History of the library

The Goff-Nelson Memorial Library in Tupper Lake was started by a group of women who sponsored a “book shower” about 1914. Through a house-to-house canvass, they managed to collect 101 volumes. The books were housed in the librarian’s home at first, and the dedication and tenacity of Mrs. Damian Searle is credited with keeping the goal of a library alive during some trying early years. Town officials weren’t overly concerned about having a library, and taxpayer support was scant. At the spring election in 1915 they approved a $12,000 investment to rebuild the Junction road by a vote of nearly two to one—but the proposition to raise $300 for the library squeaked through by a single vote.

Mrs. Searle continued as librarian while the library was housed for a time in the old Empire Hotel, and later when it moved to the basement of the old town hall. In a unique situation, the room immediately behind the library was used as the village lock-up, and library patrons were frequently “treated” to impromptu concerts by bibulous prisoners.

In 1932, the Tupper library became registered under the New York State Education Department. After that, all books were accessioned and cataloged under the Dewey Decimal System.

March 14, 1942 was a black day for the library. Fire which destroyed the town hall left the public library literally homeless, its holdings in a shambles. Truckloads of water-soaked and smoke-damaged books were hauled over to the old primary school building on Church St. and dumped on the floor. The records and files, plus a few books were salvaged, and Mrs. Jennie Bruce took them to her home to sort, clean and dry. Before the fire, there were about 6,000 books. By the latter part of May, 1942, she had managed, with the aid of friends, to salvage 537.

Neither town nor village was too anxious to take on the responsibility of rebuilding and maintaining the public library, and it is largely to the credit of Mrs. Bruce that it survived. The Tupper Lake Central School District was better able financially to aid the library without undue burden on the taxpayers, and it has supported it ever since. Along with the handful of salvaged volumes, the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid libraries contributed generously from their shelves and three large boxes of new books were donated by a dealer, forming the holdings with which the Tupper Lake Public Library was reopened on May 25, 1942.

The old primary school in Church St. was a dismal setting for a library – dank, dark, poorly heated, and depressingly antiquated. The library board kept the goal of a new building as a prime objective over the years, seriously considering the lot on Park St., which had been deeded for library purposes many years before. That lot was judged too narrow for the size of the building needed. For a while, there were plans for building on the lot adjoining the Tupper Lake National Bank, which the Post Office had purchased in 1941 and subsequently rejected as a site for a new Tupper post office.

For twenty years the library struggled in the old primary school under conditions which would not have been tolerated in any other public facility – no running water, no toilets, poor lighting, an antiquated heating system and “a hallway approach like the slums of Lower Slobbovia.” With the Park St. site gone, trustees of the library and school boards decided that the best solution was to make the old school setting more presentable. An investment of under $20,000 was authorized ($14,700 for remodeling the entire first floor and the balance for shelving, tables, chairs and other library furniture). On Nov. 22, 1961 the library was closed for two months for renovation. A transformation took place before it reopened in January, 1962. The floor space had been doubled; a reference room, charge area and librarian’s work room had been added; an attractive new entrance, new heating system and new toilet facilities were included.

Two other important milestones were passed during this period: In the summer of 1961 the Tupper library joined the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System, which considerably increased not only the books available to readers, but which opened new sources of reference material for students and adults alike. The second major step was the granting on July 28, 1963 of a new, permanent charter – the library having operated under a provisional charter since 1932.

One colorful story involving the library was reported in the Tupper Lake Free Press issue of May 26, 1955. The Boy Scouts of Troop 65, who were camping in the vacant lot adjoining the old school, were foraging through the basement for firewood when they literally uncovered a buried treasure. Currency in sizable denominations, ranging up to $100 bills, was found hidden in a bin, cached in two envelopes and in separate rolls. The scouts, Francis and Dennis Brickey, James LaRocque, John McGill and Raymond Hache, promptly notified Msgr. D. J. Brault, pastor of St. Alphonsus Church who called in local police.

Chief J. Edward Timmons solved the mystery when he remembered that a Potsdam area resident who had been implicated in a series of thefts three years earlier, had turned up on Dec. 15, 1953 in the Tupper Lake Public Library, where he was found by the custodian, sleeping in the hallway. Arraigned on a vagrancy charge, he was sentenced to 90 days in Franklin county jail. Apparently, before sacking out for the night, he had hidden the money in the library building and had no opportunity to reclaim it before being picked up by the police. He was subsequently committed to the St. Lawrence State Hospital at Ogdensburg. The money, $1,597.00 in bills, was eventually turned over to the State, and the boys received no reward for their honesty.

Mrs. Grace Simmons, who had served 15 years as librarian after seven years as a member of the library board, resigned effective October 1, 1967 because of failing health. Mrs. Carolyn Dening succeeded her, serving until October, 1975 when she retired and was succeeded by Mrs. Chalice Dechene.

After the death of Mrs. Simmons on June 21, 1968 and in recognition of her years of dedicated service to the library, the board constructed an additional room which was dedicated on April 25, 1969. The Grace Simmons Memorial Room housed the Charles A. Sleicher collection of Adirondack books, and the micro-filmed files of the Tupper Lake Free Press dating back to 1911. Furnishings included University chairs, the gifts of friends of the library; an antique refectory table, dating back more than two centuries, and original oil paintings of Ampersand Brook and Mt. Seward and Spectacle Ponds, painted by Louis Simmons.

The library board had initiated plans for improving the exterior of the old primary school and for selling the library lot on Park St., when an unexpected bequest was announced. The library had been designated for a bequest from the Goff-Nelson estate for about $150,000, to be used for the construction of a new, fireproof building to house the library.

The donor, the late Mrs. George (Charity Goff) Nelson, a lifelong Tupper Lake resident and staunch supporter of the library for many years, was aware of the disappointment felt by its staff and the community when a court decision had voided an earlier bequest in the will of Mrs. Etta Eldred, a former librarian. The aid of the Division of Library Development in Albany was immediately sought and months of planning ensued.

The property at 41 Lake St., including the former town hall building, was offered by the town board at a price of $15,000 and was accepted as the site for the new building. The contract was awarded in 1970 to raze the old town hall. The design for the new Goff-Nelson Memorial Library is one-story, spacious and open, without any interior support, affording a sweeping view of Raquette Pond and Mt. Matumbla. Plans prepared by Mrs. Dening and Mrs. Chalice Dechene, downtown librarian, incorporate office and workroom facilities, museum-type cabinets for display of collections, panels for the library’s growing collection of early Tupper area photos, the Grace Simmons Memorial Room, and add up to one of Northern New York’s finest small-town libraries.

The new building was dedicated on May 29, 1972. Speakers included School Superintendent Fred Baker, Mayor John M. Sparks, Mrs. Dening, librarian; John Stock, president of the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library Board, and Harold J. Nichols, president of the local library board.

The Goff-Nelson Memorial Library has become a multipurpose facility. Its community room serves as an auditorium for library programs; a voting place; a location for Red Cross Blood Drives; a space for performances of Adirondack Storytellers and musicians; the setting for the annual Art Show, Quilt Show, and the Magic Carpet Story Hour children’s program.

Many years of dedicated service to the library were contributed by board members; Mrs. Grace Littlefield, Mrs. Etta Eldred, Mrs. Grace Simmons, Joseph W. Sparks, John H. Black, Mrs. Janet Chapman, Mrs. Kathleen Keeler, John Stock and Roy Colburn.

The list of librarians who have served over the years includes: Mrs. Damian Searle, Mrs. Margaret Randall, Mrs. Jennie Bruce (1930-1945), Mrs. Evelene Schryver ( 1945-1950), Mrs. Etta Eldred (1950), Miss Doris Rowland (1951-1952), Mrs. Grace Simmons (1952-1967), Mrs. Carolyn Dening (1967-1975), Mrs. Chalice Dechene (1975-2003), Mrs. Linda Auclair (2003-2012), Mrs. Peg Mauer (2012-2020), and Mr. Ben Gocker (current).

After the disastrous fire of 1942 which wiped out the library’s holdings of 6,000 books, the stacks gradually refilled, reaching 7,931 in 1949 and climbing to a total of 19,494 books by 1974. Library expenditures rose from $3,24l.16 in 1949 to $25,372.12 in 1974. Circulation stood at 14,367 in 1949. It mounted sharply during the ensuing fifteen years, peaking at 61,003 in 1964; dropped back to 44,108 in 1968 and totaled 50,718 for 1974.

The collection of about 40,000 items was automated in January 2010.

Source: Simmons, Louis J. Mostly Spruce and Hemlock. Tupper Lake, NY: [s.n.], 1976. Print.

(Edited and updated by former Library Director Peg Mauer, June 11, 2013.)

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