Way back in 1897, a group of young women in Summerville decided to start what today would be called a book club.
The charter members of the Chautauqua Reading Circle took their charge seriously. These ladies didn’t sit around and chat about bestsellers over tea so much as they actually studied serious literature.
When they called roll at their meetings, each member was expected to be able to recite a quote from their reading. If they didn’t get it just right, they imposed fines on each another.
Gently, of course.
At a time in our history when educational opportunities for women were not ideal or abundant, these women took it upon themselves to enrich their minds. It is an amazing story of the human spirit.
The Reading Circle was no Victorian fad. The club grew, the women read more and more and quickly became a cultural force in little ol’ Summerville, back when it was still just a small resort.
Within a decade, the Chautauqua Reading Circle had grown so large, and compiled so many books, that the ladies decided to start a library. They put their collection on public display in various buildings around town but soon decided they needed their own building.
So the Reading Circle began a campaign.
In the process, they changed the Flowertown in the Pines forever, and for the better.
The entire community took notice of the Reading Circle’s efforts, and generously stepped up to pitch in.
The town donated land on Central Avenue for the library and local contractor Jim Cooper offered to build it.
The ladies ultimately changed their organization’s name to the Henry Timrod Literary and Library Society, in honor of the Charleston-born poet of the Confederacy — who allegedly taught in the town before the war.
The Timrod opened on April 15, 1915, and would remain the only library in Summerville for more than 60 years, until the county opened its own on Trolley Road in the 1970s.
The Timrod is where Summerville came to study history, to read the latest in fiction and poetry. Membership in the library was handed down from one generation to the next. Today, some of the Timrod’s oldest members can still find faint marks in the back of some of the library’s books, denoting where their grandparents read them.
That is the sort of tradition and history most towns aren’t lucky enough to have.
“When you see all the changes in the town of Summerville, when you get past everything that’s grown up around I-26, it is still the same town,” says Cindy Koontz, director of the Timrod. “We still have wonderful community support.”
And the Timrod is one of those things that grounds Summerville in its glorious past, and makes it the great place it is today.
On Saturday, the Timrod will celebrate the centennial of its building, and everyone is invited.
Mayor Bill Collins will read a proclamation from Town Council, Ed West — president of the board of directors at the Summerville Dorchester Museum — will describe the town as it was in 1915 and local historian and author Barbara Hill will speak.
“It’s a celebration of the building and a thank-you for the town of Summerville,” Koontz says.
Because of its appearance, or perhaps its age, some people think the Timrod is just a museum these days. But it is a working library with 50,000 volumes, a trove of Civil War material, and cheap alternative to reading current bestsellers. Membership starts at $15 a year, and anyone can join.
The Timrod continues its tradition of recognizing the importance of culture with regular programs that include author lectures, storytelling and programs for kids. It is Summerville’s very own version of the Charleston Library Society, which has been an unparalleled cultural force for nearly 300 years.
And that is very important work.
So drop by and wish the Timrod a happy centennial. Join its growing rolls and thank Koontz and her staff for continuing the work started more than a century ago by a small group of smart, progressive women.
They will never know how much they have enriched Summerville’s soul.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.