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The Barney Memorial Library

The Barney Memorial Library:

Its Origins Over Two Centuries

by Jean Johnson

Part I

Like the churches and houses in Farmington village whose stories reach back centuries, the Barney Library’s history claims many origins, encompassing myriad efforts of dedicated citizens. Since books in the Colonial times were expensive and not readily available outside of cities, only wealthy readers could afford a collection of varied and up-to-date books.

August 6, 2008

© Brooke Martin

Samuel Gridley, a blacksmith and shopkeeper who died in 1712, was one early example. His ample estate included a large collection of books, which Julius Gay (Farmington’s 19th- and early-20th-century historian) called “good Sunday reading.” Beyond directly religious books, Gridley’s library included the following titles: Kometoppaiia … an Historical Account of all the Comets which have appeared from the Beginning of the World unto … 1683; Zion in Distress, or the Groans of the Protestant Church; The Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather’s book on witchcraft in Salem; and Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World, which was ordered burned by the president of Harvard College. Also, the collection contained several pieces of books. So valuable were books that even pieces were saved.

The solution for the growing number of educated Colonial readers in Farmington was to set up a group library, funded by shares of subscriptions. Small efforts, which left no records, were halted by the Revolutionary War.

During and soon after the war, new experiences and contacts generated interest in the world beyond the Colonial town—soldiers’ travels, newspaper reports, and foreign fighters, particularly the two visits of Rochambeau’s French forces and their social events. Farmingtonites wanted to read about other worlds. The rapid building of turnpikes and stagecoach lines eased travel to and from cities. Town merchants quickly expanded their overseas trade to the West Indies and South America, and eventually to China.

Soon after the war, in August 1785, six young men organized a brief subscription library. No records remain, but some books were passed onto the new 1795 library of the First Society of Farmington. It comprised 37 members who contributed 380 volumes worth $664, in addition to the leather-bound books from the earlier group. Most were religious and moral volumes, but Gulliver’s Travels, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, several French novels and Don Quixote enlivened the fiction section, while The Iliad and Goldsmith’s Poems broadened the poetry shelf.

The Revolution had inspired patriotism and curiosity about history, biography and travel, largely about Europe. Yet surprisingly, “Hindostan” histories and “Mohomet” biographies were included, giving variety to the books about Oliver Cromwell and Benjamin Franklin, as did the story of General Israel Putnam, Connecticut’s own hero in the Revolutionary War. Capt. James Cook’s Voyages Around the World and Carsten Niebuhr’s Travels in Arabia also added exotic knowledge to the common European tour books.

Despite the few unusual titles, however, the religious and moral tomes dominated. Julius Gay’s research revealed that Farmingtonites of that day really enjoyed incorporating their beliefs and their readings into their daily lives. Gay wrote that “all classes alike discussed the subtle distinctions of their theology with an excitement and too often with a bitterness unknown even to the modern politicians. They held stormy debates on these high themes by the wayside, at the country store, and over their … New England rum at the tavern.”

Bookplate of the 1795 library, from Farmington, Connecticut: THe Village of Beautiful Homes


Yet Gay saw signs of change to come: more sophisticated tastes, greater interest in the larger world, and the books that could provide such knowledge. The 1795 First Society Library was popular. Drawings for books were held on the first Sunday of the month at the librarian’s Main Street home, where the books were stored. The librarian was Deacon Porter, who was also the village tailor.

As Gay reported: “When all were assembled and had accounted for the books charged them, the new books or any old ones desired by two persons, were put up at auction, and the right to the next month’s reading was struck off for a few pennies, adding on the average $2.50 to the annual income of the company.” Fines were levied before the auctions, for overdue or damaged books, even for a page corner turned down.

On January 1, 1801, the library’s name was changed to the Monthly Library in Farmington. It lasted until 1814, but a few weeks later it reopened as the Phoenix Library in the kitchen of Deacon Porter’s new home.
During the same period, another library, called the Village Library, was formed. A group of young men met on Saturdays under the church horse sheds (built for those who traveled some distance to services). Each boy contributed 10 cents. Their first purchase was The World Displayed, two of a twenty-volume set. Soon they added Robinson Crusoe. Capt. Selah Porter was the librarian. Their bookplate bore a motto underneath an etching of a proper young lady reading at home. Below the etching were the lines: “Beauties in vain their pretty eyes roll: Charms strike the senses, but merit wins the soul.” (Julius Gay in his history added, “Thus early did the Village Library recognize the value of female education.”)
In March 1826, the Village Library merged with the Phoenix, (the original 1795 First Society Library and later the Monthly Library). Selah Porter replaced Deacon Elijah Porter, the longtime librarian of the 1795/Phoenix libraries.

In 1835, 12-year Farmington Academy principal Simeon Hart took over, but only for a month since he had organized a boys’ school in his home. His resignation meant that again all the library’s books had to be moved.

In February 1839 the Village Library/Phoenix became the Farmington Library Company and moved to the old Academy building with William Porter as librarian. In his 1890 address at the opening of the later Village Library, Julius Gay vividly described a meeting of the then Farmington Library Company at the old Academy after the move there in 1839:

Portrait of Julius Gay, by Norma Wright Sloper

© Norma Wright Sloper

“The meetings were held on the first Sunday evening of the month immediately after the monthly concert. To this missionary meeting came the patrons of the library from the Eastern Farms, from White Oak, and from most of the districts of the town, each with his four books tied up not unusually in a red bandanna handkerchief. Here we waited, more or less patiently, the men on the right hand and the women on the left, while Deacon Hart gave us a summary of missionary intelligence for the month, and the Rev. William S. Porter elucidated his views of family government and the divine promises to faithful parents.

“Then, when Dr. Porter had expounded some suitable portion of the Scriptures and invoked the blessing of God upon us and on all dwellers in heathen lands, when the choir in the northeast corner of the hall had concluded our devotions with the Missionary Hymn, a large part of the meeting repaired to the library room below. Here were the books, a thousand or more, some in cases, some on benches, some on a big table, some in rows, some in piles,—but all scattered without regard to character or size or numbering in a confusion that would have astounded the orderly soul of Deacon Elijah Porter. The books purchased during the last month were announced, and the first reading of each was determined by a spirited auction at which every book was described as a ‘very interesting work.’

“Then after tumbling over the book piles with varying success, and with the excitement unknown in more orderly collections, of possibly unearthing some unexpected treasure, each had his four books charged, and departed to enjoy the spoils of his search.”

The nomadic town library once again was fated to move. In 1851, the Congregational Church’s Ecclesiastical Society discovered that the Farmington Academy’s open space, created since the school classes had left, was far too popular with programs deemed unsuitable to the church owners: circus-like performances, political orators (abolitionists) who caused riots, mesmerists, “uncouth magic lantern shows,” and war dances by “imitation Indians.” The Ecclesiastical Society bought out its two other partners, assuming sole ownership of the building and also forcing out the library. The books were moved to the office of Simeon Hart, who was appointed librarian again. He died soon after, and the again homeless library was moved to the stone store across Main Street.

Luckily, two years later in 1855, the town shared its space in the new record building—the town clerk’s office. This arrangement lasted for 35 years. A stipulation was added: that any responsible citizen could borrow books from the library “upon paying a reasonable compensation,” thus eliminating yearly subscriptions or buying of shares.

The town clerk, Chauncey D. Cowles, was the first librarian, succeeded by Dr. James Cumming, the principal of the Middle District School. In his tenure, the Farmington Library Company became prosperous and well organized. The most valuable, suitable library books were bought then. Starting in January 1860, Julius Gay, the historian quoted here, served as librarian for eight years.

The Records Office that housed the Farmington Library Company from 1855 to 1890

© The Village of Beautiful Homes

By 1890, the library once again accepted Farmington’s hospitality for a section in its newly built Town Hall of that century. Gay closed his address with this wish: “And now, after its wanderings from one temporary resting place to another, it has found an honorable and fitting place of abode. May it with many additions and … generous care continue for another century to bless this village.” In one way his wish came true, though he could not foresee the extraordinary people and future gifts that transformed the Farmington Library Company into the Sarah Brandegee Barney Library of today (the subject of Part II of this article).

Danford Newton Barney was 31 years old and a prominent business leader when the 1890 Town Hall was built. His mother Sarah Brandegee Barney was still alive, and her sister, Julia Brandegee, had run a successful rival library since 1882. Both will appear in Part II.


Part II


In Part I, we traced the many origins of the Sarah Brandegee Memorial Library of today and the wanderings of the book collections that comprised the town’s various libraries. From 1795 until 1890, six different library organizations were housed in seven librarian’s homes, the Old Academy, the stone store, and the town clerk’s office for 35 years. Finally, the nomadic library moved into the new 1890 Town Hall, then to Main Street opposite the First Church of Christ, Congregational. Occupying a ground-floor room, the then-named Farmington Library Co. was no longer a shareholder organization, though subscription memberships were still a method for buying new books.

In 1890, the Farmington Library Co. was housed in the newly built Town Hall,  located  where the fire station is now, at 76 Main Street. From Farmington Magazine, 1901.

© Village of Beautiful Homes

We begin Part II in 1882, eight years before the Town Hall was built, when Julia Brandegee, the younger sister of Sarah Brandegee Barney (a Miss Porter’s School graduate) took a precedent-breaking step. She opened her own library—she, a single Farmington woman, instead of a company of men. Julia was also the aunt of Danford Newton Barney, the successful young businessman of Part I. Ann Arcari, Farmington Room librarian and president of the Historical Society, reported in her research that Julia’s motives were not obvious, since the subscription Farmington Library Co. had been securely settled in the town clerk’s office for 27 years. “Perhaps she felt there should be a free library … or that the existing library did little to attract young people, as most titles were ponderous tomes on religion or morals,” Arcari said.

Brandegee first launched her library in a friend’s house with 14 books, geared to the interests of the Boys Club. Before long she owned 400 books and bought an old shoemaker’s shop on Farmington Avenue (opposite High Street).

Portrait of Julia Brandegee by Robert Brandegee, Barney Library.

© Barney Library

Julius Gay described the library as “a tenement house … transformed by the subtle magic of a genial philosophy into the … Tunxis Library. Entertaining books fill every nook and corner and antique furniture ranged around the vast old fireplace welcomes readers young and old to a free and healthful entertainment.”

Both sister Sarah Brandegee Barney and nephew D. N. Barney organized a support organization for Julia — the Village Library Co., which also included Sarah Porter. This helped Julia to achieve the inviting home-like library, shown in her nephew D. N. Barney’s photograph (from Julius Gay’s history) below.
D. Newton Barney’s photograph of Julia Brandegee’s Tunxis Library,
from Farmington, Connecticut: The Village of Beautiful Homes, 1906.

The Farmington Library Co., operating in the small, crowded town clerk’s office, quickly reacted to Julia’s enterprise. Thomas Porter, the librarian, visited her with this greeting, recorded in several town histories: “I want to know what you are doing to run out the town library.” Chris Bickford, in Farmington in Connecticut, adds, “He told her there were not enough people paying 50 cents a year to borrow books to cover his salary of $5.”

Undeterred, Julia enlarged her library with her family’s support, accepting book and money donations, stacking shelves with bound magazine volumes, encyclopedias and popular books for all ages. She opened two afternoons and evenings, rather than only on Sunday, a day of rest, attracting women and students, in addition to Sunday’s male businessmen and workers. In contrast to the plain design of the Farmington Library Co.’s room in the town clerk’s office, Julia “usually had a fire going … and served tea and cookies, especially to the girls,” according to Ann Arcari’s research.

Julius Gay summarized Julia’s impact on the children: “She wanted all … to have food for their minds as well … [as] their bodies. … For some years, she and her sister Sarah Brandegee Barney gave a Christmas party for the village children, with a huge Christmas tree and a live Santa Claus … presents for all—pockets of nuts and candies, a sweater for school … and a good book for each.”
When the new Town Hall was built in 1890 on Main Street (where the fire station is now), Julia Brandegee’s Tunxis Free Library merged with the Farmington Library Co. from the town clerk’s office, once represented by the fearful librarian Tom Porter. Julia was named librarian, and her Tunxis Library contributed 1,500 books. The other, older Farmington Library Co. added several hundred of its most valued books. With the merger of the two libraries, Julia’s philosophy influenced the new entity. It became a free library like her Tunxis one, and books appealing to young people and women were purchased, as well as literature to feed readers’ minds.

Surprisingly, Julia Brandegee’s Tunxis Library building, the old shoemaker’s shop and tenement (rented) house, survives today in the Brick Walk Shops, according to Arline Whitaker’s research. She and her husband, Lucius (Buzz) Whitaker, own the shops. It was originally bought by the preservationist Dr. Walls W. Bunnell, moved across Farmington Avenue and renovated into the Yarn Winder Shop. Today it is attorney Christian Hoheb’s office.

D. Newton Barney’s photograph of Julia Brandegee’s Tunxis Library,  from Farmington, Connecticut: The Village of Beautiful Homes, 1906.

© Village of Beautiful Homes


The merger of the Tunxis and Farmington Library Co. and the move into the Town Hall created a boom in membership, donations and the size of the collection, Bickford writes. By 1905, the shelves held 5,000 books and membership reached 300. Despite this growth, Julia Brandegee dreamed of seeing a separate library building, and in 1901 “mention was made of her hopes to live long enough to see the books … moved on to the shelves of a new fireproof structure.” Brandegee’s nephew D. N. Barney responded to her wish. In 1909, a year after his mother’s death, he began planning to construct a library as a memorial to her.
Portrait of D. Newton Barney, by Robert
Brandegee. Barney Library.

Betty Coykendall researched the complicated history of Barney’s role in the realization of the Sarah Brandegee Memorial Library. She writes that it began with Sarah Porter’s codicil in her 1900 will, in which she left land to seven trustees. The property was to become “a public park to be called the Village Green.” It had already been purchased “with funds … contributed … by a number of my former pupils.” Porter also left $3,000, the income of which was to pay for maintaining and improving the property, the park opposite the former Elm Tree Inn on Farmington Avenue. The trustees were to apply for a state charter for a tax-exempt corporation to own the land. Oddly, they were also to ask whether a library on the land would violate the will. The legislature approved the corporation and added three trustees: D. N. Barney, Waldo Chase and Alfred Pope of the Hill-Stead. The corporation was to be named the Farmington Village Green and Library Association (the FVGLA). Barney was elected president. In 1909, Barney’s offer to construct a public library was presented to the new association. He would donate $25,000 if the trustees would match it within one year, but the group failed to do that.

Portrait of D. Newton Barney, by Robert Brandegee. Barney Library.


Barney, the astute entrepreneur, invented another solution. He bought the First Church’s land, between it and the 1904 Center School (now Noah Wallace), in a special deal in which he arranged to lease the part where he planned to build the library. He cleared the plot of the buildings there: the horse sheds for those who rode or drove carriages to church, and the Old Academy, which was moved up to the corner of Hart Street, where it stands now (the former Art Guild building).
The Old Academy building, which was moved to make way for the Barney Library.

Barney also applied to the state to expand the FVGLA’s territory to the entire town, thus enabling the group to accept the building he was constructing, which was outside Sarah Porter’s Village Green. His request was approved, so in 1918 Barney gave to the library association his “free public library,” to be named the Sarah Brandegee Barney Memorial Library. He also donated 200 shares of U.S. Steel preferred stock for its upkeep, worth $20,000 then. A special library committee of nine trustees was added to the basic FVGLA, including his wife, Laura Dunham Barney, and Julia Brandegee; the committee of nine members included five women.

Other donations arrived shortly. Trustee Whitney Palache established a fund for history books in memory of his son James, who had died in World War I. Barney again gave stock, 100 shares of his company, the Hartford Electric Light Company (HELCO). In the 1930s, the FVGLA acquired the library land that Barney had leased from the church. By 1946, the library discovered that its investment income alone couldn’t support its needs, although the town provided backup funds. To rise to the fiscal need without seeking more taxes, the association formed a fund-raising committee called the Friends of the Farmington Library, an official arm of the FVGLA that raises more than $30,000 annually.

The Old Academy building, which was moved to make way for the Barney Library.


In 1959, two vital events occurred. The West End Library, active in Unionville since 1894, was persuaded by Raymond Brooks and D. N. Barney’s son, Austin Dunham Barney, to merge with the FVGLA, becoming a branch of the Village Library. In that same year, a children’s wing was added to the Farmington Village building.

The 1980s brought an even more dramatic change. The FVGLA, under Lucius (Buzz) Whitaker, formed a building committee to raise $2.5 million, with town support, to build a larger, modern public library on Monteith Drive and to renovate the Village Library. With the opening of the new main Farmington Library in 1983, the Village Library became the branch library. In 1999, however, it was named simply the Barney Library. From 2001 through 2003, while the main Farmington Library was closed for renovation and updating, the Barney served the whole town as its only library.

Today, in 2008, the 90-year-old neoclassical building needs $3 million in renovations and modern technological changes to fulfill its mission “as a branch library and a community arts and history center.” Basic needs include fire stairs, elevator service, a children’s activity room, energy efficiency, and electrical and general repairs.

The library association has sought private support, as well as assistance through a $1 million bond approved by taxpayers in a referendum on Nov. 4, 2008. A campaign has been waged to assure Farmington that its historic library and cultural center will live to welcome us and our children and their children, reminding us of our special heritage. Meanwhile, the Sarah Brandegee Barney Library today is creating an exciting heritage for all of us, children and adults, in its lively educational and arts programs.

The author wishes to thank all the researchers mentioned for their contributions, and the professional help of Jane Maciel, Kathy Lescoe and Susan Porter at the Barney Library.
Barney Library Program Statement (2008)

For each of the past three years, the Barney Library has presented more than 325 programs with an average yearly attendance of 6,000 people, spanning ages from six weeks to 95. Seventy percent of the library’s programs are offered for children, and 30 percent target the adult audience.

Children studying insects at the Barney Library.

© Brooke Martin


Children’s activities include infant, toddler and parent groups, preschool story hours, school-age book talks, class visits, craft workshops, cooking demonstrations, literacy games, movies and seasonal celebrations. Special guests have included puppeteers, magicians, musicians, trained animals and clowns.

The calendar of adult events has featured computer lessons, book discussions, author talks, travelogues, musical concerts, wildlife experts, theatrical performances, gardening enthusiasts, health presentations, dance demonstrations, movies, and speakers from other countries.

In addition, the library offers library services to individuals who are home-bound, as well as practice English sessions for speakers of other languages.