Main Street in Mendocino looking east in the mid 1930s. Templars Hall, site of the first library, is the building on the right just in front of the fire hall with the bell tower. It was demolished in 1938.

Mendocino’s first public library must have had an enviable ocean view. Called the Free Reading Room, it opened in April of 1883 on the second floor of the Templar’s Hall, one of the now-gone buildings owned by the Mendocino Lumber Company on the south side of Main Street and across from what is now the Mendocino Hotel. 

Located at the back of the main hall, the reading rooms south-facing windows would have looked out over the wide water where ships came and went. It was a sun-washed refuge open to all, where you could sit in comfortable chairs or at tables to write a letter back home, out of the cold and the wind. 

An artfully crafted bookcase, made by cabinet maker and now first librarian, Ed Fairfield, displayed an assortment of donated books to be read within the room. Racks held newspapers and magazines from all over California, the West, and the world, veritable portals that took readers beyond this remote coastal town.

The organization behind this first library was the IOGT or the Independent Order of Good Templars, a forceful group that advocated a temperate lifestyle – one without alcohol. It played a major role, along with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), in making Mendocino County a “dry” place ten years before the rest of the country made selling alcohol illegal.

For temperance groups and other civic organizations of the late 1800s, reading rooms and libraries were seen as a positive way to keep the town’s many single men out of the bars and out of trouble. They were usually open every day in the afternoon, a time “convenient for the ladies,” and also for several hours in the evenings for the working man.

Despite its attractive qualities, this first reading room lasted only a few years. Like so many of the public reading places that followed, it suffered from a lack of income to pay staf and to keep the lights on. 

After a three-year gap, another free reading room opened in the Masonic hall building at the corner of Ukiah and Lansing, supported this time by the WCTU. It was patronized by so many that a notice published in the newspaper requested that children be kept at home in bed during the evening hours. It, too, lasted only a couple of years.

The next reading room was sponsored in 1895 by the Christian Endeavor, a Protestant youth fellowship, again in the IOGT hall on south Main. This group seemed to have a more fun-loving attitude toward their mission than the WCTU and put on regular entertainment benefits that featured music, literary recitations, and farcical plays to fund the librarian and purchase the periodical subscriptions. But by 1905, the Beacon was bemoaning that Mendocino was again in need of a good reading room.

Another group and another location emerged in 1908, this time backed by two associated religious youth groups – the Baraca young men and the young ladies of Philathea and supervised by the new Mendocino Library Association. Like the Christian Endeavorites, they created entertainment to pay for this cultural amenity. It resided in the former Murray building once located just west of the Kelley pond. In addition to plays and concerts, their funding strategy included patron subscriptions to pay for magazines and newspapers and they had an arrangement with the State Library to receive a rotating stock of literary volumes every quarter.

Then, in 1909, the forces of temperance won out at the polls. The saloons were closed, creating an even more urgent need for alternative recreation for the men. This mission was now taken up by a new group called the Good Government League. Their solution was to renovate the old Temperance Hall on the corner of Lansing and Ukiah streets into a recreation center. The well-patronized reading rooms from the Murray building would move to the south part at this new location, and a new chapter would begin for Mendocino’s library that we’ll take up in the next article.