Library History

A library in Chelsea was formed as early as 1877 when the State Law Act 164 was passed. A few enterprising ladies with support from a few well known men organized the Ladies Association of Chelsea – also known as the Chelsea Library Association (CLA). This was a nonprofit organization funded primarily through membership dues and donations. Members paid $1.00 for the year. CLA met and set up their library in the basement of the Congregational Church. Their books were stored in a building on Main Street owned by Dr. G. A. Robertson, husband of the library president.

In a few years membership increased to 70, and book acquisitions were at 500. The organization was self-sustaining through fundraising, group socials and community concerts. CLA grew quite steadily, setting up library meetings in other locations around town. They moved into the front parlor of the Chelsea Savings Bank when it opened in 1882, and into the Town Hall after 1883.

It was known that St. Mary’s Church set up a library in one of their buildings in the late 1880s and 1890s. Other store merchants set up libraries including W.E. Snyder who owned the Steam Laundry. Prominent Chelsea businessmen were library officers at one time or another, including George Glazier, cashier of the Chelsea Savings Bank and Harmon Holmes, local dry goods merchant and CSB director.

At the turn of the century, higher political and popular support for publicly funded schools made private nonprofit libraries much less popular. The CLA and other groups eventually sold their books to the Chelsea High School at the end of 1903. From there, the only places that one could get books without obligation to buy were at stores like A. E. Winans Jewelry, which ran a circulating library of selected books and magazines.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Chelsea Child Study Club (which became the Woman’s Club of Chelsea) was formed in April of 1931 with 20 members. Mrs. A. A. Palmer, chair of the library committee, supported the opening of a new library in the Palmer-Raftrey building at 110 East Middle Street . The library began on Feb. 28, 1932 with 22 books donated by members, and 100 books loaned by the State Library. Funds were scarce during depression years, but volunteers kept the library open by holding bake sales, card tournaments, puppet shows and benefit movies. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) took over mending the books after teaching several local people the techniques.

In 1934, the library was offered space in the Chelsea State Bank in the upstairs front room. The Village council gave $50 in support and the American Legion Post gave $15 and helped move the books and furniture to the new location. The library budget in the early days was from $100 to $200 per year.

In 1938 new funding became available for operating the library when a one-half mill village tax levy was passed. Taxes were raised to one mill in 1940. Chelsea Library’s first paid librarian, Rena Walworth, was hired in 1941. The library was on the move from one site to another for a few years. In 1940 the trustees rented the ground floor space in the old Kempf Bank building, now being used by Chelsea Print and Graphics.

In December 1944, the Chelsea Village Council purchased a three-story building on E. Middle Street and remodeled it for a Municipal Building by the start of 1946. Chelsea ‘s library reluctantly moved to the second floor the following year when Village Council put the proposal to the voters who decided that the library would have to move. Municipal building space on the second floor was an open space with large windows all across the front, and two back rooms for work and storage.

In the beginning, the Chelsea Library was administered by a library committee from the then Child Study Club from 1932 to 1938. When it became tax supported, trustees were appointed and later elected at the spring Chelsea Village election. “The Friends of the Chelsea Public Library” was formed in 1949. The library trustees’ goal was to buy a permanent site within walking distance of Main Street . Trustees gradually set aside funds in bonds.

In 1956, former library trustee Mrs. Warren Daniels approached Mrs. Edward J. McKune about the idea of donating her large home, the McKune House hotel on South Main for use as a library. Mrs. McKune’s family had owned the hotel since 1909. Edward’s father Timothy McKune had bought the house from the Elisha Congdon family in 1870. Catherine McKune was impressed with the idea that many people would enjoy the house as a community library. Catherine died in June of 1958 and left her house to the Village of Chelsea for perpetual use as a library.

With $5,000 in bonds available, the library hired Ann Arbor architect Thomas Tanner. After joint meetings with the Village council, Friends of the Library and the Library Board, the former McKune Hotel became the focus of a great community project and was completely refurbished for library use. In the “Book of Donors,” there are names of 493 individuals, industries, businesses, clubs, church groups, memorial funds, labor unions, six townships and the Village of Chelsea who contributed money, materials, labor or discounts. A three-room apartment was installed for a caretaker on the second floor. Six small rooms on the third floor were readied for storage. Library Board member Jean Eaton supervised carrying out all the necessary interior upgrades.

In June of 1959 the Chelsea Library was renamed McKune Memorial Library. Resource collections grew and the Historical Room was added on the second floor. Bound Chelsea newspaper editions from the 1870s to current editions were donated by The Chelsea Standard owners Walter and Helen May Leonard for research purposes. In 1961 the library became a member of the new Washtenaw County Library Association, receiving privileges to use its services and borrow its books. A fiction room was added to the north side of the library with funds donated by Gertrude and Warren Daniels.

During the 1970s and 1980s the McKune Memorial Library encouraged the community to increase use of its programs and amenities. Chelsea Area Historical Society, chartered in 1974, was invited to hold their meetings on the second floor in the McKune Room. Katherine Staffan Wagner, niece to the late Catherine Staffan McKune, and Mrs. Jean L. Eaton, spent years cataloging and storing documents, photographs and mementos of early Chelsea . At the same time Harold Jones continued his personal project gathering brief genealogies of local families with data from gravestones and obituaries. This project evolved into today’s “Family History Index.”

By mid-1980s the growing surrounding townships began using the library more frequently. Circulation expanded from 32,000 to 53,000 books a year. At the same time 65 separate maintenance items had been identified by the Ann Arbor architectural firm of Kowalewski & Associates. These included major problems with the heating and cooling system and ceilings. Space and structure restrictions of the McKune builing could not support a substantial book collection. More computer technology and other services were needed.

Repairs and expansion plans from the 1990s to early 2000 were carried out when the library was upgraded from a Class II to Class III library requiring handicap-accessible features. By 1995, a replica of the original McKune House front entrance was reconstructed in place of the crumbling full-length stone porch.

On January 6, 1997 McKune Memorial Library became the Chelsea District Library after four years of deliberations and processing. Townships of Sylvan, Lima and Lyndon, and eventually portions of Dexter supported the library. New computers and Internet services were added to the facility thereafter. Programming continued to grow with “Homebound Services” deliveries to residents in Sylvan, Lima and Lyndon townships, and the start of a “Mystery Book Club.”

Once the district was official, funding to support it was the next goal. A 20 year operating millage and a bond for a new facility were put on the ballot on October 5, 1999. The millage passed but the bond did not. After much more research and discussion with the community, it was put on the ballot again the next year and passed.

Beginnings of the expansion required Library staff, furnishings and collections to be moved to a building on Washington Street in January of 2000. Space consisting of 8,300 sq. ft. was leased from the Chelsea School District.This move gave the library more room, and brought it into compliance with the American Disabilities Act

Library history was made when Chelsea Village Council approved the transfer of ownership of the McKune House to the Chelsea District Library in January of 2002, clearing the way for new construction.

After considering four proposals, the architecture firm of Fanning-Howey Associates was selected to build an 18,000 sq. ft. structure with an 8,500 sq. ft. basement for future expansion. Cost was estimated at $8.2 million. Community residents and organizations were included in planning sessions to review library plans. Additional funding for renovation of the McKune house was successfully raised with a capital campaign project “Building community: A Better Future, A Better Library” in 2004. The campaign was headed by Bob and Marjorie Daniels and Laurel Gravelyn. Their $1.2 million goal was met.

After a decade of planning, refurbishing, expansion in size and concept, a new Chelsea District Library was opened in November of 2006. Increased staff was provided, and 34 public computers – including computers for games and the Internet were added. The upgraded “Family History Index” was installed as a genealogy resource. Bound copies of Chelsea ‘s past newspapers continued to be available on microfilm. Learning and activity areas for children and teens, and many programs for people of all ages, rounded out the CDL as a community learning and social destination.

In 2008, the Library Journal announced that the Chelsea District Library was named “The Best Small Library in America.” This honor was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and included a $15,000 award.

The Chelsea District Library currently serves 14,000 residents in the Chelsea district – City of Chelsea plus Dexter, Lima , Lyndon and Sylvan townships.


Chelsea newspapers from 1877 to 2009

Chelsea 175 th Anniversary – Then and Now 2009

“History of the Public Library in Chelsea ” by Jean L. Eaton, January 1972.

McKune Memorial Library scrapbooks