The History of Old Southworth

Old Southworth Library in the first half of the last century.

Old Southworth Library in the first half of the last century.


It all started when...

The story of the Southworth Library overflows with historic individuals, local history, and passionate community involvement from its earliest days. Its beginnings trace back to a social club initiated by Rev. Salter F. Calhoun, pastor of the Congregational Church of South Dartmouth, which raised funds for the first collection of books. These were housed nearby, at the home of Mrs. Edward Manchester on Prospect Street. When the collection outgrew that location, it was moved to the second floor of Potter’s Store, on the corner of Elm and Bridge Streets. After a fire, the library was moved across Elm Street, where it shared space with the Boy’s club and the office of the town physician, Dr. Andrew Cushman, who paid the rent and bought the fuel.

John H. Southworth

John Hayward Southworth donated the funds to build Old Southworth Library, in honor and memory of his father, Deacon John Southworth, in 1888.

During the late 1880s, John Hayward Southworth, a native of Padanaram, learned of the community’s young library. Southworth had moved from Padanaram to develop an extraordinary business career, but continued to generously support needs in his hometown. Southworth’s had roots in the history of Massachusetts. He was a descendent of Alice Carpenter, a widow who arrived in Plymouth Colony in 1623 to marry George Bradford, whom she had known prior to her first marriage. George Bradford was the first governor of Plymouth Colony and their marriage was the fourth in the settlement. In 1888, he wrote to his one-time business partner, Charles Tucker, to discuss the possibility of helping South Dartmouth’s nascent library. A month later, he wrote again agreeing to fund a library building:

 “As to the Library Building in question you understand that I am willing to invest for the Village of South Dartmouth $5,000 for said building which will be in full for that object and $2,000 for a Library to place in the same building.

Now first in order will be to procure the ground and have it graded ready for the building at their expense and a Deed held by you or some other good and responsible party until the building is up and when done I am to deed all to the Town of South Dartmouth with the Books for the Library valued at $2,000 which I shall purchase of some Book Publisher, expecting to receive advice as to the worth or kinds needed believing, as I do that the Books should be worth on an average or about one dollar each. If that’s understood and satisfactory, go ahead but I am not to pay for the Building directly or indirectly over $5,000 and not over $200 for the Library.”

Mr. Tucker, who was among the sixth generation of his family to live in Dartmouth, moved  quickly to accomplish the next steps. By January of 1889, the Tucker and a group of caring residents had found an important architect, Robert H. Slack, who lived at 395 Elm Street. Slack was the designer of a number of important buildings in New Bedford. According to City of New Bedford Building Department Records, he designed the Cushing Building (now demolished) on the Pleasant Street corner of Sears Court; St. Mary’s Home, a large brick orphanage on Kempton Street, and an 1894 addition to the Bristol County House of Correction on Ash Street. Between 1895 and 1897, he designed impressive homes for Horace Lawton and Benjamin Cummings and a brick furniture store and warehouse for Charles Wing. Slack gave his architectural services as a donation to what he saw as an important library project.

Local contractor Samuel M. Davis was awarded the contract to build the library for $4,785. His son, Zebina B. Davis, a prominent South Dartmouth contractor, who is best known as a builder for Colonel Edward Green at Round Hills, undoubtedly assisted Mr. Davis. Masons for the job were the firm of Jenney & Buffington of New Bedford.

George O. Baker

When Captain Baker sold the land to the Dartmouth Library Association, the transfer was designed to prevent its sale for private use. The deed (which has since been amended) originally stipulated that if the site were no longer used as a library, Baker could buy it back for $200.

On March 3, 1888, Captain George O. Baker sold the land on the corner of Elm and Prospect Streets to the Southworth Library Association, for the sum of $200. The deed contained a restriction that noted, “whenever said Association shall cease to use said lot for library purposes, I or my heirs shall have the right to demand a return deed of said premises upon payment of $200.”

Like so many of the local individuals involved in the creation of Old Southworth Library, Captain Baker’s heritage in the community was a long and important one. Baker’s was a member of the family of sea captains who gave their family name to the historic Dartmouth neighborhood of Bakerville. In 1848, at just thirteen years old, Baker went to sea as a cabin boy on the whaler, George Washington. In an interview for the New Bedford Evening Standard, Baker reflected on his life and travels noting, “I went to a banquet with a governor in Ecuador, and we feasted off fricasseed parrots and roasted monkeys." The newspaper described him as “one-time whaleman, one-time member of the legislature, and one-time commander-in-chief for his highness, King Bambazoo, potentate of the Ascension Islands.”

On July 26, 1889 with construction nearly completed, the Evening Standard printed a rendering, floor plan, and complete description of the Southworth Library. The Standard noted, “The building stands on high ground at the intersection of two streets facing the south and east, the entrance being through the porch on the east side. The semi-circular end, in which is situated the reading room is toward the South, and its windows command a view of the mouth of the Apponegansett.”

The newspaper went on to say, “The exterior of the building is of rough pasture stone with natural color and moss on them. The door and window trimmings, heads, and arches are of brick and the sills and belt of rough faced granite. Under the whole building there is a deep cemented cellar.”

Ground Floor Plan

The interior features were a matter of pride to the community. The walls were 12 feet high and the ceilings rose to 16 feet in the center. "The flat part being of selected Florida pine, with ribs of California red wood dividing the panels, and the sloping part being all red wood.” The paper went on to say, “The doors, door and window finish and the paneled dados in the rooms are also red wood. All the floors are narrow birch except the porch, which is tiled. The Southworth Library’s centerpiece was the reading room, which featured a semi-circular end, and a large open fireplace “with an arched opening, built of pressed and molded brick with a tiled hearth.” The six windows in the room featured “top lights of colored glass.”

Every part of the library involved community support. The ivy was planted by Andrew Snow and allowed to grow up the stone walls of the Library, and the sidewalk was a gift of William Reynard.


Hosea M. Knowlton

The highly respected district attorney, Hosea M. Knowlton was the speaker at the library's dedication ceremony. He was well known for prosecuting Lizzie Borden, and later served as the Attorney General for the State of Massachusetts.

On Saturday, February 1, 1890, the Southworth Library was officially dedicated. District Attorney Hosea M. Knowlton was the keynote speaker. Knowlton was one of the area's most well-known and respected citizens. He had risen to prominence as the prosecutor in the Lizzie Borden murder trial. He also served as Massachusetts’ Attorney General from 1894 - 1901. The Daily Mercury, devoted two full pages to a description of the event.

Charles Tucker died on September 15, 1890, and John Hayward Southworth died on January 16, 1891— less than a year after the Southworth Library dedication. But their generous efforts to enrich the quality of life in the Village of Padanaram live on today.

20th Century to the Present

After 1908 electric lights replaced the original "large chandeliers with chimney lamps" remembered by early librarians. Mrs. Elsie Haskell, in her History of the Dartmouth Public Library System, noted that in 1921 a $475 donation from the Padanaram Improvement Association brought plumbing and running water into the building.

In 1927, the Southworth Library Association transferred ownership of the growing library to the Town of Dartmouth. The deed noted that the heirs of Captain George O. Baker, his widow, Mary and two daughters waived their rights to a return of the deed.


Southworth Library

A drawing from the Springfield Daily Voice.

In 1938 Girl Scout Mariners, directed by Miss Louise Strongman, sang Christmas carols on the Library steps. One year later, as the collection grew, new bookcases were added. The Children’s Room was relocated to the basement. Several generations of Dartmouth readers grew up making after-school and Saturday trips down to the Children’s Room, feeling it was their special place, far away from the adults upstairs.

By the 1960s, the library had outgrown its building. The Town of Dartmouth constructed a new library on Dartmouth Street, which opened in 1969. Since that date, the old Southworth Library has been used by a variety of civic organizations including a senior citizens craft center. In 1987 the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust moved their offices to the Elm and Prospect Streets building.

For 79 years the library, given by John Haywood Southworth and designed by Robert H. Slack, served as the intellectual center of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The Richardsonian Romanesque building has remained essentially unaltered since its construction in 1889. It has served as a public space, used and loved by the community for nearly 129 years. It is included as one of the major contributing buildings in National Register Padanaram Village Historic District. It is also one of the finest public buildings in the Greater New Bedford area. In 1987, the building itself was nominated to the State and National Register of Historic Buildings.

What will the future hold? Will the building remain as a community asset, open to the public and continuing its legacy of enriching the quality of life in Padanaram? That is up to you.


You can make your donation to keep Old Southworth open to the public.

A special Note of thanks

This text was mainly adapted from the outstanding research of historian Peggi Medeiros, which originally appeared in the building's nomination to the Register of Historic Buildings.  We are very grateful to Medeiros for her painstaking research, and to Elsie Haskell for her History of Dartmouth Public Libraries 1878-1967. Without their work, we might all lose the stories behind this cultural treasure.

A contemporary view of a portion of the reading room

A contemporary view of a portion of the reading room