The Sedalia High School, located at Sixth Street and Massachusetts Avenue, was built in 1895. The massive stone building cost $40,000 and served grades nine through 12. After Smith-Cotton High School was built in 1925, the building served as Martha Letts Junior High School. Though Sedalia was proud of its high school, the building lacked several facilities including shower rooms, a cafeteria and a library.
School officials justified the lack of a library by noting that students could use the facilities of the Sedalia Public Library. This assumption, while perhaps comforting school officials who had invested a great deal of money in a building the state would very shortly identify as dangerous and inadequate, was incorrect.
The Sedalia Library Association, organized in 1871, first served as a boosterish association that pushed the building of the water works and other public enterprises. After being dormant for some years, a group of women created the “Free Reading Room.” Located in various sites in downtown Sedalia, including White’s Hall and the courthouse basement, it maintained a collection of books, magazines and newspapers.
In 1900, Andrew Carnegie contributed $50,000 for the construction of a new building to house the Sedalia Public Library. The building was finished in 1901 and installed its collection of about 3,240 books, 360 of them written for children. Within just a few months, the library had become aware of the limits of its collection.
Superintendent of Schools G.V. Buchanan collaborated with public librarian Miss Faith Smith to produce a report about the library’s needs. The population of Sedalia, according to the federal census, was 15,230, though the report estimated the population to be 18,000. Of that number, 5,136 (4,195 white and 641 black) were identified as between ages 6 and 20, what the state considered school-aged. Some 3,237 of these young people were enrolled in the Sedalia public schools.
The report further indicated that 284 children between 6 and 15 — about 5 percent of the children in the city — used the public library facilities. These figures suggest that few of the high school students were actually reading outside school. Buchanan and Smith concluded that the limited selection of books available at the public library caused many young people to avoid the library.
On Jan. 14, 1902, the Sedalia Democrat announced that the Rev. Frank Cannon, J.M. Cannon, D.H. Smith, Frank Meyer and Ira Hinsdale would begin canvassing the city to secure donations to purchase children’s books for the library. The three local newspapers announced that they would receive donations from those not contacted by the committee. The group hoped to raise at least $1,000.
The library was specific about the types of books it would purchase. It specifically mentioned “solid reading,” meaning nonfiction and the classics of fiction. The books would have large type and illustrations; Miss Smith acknowledged that even though the children could read the books, they would not check out books printed in small type and without pictures.
In addition, the library wished to give the children the “world’s best literature.” At the time, educators made rigid distinctions between quality fiction, usually older works referred to as “classics,” and contemporary popular fiction, which they believed was too sensational for impressionable readers, especially young people. The popular novels about western outlaws, big city detectives and mismatched lovers were condemned by ministers and teachers alike as detrimental to health and morals.
Books considered to be appropriate for youngsters included biographies of brave and noble men, histories showing the superiority of the United States and the less than admirable status of other nations, books about science and modern inventions such as electricity, and fiction that presented a moral lesson.
By Jan. 22, the fundraising committee had gathered $790. The Democrat published the names of those who had contributed and the amounts each gave. The list served as advertisement for those businesses and businessmen who contributed as well as a means of shaming others into giving.
Contributions continued to accumulate. On Jan. 26, the Democrat announced a total of $1,025.25 had been given by 291 individuals or businesses. The donations included 13 contributions of $25 each, two of $12.50, 18 of $10, 52 of $5, three of $3, 10 of $2.50, 13 of $2, 170 of $1, 10 of $0.50 and one of $0.25.