South Chatham Library Prepares For 150th Anniversary

by Debra Lawless

To commemorate the non-profit South Chatham Public Library’s 150th anniversary in 2024, its 10-member board is researching and writing a brochure to celebrate the library’s 12 female librarians, one of whom worked here for 41 years — and your help is needed.

While a plaque in the library at 2559 Main St., South Chatham lists eight librarians, four additional ones have recently been discovered. If you have information, anecdotes or photos pertaining to any of the librarians, you are encouraged to offer it to the board by the end of this month. The brochure is financed by a $500 grant from the Women’s Club of Chatham.

Board members Barbara Boro, Peggy Holland and Pat McClure recently spoke about the library’s history and upcoming birthday during a conference call. The board plans a full year of 150th birthday celebrations beginning on First Night. Some highlights of the year include the annual book sale in August, a fall community supper at the South Chatham Village Hall and an authors’ night featuring prominent local authors. Articles on the history of the small library, which pre-dates Chatham’s Eldredge Public Library (founded in 1896), will appear in the local press.

The library began in 1874 on a shelf in a wharf at the end of Deep Hole Road. Levi Eldridge ran a “fitting out store” on the wharf, and his daughter Mercelia tended the books which she loaned out right from the wharf, McClure says. Those who wished to check out books had to buy $1 (later 50 cent) annual subscriptions to the library. Overdue fines were levied.

“Fishermen came in on big vessels,” Holland says. Once in port, they checked out books. “I think that’s a great part of the story.”

When the small library outgrew its shelf, it moved around, including to Eldridge’s store in South Chatham. From 1884 to 1899 the library was called the “Pilgrim Library;” in 1885 a recording secretary began keeping handwritten records that are now housed at the Chatham Historical Society.

In 1934, the library finally found a home in its own brand new, one-room building measuring 18-by-20 feet on the corner of Main Street and Mill Creek Road. The building sits on land it rents from the South Chatham Community Church. While the building does not have running water, it does have a new heater. Often eight patrons will congregate in the building, selecting what they want from the library’s 4,000-plus volumes.

Boro says she is astonished at “how little-known the library is.” People come in and say they’ve been driving by for 40 years and only now have stopped. People are even surprised to see the library stocks current bestsellers. But by then, they’re hooked. “Once people come in, they keep coming back.”

Yet the tiny library is an integral part of the South Chatham community. In the summer, three generations of a family of library patrons will pose for a photo in front of the building. Elayne Perlstein, who served as the librarian here for 17 years, retiring at the age of 94, was so close to her patrons that when she learned a grandchild was expected she would often knit an afghan for the newborn. When Perlstein turned 90 in 2018, patrons marked the event by presenting her with a cake.

Through its 150-year history, the individuals running the library — many in the Eldridge family — took their duties seriously, holding fundraisers to buy new books and pay their librarians an annual salary of $7 or $8 in the early days. They repaired books and wrote a constitution and bylaws.

From the beginning, the librarians selected the books for the library, and they chose “books of upstanding moral character,” McClure says. These included, as well as Shakespeare and famous writers of the 19th century, Thomas Macauley’s “The History of England,” a five-book set. “So many of these people came from England that this was an important thing to know.”

These days, permission to check out books can be gotten by filling out an index card with basic information. Books are checked out for two-week periods. The library is not a part of the Cape-wide CLAMS system and this creates a tremendous perk — patrons do not have to wait days or weeks for a popular book.

The library is open two afternoons a week. While it did close during the pandemic, Boro delivered books to patrons waiting in their cars.

“We do it the old-fashioned way and it works out beautifully,” McClure says.

“It’s going to be a great year next year,” Boro adds.

Here are the library’s 12 librarians and the dates they served: Mercelia Evelyn “Evvie” Eldridge Kelley (1874-1884); Emily F. Burgess (1885-1888); Mercelia Kelley (1888-1898); Lydia E. (or Eleanor L.) Hammond (1889-1900); L.E. Eldridge (1901-1926); Helen M. Littlefield (1927-1932); A. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Crowell (1933-1937); Elizabeth “Betty” Nickerson Eldridge, wife of Levi Wilbur “Wib” Eldridge (1938-1979); Barbara Bolton (1979-1994); Helen Warren and assistant librarian Jean E. Gillis (1994-2005); Elayne Perlstein (2005-2022); and Jill Madigan (June 1, 2023 to present).

To contribute a recollection to the forthcoming brochure on the librarians, or to volunteer for any of the 150th anniversary year activities, leave a message on the library’s answering machine at 508-430-7989. The South Chatham Public Library is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m.