by Librarian Tom Lange
The village of Somesville, founded in 1761 as the first settlement on Mount Desert Island, was a vibrant economic center. By 1836, it boasted of “one small store, one blacksmith shop, one shoemaker’s shop, one tan-yard, two shipyards, one bark mill, one saw mill, one lath mill, one shingle mill, one grist mill, and one school house…” Civic organizations flourished in this close-knit community; the Somesville Library certainly had its roots in community engagement. In 1884, a group of twelve ladies banded together to form the Ladies Aid Association, with the laudable goal of gathering books and similar reading materials for the use of Somesville residents. They raised a small amount of money with which to buy books to be kept in their homes and exchanged them with other interested residents.
After a few years, the circulating of books in this way had become too cumbersome, so the Ladies Aid Association re-organized itself as the New Library Society, to secure an appropriate site and erect a building to house the collections. “A Reading Room shall be part of the Library building, so people can sit and read what they do not want to take home.”
Two small parcels of land in the middle of Somesville were combined on the site where Nathaniel Richardson had earlier built his schooner The Siren, overlooking the harbor and cove. Shipbuilding was a leading industry in Somesville from its founding until the 1930’s. The owners of the land, George and Thaddeus Somes, displayed Yankee frugality and propriety by retaining ownership and charging a dollar a year rent, which they annually returned to the Library as a gift!
In 1891, with land available, the New Library Society began fund-raising in earnest, holding baked bean suppers, auctions, candy sales, pie sociables, dances, plays, and other community entertainments, each of which brought in a few dollars. Library records show that construction began in 1895 and was completed the following year: John R. Somes received $200 for lumber, tarred paper cost an additional $0.90, and a padlock cost a further $0.25. Paid labor came to $228.37 and materials and labor were donated. The total cost of the library building was $457.94
The Mount Desert Library Society was incorporated by the State of Maine in 1905, and has evolved into the present-day Somesville Library Association. In 1892 the first librarian, Mrs. Emma Kenniston, received $15 a year for her services (a large sum for this small organization to raise). The librarian’s salary was later increased to $25 a year, and then to $100. In 1974, the pot-bellied stove was no longer considered adequate, so an addition in which a furnace could be accommodated was built onto the back of the building overlooking Somes Cove and the harbor. At the same time, a small Music Room was added to the North side of the building, later transformed into a Children’s Room in memory of Jane Weinberger.
There have been fourteen female and one male Librarians in the history of the organization, with tenures from six months to 25 years. Since its founding, the Somesville Library, one of five private libraries on Mount Desert Island, has consistently made available current adult books, classics, children’s books, biographies, non-fiction, and books by Maine authors or about Maine, freely and without cost. The Library is a source of delight for visitors all year round, and is prominently located on Main Street in the center of Somesville between Somes Cove and the Mill Pond. Behind the library are a dam and fish ladder, part of a complex series of ponds, streams, and fish-ways begun by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1940’s. These fish ladders enable a significant and increasing population of alewives (an anadromous herring about 10” long) to migrate upstream from salt to fresh water in order to spawn.
As Laura Richardson wrote about this library almost 125 years ago, “Let us all feel thankful, yes, proud of this little building set it our midst and may it help us to become better and nobler men and women… From small beginnings, great things may be accomplished.”
Hansen, Gunnar, ed. Mount Desert; an informal history. 1989
Leland, Nelson. [Remarks on the history of the Somesville Library, 1974]
Sanderson, Virginal Somes. The living past, being the story of Somesville… 1982
Thornton, Mrs. Seth. Traditions and record of Southwest Harbor and Somesville. 1938