The Western Library Association (Coonskin Library) in Athens County, Ohio, is one of the earliest examples of a successful social library founded in the Northwest Territory—an honor that is not only significant for the township of Ames, Ohio, but also for Ohio University, which shared its earliest pioneer families, its educational background and its history of books.
In 1797, the settlers were, with very few exceptions, New Englanders, and a large portion of the men had served as officers in the Revolutionary War. It would be difficult to find a more educated community in the Northwest Territory.
Among the individuals touched by the Coonskin Library’s influence was Archibald Brown, a member of the Ohio University Board of Trustees; the “father” of OHIO’s Alumni Association and the first salaried librarian for Ohio University. His association with Ohio University was an illustrious one that lasted well over six decades, and began with the influence of the first library in Ames Township.
Archibald, the youngest of 10 children, was barely over a year old when the Brown family moved from Waterford, a settlement near Marietta, to their new home in Ames Township.
The 80-mile water route to the Brown family home was an arduous seven-day trip, but a good solution to solving the transportation problem of moving domestic goods without roads. Archibald’s father, Capt. Benjamin Brown, traveled with the family’s belongings in pirogues (large dugout canoes) down the Muskingum and Ohio rivers, up the Hockhocking River and finally to Federal Creek.
The remainder of the Brown family joined the family of Ephraim Cutler, founder of the Ames settlement and son of Manasseh Cutler. The two families traveled on horseback through 20 miles of hand-cut paths that were cleared months earlier by Capt. Brown.
As the Ames community grew, parents worried that their children were not being properly educated. Although a small handful of children did attend school inside Ephraim Cutler’s home, the school term was irregular and erratic, at best.
In the autumn of 1801 or 1802, a public meeting was held and “the intellectual wants of the neighborhood became the subject of the conversation. It was suggested that a library would supply what was needed,” wrote Ephraim Cutler. Unfortunately, the settlers had little money to purchase and to transport the relatively costly books from the East.
“So scarce was money I can hardly remember seeing a piece of coin until I was a well-grown boy” (Hollow & Stone), Archibald said.
The project’s finances were, indeed, a perplexing problem. After extensive discussions, however, the settlers agreed to send their furs, in trade, for books from the city of Boston.
“I well recollect a large collection of bear skins, a wonder in my eyes, [that were] brought to my father’s house to be taken by Samuel Brown” to Boston, wrote Archibald. The proceeds from the furs were “to purchase books for the library. There may have been coonskins [raccoon furs] in the collection, but they were too numerous …in those days” (MSS 51) to take much notice.
A few years earlier, Benjamin Franklin had pointed out that “outside of Boston, there is scarcely a bookstore in all of the colonies worth mentioning” (Nicholson). So of course, that was the communities’ selected book destination.
Samuel Brown, cousin of Archibald, and his wife headed East in the middle of May 1803, and they were gone for about eight months. While in Boston, the couple met with Thaddeus Harris, Harvard librarian and a recent visitor to Ames, and Ephraim’s father, Manasseh Cutler. Both men, well fitted for the task, helped to hand-select books for the small pioneer library.
“I well remember, though very young,” wrote Archibald of Samuel Brown’s return home on horseback, “Coming to my father’s house very early one morning, about the last of December, I think the day after Christmas 1803” (MSS 51).
The neighbors gathered, maybe eight or 10 men with their wives and children, to wait the unveiling of the books. “I was there,” wrote Thomas Ewing, graduate of OHIO, “at the untying of the sack and the pouring out of the treasure” (Nicholson). Everyone was in awe— as if a goldmine had been discovered.
At a cost of $76.50, (today’s value: $1,498.69)it was an impressive collection of 51 books for the small community. History books were the main staple that formed the list. Among the books purchased, 10 volumes were written by Goldsmith, a popular author for the time, who wrote not only about history, but also about poetry and nature.
Some half-a-dozen books contained religious reflections and moral essays, and “for the inquisitive seeker of facts there was ready Harris’ Minor Encyclopedia, in four volumes,” wrote Ephraim’s granddaughter Sarah Cutler. “While Morse’s Geography and his Gazetteer with their maps supplied any student with a vast amount of information concerning the world.”
Those books became affectionately known as the Coonskin Library.
“The traces of [the Coonskin Library and] its influence are [still] visible in the surrounding community, and it has to a great extent given tone and character to that community,” wrote the members of Athens County Pioneer Association in 1882.
This influence is a unique chapter in the history of the Northwest Territory and in the history of libraries and Ohio University.
The Ohio University and surrounding community is invited to celebrate University Libraries’ 200th anniversary at the Founders Day Symposium from 1:30 to 4 p.m. March 25 on the fourth floor of Alden Library.
Titled “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation,” this event will serve as the official kickoff for University’s Libraries’ bicentennial. Speakers at the symposium include:
The Founders Day Symposium is one of several events in the coming year that will celebrate University Libraries’ long history of service to the University and Athens communities.