A History of The Tombstone Library
Fred M. Johnson
Dedicated to George Whitwell Parsons
In spite of a reputation for toughness and a history focused on 30 seconds of gunfire, Tombstone has always been a literary town. Evidence of this cultural heritage is found today in the Tombstone Reading Station or public library, located in the old southern pacific depot at 4th and Toughnut streets. The library houses over 14,000 volumes of fiction and nonfiction as well as current newspapers and magazines. In addition you will find one of the finest collections of Southwestern history and culture to be found outside of a university library. The Reading Station is fully computerized and linked with other libraries throughout Cochise County.
When the first settlers arrived, not all sought relief from boredom in saloons and gambling. Many wanted reading material. Newspapers and magazines arrived out of date but were nevertheless read, reread and passed from hand to hand until they fell apart. This thirst for reading was first slaked by entrepreneurial souls beginning in the early 1880’s who opened small rental libraries. The locations of these businesses has been lost to history. More educated citizens formed societies and clubs dedicated to cultural pursuits. Dr. George E. Goodfellow, a nationally known physician and resident of Tombstone, was a founder of the Tombstone Club which had 60 male members. Organized in 1880, the club had rooms on the second floor of the Ritchie Building, which included reading tables and subscriptions to more than 70 publications. The following year, the Tombstone Literary and Debating Club was organized, but unlike the Tombstone Club, had no permanent home and was open to members of both sexes.
Early in 1885, public spirited citizens led by George Whitwell Parsons, formed a Tombstone Library Association to raise money for and open up a public library. The association held several "entertainments" during March and April of 1885. An admission charge of 50 cents allowed citizens to dance, drink lemonade and socialize while contributing to a worthy cause.
On April 30, 1885, the Tombstone Public Library opened in Library Hall with George Parsons acting as the first librarian. Hours were from 6:00 to 9:00 PM every evening excluding holidays. George spent much of his time raising additional money, procuring books and organizing and setting up a system for checking out and returning books. In a little more than a week the library was running smoothly and was popular with the citizens of Tombstone. The location of Library Hall has not been determined, but may have been on Fremont Street.
George Parsons left Tombstone permanently on January 14, 1887 after a stay of almost seven years. He had been a leading light of the Library Association and without his presence the library eventually closed. Contents of the library, including chairs, tables and books were stored in a building on Fremont Street. On August 3, 1889, the Tombstone Epitaph announced that the possessions of the Library Association were being moved from Fremont Street to a building near the Express Office where the library would reopen in a short time.
The economic life of Tombstone depended on the silver mines. An influx of water into the mines and falling silver prices seriously affected the economy and population of the town. With fewer people and lower incomes, a library was a luxury the town could not afford. No record has been found of what happened to the library’s books and equipment. By 1905, a library had been formed in the Huachuca Water Company’s office by the Men’s Fortnightly Club. Were these the books that had belonged to the Library Association? No one knows.
The Men’s Club was unable to effectively run a library. There was no method for checking out books and many were lost or stolen. The Men’s Fortnightly Club gladly gave up possession of their library to the newly organized Tombstone Women’s Club in 1906. Unfortunately the women had no permanent meeting place and were forced to return the books. In 1908 the Women’s Club was invited to meet in the rooms of the Cochise Club and operate the library therein. Books were circulated to members of both clubs until 1911. The Women’s Club disbanded in 1912 and the books were given to the Arizona Pioneers Home in Prescott.
For the next eleven years there is no record of a library in Tombstone, until the Women’s Club reorganized in 1923. The women were instrumental in having the City purchase a building for a Community House which would also house a library – this was located west of the O.K. Corral on Allen Street. The Community House served as the Tombstone Public Library, with members of the Women’s Club acting as volunteer librarians. Books were available to all citizens, but generally circulation was among club members. In 1930 Tony de Sanches donated a large number of books to the library , greatly increasing the collection.
With the library being operated on a volunteer basis, problems developed – circulation fell, volunteers and citizens lost interest and the library, although not abolished, became inactive. In 1951 the Tombstone Women’s Club voted to reactivate the library and formed a committee to prepare for reopening. In May the Library reopened in the Community House with Miss Luella Graf as permanent librarian. Regular hours were observed and circulation of books was community wide.
The old Community House, constructed of adobe, had become weakened by decades of rain. The summer storms of 1955 were more than the old building could take. The east wall collapsed unexpectedly and the library was once again closed. Fortunately the books had been housed on the west side of the building and were unharmed by the collapse. The library’s 3000 volumes were moved for storage to the old Cochise County Courthouse, which was being restored.
By late September 1956, one of the Courthouse rooms was ready for occupancy as a library. It took six months to get the library’s new home set up, and the doors opened to the public in March of 1957. Unfortunately, borrowers were charged from $1.00 to $1.50 per year to cover the library monthly rental of $25.00. The Arizona State Parks board took over the Courthouse as a state historical monument in 1959 and forced yet another move for the Tombstone Library.
The problem of finding a new home was solved when the Southern Pacific Railroad gave up its depot in Tombstone, subsequently donating it to the City for use as a library. The Tombstone Restoration Commission provided the funds for repairs and remodeling, and with refurbishment completed, the library again opened its doors in a new location in March of 1961. Having no rent to pay, the library was again able to offer its service to the public free-of-charge. There was no budget to purchase new books, but the Library Extension Service in Phoenix made books available and both the book collection and circulation grew.
A Board of Trustees, which was appointed by the city council, held a contest for school children to name the new library. A cash award was given to two children who suggested "The Reading Station." This was the name officially given to the library at its formal opening on April 17, 1961. At this time the Tombstone Women’s Club gave up all control of the library and transferred ownership of all books and equipment to the city.
The Tombstone library has continued to strengthen and grow since a humble beginning in 1885. The first 76 years were turbulent and fate seemed eager to stamp out the city’s library center. George Whitwell Parsons could look with pride on what has grown from his efforts – The Tombstone Public Library, a "Reading Station."