The idea for a library in Littleton was sparked by a fire. In 1892, the Littleton Hose Company, a group of volunteer firefighters, put out a train wreck blaze and received a $200 cash gift of appreciation from the Santa Fe Railroad. The Hose Company purchased books with the money and offered $50 to any interested group of citizens who would undertake the formation of a library. As was common for the time period, private libraries were available to those with the money to buy a subscription for the right to use the books. This left a good portion of the community without library facilities. A local committee (which soon became a permanent organization under the name of "The Littleton Public Library Association") was formed to begin the process of developing a public library. They called upon the citizens of Littleton for donations of books and suggested titles for the public library. A loan of fifty books and a gift of twenty more was received from the Denver Public Library.
The first Littleton Library was set up in the Gilbert and Martin drugstore on Main Street. A bookcase was purchased for the library and the local druggist, Mr. Martin, was placed in charge. Many donations were received from Littleton residents and the titles were printed in the Littleton Independent. It was announced in the Independent on March 5, 1897 that "the Littleton Public Library was ready for the use of the people of Littleton, with nearly 275 books." The Library was open from Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fiction books were checked out for one week and non-fiction books for two weeks. Library rules stated that "the librarian only shall have access to the shelves."
In a short time, the library became too large for the drugstore and was moved to several other locations, ending up in the new Town Hall building, where it remained for 19 years. Mrs. Martha Crocker was an integral part of the early history of the library. She was on the original committee to develop the library in 1897, and continued to provide leadership for the library until her health forced her to move back east.
Over the years, many benefits were held for the purpose of raising money to buy books or furnishings for the library, often under the auspices of the Littleton Women's Club. The Women's Club sponsored several teas, dances, dramatic performances, and musical events featuring local children. The care and management of the library was given to the Women's Club in 1899. By 1901, the library was circulating 100 books per week and several popular magazine titles had been added to the collection. At the insistence of the Women's Club, a reading room was approved for the use of the library in the Town Hall in May of 1901. Always trying to improve service to the citizens of Littleton, the library was inventoried and re-catalogued in June of 1906 on the card system, "a new method of charging books. In a rather original move to gain funding for Library operations and acquisitions, the Town Council, at the urging of the Women's Club, "did very generously appropriate the dog tax, but as the greater part of this tax was never collected, the library failed to profit very largely from this source."
In 1914, the Town Council expressed a growing interest in construction of a Library building. Application of a grant was made to the Andrew Carnegie Foundation which approved an appropriation of $8,000 for construction. Jules Jacques Benedict was hired as architect. (Benedict is also well known in the Denver area for his design of the Richard C. Campbell mansion at East 9th and York, which is now the executive offices for the Denver Botanic Gardens. He also created the chapel at St. Thomas' Seminary. He built his home in Littleton, which now houses the Carmelite cloister.) The "Carnegie Library" opened at the west end of the Main Street in August, 1917. The classical style of the building, which is common to Carnegie Libraries, graced the end of Main Street. Circulation at the new library quickly rose to 1,100 books per month.
The Library was a meeting place and focal point for community activities during the next several decades. During the Depression, the Library participated in government programs, such as a CWA project to give work to women (binding books), and a FERA project to maintain the Library and build new furniture. During World War II, the Library housed a Red Cross service project, and allowed a "Bundles for Britain" festival to be held on the premises. The Library Board bought war bonds.
A real boom in business for the Library was spurred by a reorganization of the Library Board in 1951, and the fresh crew brought a new enthusiasm for repair of the building and planning for the future of the Library. The Carnegie Library was heavily used by local residents, and by 1962, it had become apparent that the collection had outgrown the facility. For a brief time, a branch was opened in the Cherry Crest Shoppette to relieve some of the pressure of increased usage.
It was decided that the best course of action would be to build a new facility which would serve as a center of community cultural activity as well as a library. Architect Eugene Sternberg was hired to design a building which would reflect this concept. The new building at 6014 South Datura Street was dedicated in October of 1965 and named in honor of longtime Littleton newspaper publisher Edwin A. Bemis. Its design incorporated an art gallery and community meeting rooms, as well as the reading areas. In 1982, a $1.1 million addition was built, increasing the original capacity of 60,000 volumes to more than 150,000 volumes.
The Bemis Public Library continues to serve as a center for community activities, research, and popular reading. It has introduced new technology to the community by offering free computer workstations, as well as computer training classes.
Compiled by Rebecca Spilver Fenn and Phyllis Larison