Where was Colorado’s first public library? Here’s what we found

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4min 26sec
Courtesy of Longmont Pioneers Museum.
Library Hall, the large building left center, was built in 1871, and served as Longmont’s first school, town hall, library and community center. It was paid for and partly furnished by Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, of New York, for whom the park, one block north, was named. Today it is an apartment house on Pratt St. The wood frame building has intersecting gable roofs, entry vestibule and a belltower. Fences surround it and the other wood frame residences nearby.

Colorado today boasts 267 libraries of all sizes across the state. But where was its first library? That’s what one CPR listener wondered. 

In 1859, there was a “circulating library” in Denver, according to History Colorado. But these setups were often commercial operations that did not last long.

Courtesy of Longmont Museum.
Philanthropist Elizabeth Thompson played a key role in the establishment of Longmont.

For our purposes, though, we wanted to know about the first permanent structure to house a library. As it turns out, Longmont holds that honor, and according to History Colorado’s “Colorado Encyclopedia,” it established its library in 1871.

CPR spoke with Alyce DeSantis of the St. Vrain Historical Society in Longmont to find out how the city got its library. 

“Elizabeth Thompson, a widow from New York, heard about a settlement called the Chicago-Colorado Colony – the precursor to Longmont today,” DeSantis said.  “One of their founding principles was on temperance – abstaining from alcohol. That was really close to her belief system.”

So Thompson donated money to the fledgling colony, with part of the money earmarked to buy land for a public library. She even donated the library’s first books, an organ, and a bell that kept time in Longmont for decades.

Children in front of the Longmont Library Hall, 1896.
Longmont Museum archives
Children in front of the Longmont Library Hall, 1896.

DeSantis said the building became an important meeting place.

“Town board meetings were held there, debates, celebrations like weddings,” DeSantis said. “Church meetings as well, until the town’s members could build their own churches.”

Eventually, Longmont outgrew its first library. The two-story building was sold and turned into a private residence in 1898, according to the City of Longmont. Today it is now apartments.

But a town tradition remains from those early days.

When Thompson planned to visit what would become Longmont, town officials organized a Strawberry Festival in her honor, ordering a ton of strawberries to be delivered by train. The strawberries never arrived – but the festival went on. Today, it is now a fundraiser for the St. Vrain Historical Society.

At this year’s Strawberry Festival, attendees can expect more than 80 vendors selling antiques and collectibles as well as strawberry shortcakes for sale. The festival takes place May 18 and 19 at the Boulder County Fairgrounds.