Thursday, July 5, 2012

George C. Thomas Memorial Library a civilizing influence in Early Fairbanks



Fairbanks' first public library (pictured in the drawing) is a direct result of Episcopal Church efforts to provide reading materials for residents of Alaska’s frontier settlements. Hudson Stuck, Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, wrote in 1904 that there were few places in Fairbanks for men to go in the evening, “...save the saloons with their lewd pictures, their gambling tables and their general blackguardism.”

St. Matthew’s Church, like many other Episcopal missions in Alaska, offered an alternative by opening a reading room. After Sunday services a curtain was drawn in front of the chancel (the area around the altar). The nave (where the congregation sat) was then used as a reading room for the rest of the week. Every day and long into each evening, the room was crowded with men reading or writing letters. Regular appeals went out in national Episcopal publications for reading materials of all types, and residents all over the U.S. generously responded. Soon the reading room boasted 2000 books and multitudes of periodicals.

The appeals for reading materials caught the attention of George C. Thomas, a Philadelphia banker who served as treasurer of the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society of the national Episcopal Church. In May 1909, Thomas donated $4,000 for construction of a library in Fairbanks and an additional $1,000 per year for three years’ maintenance.

A 40- by 40-foot building was constructed that summer about a block east of the Episcopal Church, at 901 First Ave. The library was built of 6-inch diameter logs (sawn flat on three sides) and had wide porches running the entire length of the north and east sides. A distinctive hipped roof, extending out over the porches, capped the structure, with small arched eye-brow dormer windows highlighting the roof over each porch.

In addition to serving Fairbanks, the reading room (and later the library) shipped bundles of periodicals all over Interior Alaska. The Rev. Louis H. Bulsch, in1912, wrote: “Wherever one may choose to travel in the Interior, it matters not how remote the camp may be, he is sure to see magazines and papers bearing the mission’s stamp.”

St. Matthew’s turned the library over to the City of Fairbanks in1942, and it served as the City library until 1968 when the Fairbanks North Star Borough assumed ownership. After Noel Wien Library was built in 1977, the Borough sold the old library building. John and Ramona Reeves now own it.

The building’s interior has been extensively modified, but original pressed-tin panels still remain on some interior walls. The exterior showed more modest changes, and the Reeves have now restored the exterior to its original configuration.

In 1972, the site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1978 it became a National Historic Landmark.

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