved to the old courthouse, which had been redesignated as a community building. (This community center was the first of its kind to be established in the entire south.) In that same year the city and county provided a total of $300 for operation of the library. Today, Rowan County contributes more than two million dollars annually for library operations.
Selected Library Milestones from the Last 109 Years
That same year the library name was changed from the Salisbury Public Library to Rowan Public Library, which better reflected the growing number of communities served by the expanding library system.
In 1936 the library employed its first professionally trained librarian, Miss Edith Clark.
In 1938 the library initiated special programming for children.
In the 1940s community libraries were established in China Grove, East Spencer, Landis, Rockwell, Spencer, and Yadkin.
A bookmobile was ordered in 1941, but delayed due to WWII. Bookmobile service eventually began in 1948. In 1991, the bookmobile was re-invented as an outreach service targeted to preschool children called “Stories to Go”.
A new 10,000 square foot library facility was opened in 1951 near the library’s first home, the Henderson Law Office. The family of the late Burton Craig donated the property and substantial funding to help build a new library.
In 1954 the research papers of Mrs. J. Frank (Mamie) McCubbins were donated to the library, firmly establishing the library as a significant genealogy research center. During the last 66 years additional collections have been added, making RPL’s history room one of the premier genealogical research centers in the southeast.
Interlibrary loan, whereby books are borrowed for library users from other libraries throughout the southeast, began in 1955. RPL was one of four pilot libraries in the state for this new service.
In 1969 the Rowan Citizens for Better Libraries was organized. This group spearheaded an effort that resulted in a complete renovation of the library in the early 1970s. Also at this time the library acquired property adjacent to the library for future expansion.
In the mid 1970s an adult outreach service was established to extend library services to persons who are homebound and to residents of care facilities.
In 1979 the Rowan Citizens for Better Libraries was renamed the Friends of Rowan Public Library.
In 1982 the South Branch library was opened to the public. This was the first full service branch established in the county.
In 1984 RPL began providing microcomputers for public use.
In 1986 RPL’s second full service branch library, the East Branch, was opened in Rockwell.
In 1988-89 library headquarters expanded, representing an increase of 10,000 square feet to 47,500 square feet.
In 1990 the library implemented an automated library system, which automated circulation and catalog functions leading to significantly improved efficiency.
In 1991 Stories To Go first goes on the road as an award-winning program exclusively for pre-school children; it is one of the first on the East coast. The Stories to Go vehicle was refurbished by inmates at the Piedmont Correctional Institution.
In 1991 the Rowan Public Library Foundation was established for the purpose of building an endowment fund in support of the library’s future growth.
In 1996 the library began providing public access to the Internet, and developed a website. Rowan Public Library was among the first five libraries in the state to offer this service.
In 1997 the County Commissioners purchased a new $75,000 vehicle for Stories To Go, a model vehicle designed specifically for pre-school children by Matthews Specialty Vehicles.
In 1998, the library was awarded the ALA/Info Today, Inc Library of the Future Award for its seamless integration of new technology into library operations.
In 1999 planning began for a new regional library to serve the citizens living in the southern area of Rowan County.
In 1999 Stories To Go received Smart Start funding to begin service to home child care centers.
In 2002 RPL initiated a strategic planning process to enable RPL to prepare for the future.
In 2004 the library opened a new regional library in the South Rowan Area known as the South Rowan Regional Library.
In 2006 a self service checkout system using RFID was implemented at South Rowan Regional Library. Wireless internet access was made available for patrons at the East branch and SRRL.
In 2007 the children's area at the Headquarters location was renovated and wireless internet access was made available for the public.
In 2008 the East Branch was extensively renovated.
In 2019, the County approved the refurbishing of the former Cleveland Elementary School’s media center and auditorium to create the West Branch of the Rowan Public Library.
Rowan Public Library looks forward to a future of serving the citizens of Rowan County.