November 17, 1882: Duluth women establish the Ladies Literary Association, predecessor to today’s Duluth Public Library

On this day in Duluth in 1882, several Duluth women of means established the Ladies’ Library Association. They included Caroline Ray, wife of J. D., and Ida Spencer, wife of George, who donated space in the building he owned with Melvin Forbes, the Metropolitan Block at 113–119 West Superior Street. Forbes and Spencer were part of Duluth’s burgeoning grain trade, investing in grain elevators just like their friends Roger Munger and Clinton Markell. In 1883 Munger and Markell built the Grand Opera House at 333 West Superior Street. When the Opera House opened, the Ladies’ Library Association moved into some rooms on one of its its upper floors. That home lasted until January 29, 1889, when the Opera House and all its contents were consumed by fire. The Association was left with a check from an insurance company for $500—and nothing else. Meanwhile, Duluth had regained its status as a city in 1887. Instead of rebuilding, the Ladies’ Library Association petitioned the City Council to establish a public library and donated its $500 to jumpstart the library’s funding. In 1890, under Mayor Sutphin, Duluth’s library Board was established with George Spencer as its first president. Other board members included J. D. Ensign, historian Dwight Woodbridge, and Catholic Bishop James McGolrick. Woodridge had once been the librarian of Duluth’s first Library Association (1869–1878). You can read about that first library, and the rest of the history of the Duluth Public Library, here.

Metropolitan Block, ca. 1890s. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

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