Uxbridge Mechanics Institute and Library

by Alan McGillivray



The Mechanics Institutes were organized to provide a library, educational classes and weekly lectures for “middle classes, working men and intelligent mechanics”. The first such institute in Upper Canada (Ontario) was set up in York (Toronto) in 1851 by Joseph Bates. In the next couple of decades, these institutes became numerous in the province and provided a chance for a broader life for tradesman and labourers until near the end of the 1800s. The officers were chosen from the community, and were usually business or professional men.

In Uxbridge, the founding meeting of the Mechanics Institute (M.I.) was held on January 7, 1859, in the Temperance Hall, a frame building, located at the north-east corner of Albert and Spruce Streets. Joseph Gould chaired this first meeting. On a motion by Rev. William Leland, seconded by Joseph Dickie, the new organization was named “The Uxbridge Mechanics Institute and Library Association”.

The first officers were: Joseph Gould, President, M.P. for the riding of Ontario, local miller, merchant and entrepreneur: Rev. William Leland, Vice-President, Minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Quaker Hill; Dr. John Nation, Vice-President, medical doctor; Joseph Dickie, Secretary, appraiser, conveyancer, commissioner, and Clerk of the Division court; John P. Plank, Treasurer, proprietor of Plank’s Hotel; David Walks, wagon maker; William Hamilton, merchant; William Smith, Reeve; Anson Todd Button, lumberman; James Galloway, farmer, Scott township; J.W.C. Brown, conveyancer; and Anthony Thompson, builder.

Henry Duncan Hetherington was hired as the first librarian for the M.I. He and his wife, Jessie Johnston Todd, arrived from Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire, Scotland, where their first child was born in 1856. He operated an Apothecaries Hall, selling drugs, chemicals and wallpaper, near the present Music Hall site on Main Street. Andrew Smith was appointed assistant librarian. He was the son of Uxbridge’s first successful merchant John Smith.

Membership in the Institute was to be a dollar per year for ordinary members and four dollars for corporate members. Females were to be considered as ordinary members. The library was to be open every Wednesday evening from 7:30 to 9:00. Fixed time periods for book loans were written on the front fly leaf. Members living more than one mile from the library were allowed double time to read a book. The fine for overdue books was five cents per week. A blank book was provided in which members were encouraged to suggest new purchases.

The M.I. and Library flourished until October of 1862 when Mr. Hetherington died suddenly, two weeks after his youngest son was born. His grave here is not marked. Mrs. Hetherington took her four sons back to Scotland where she died in 1877.

Following Mr. Hetherington’s death, a committee was appointed to take stock of the books, and they were moved to Mr. Dickie’s office, which was on the hill on the south side of Brock Street. At the annual meeting on Jan. 9, 1863, Joseph Dickie was mentioned as both secretary and librarian. At a meeting held on April 10, they decided to pay the balance of the librarian’s salary to Mrs. Hetherington. About this time, the M.I. and Library ceased to operate. There is no record of further meetings being held until the early 1870s.



In December of 1872, a meeting was called to begin steps to reopen the Institute and make additions to the library. This revival of the Institute was under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Bascom and Mr. W. Dale of the high school. A year earlier, the railway had been built into Uxbridge, things were booming, and Uxbridge had just reached village status. J.W.Caldwell Brown, lawyer, Dennis Jennings, public school teacher, and Dr. Bascom were directed to seek new members. On Christmas Eve, Dr. Bascom presented twelve names of new corporate members and thirty two names of ordinary members.

An annual meeting was held in the high school in January of 1873. Joseph Gould was elected president and James Walks was hired as librarian. However, he and his father, David Walks, were in the process of settling in Uxbridge Twp. (Leal area) of North Dakota. It has not been determined who followed him as librarian.

At the annual meeting in 1874, George Wheeler was elected president. He was a local miller, a former county warden, and was later elected reeve and M.P. The Institute managed to rent space for the library and hall above Week’s Drug Store (now The Tiger’s Eye). A.D. Weeks was the librarian in 1875 and was succeeded by Dennis Jennings, a public school teacher, in 1876.

The M.I. moved at least a couple of times during these years. In 1878, the rooms were above the Robert A. Douglas Bakery which was the next store on the west side of Week’s Drug Store. They must have returned to Mr. Week’s building for in September of 1880, he gave notice that he needed the rooms being occupied by the M.I.

There were offers of two other rooms, one from Mr. Crosby for $125 per year and one for $150 per year in a new brick double store which Mr. McGuire was erecting. In February, an agreement was reached with Mr. McGuire. The M.I. rented the new building at a cost of $325 per year for 5 years. This building was on the south side of Brock Street about where Pro Hardware and Homan’s Shoes’ are located. The M.I. sublet the west store and living quarters to Mr. William B. Russell, the librarian, for $150 per year. Mr. Russell, a local carriage painter, was to pay half the cost of lighting and heating.

By 1880, the Institute had received $3,000 in government grants since reopening. The membership was 174 and there were 2,323 volumes in the library – up from 143 in the original library. An article written early in 1881 said that the Uxbridge Institute was excelled by few others.

The Minister of Education at the time gave the Uxbridge Institute a very good report, which was a credit to those who headed the organization. At the same time, the minister felt generally that the government was giving too much financial assistance to the M.I.’s. It made members careless, apathetic and unwilling to work. He said there was a great demand for novels which excited unfavourable comment from those opposed to this class of reading. Too many novels showed evidence of depraved literary tastes.

By fall of 1881, arrangements were being made for the move to the new site and a grand opening was planned for December 6. The charge for admission was to be 25 cents and ladies were to provide refreshments. The facilities in the new building included a public hall, library, smoking room, reading room, club room, and a residence for the librarian, Mr. Russell. Memberships were one dollar as before. Use of the library, reading room and amusement room was two dollars per year. A family ticket for four dollars would allow family members over fourteen years of age to use the facilities. It was decided that the public would be allowed free use of the reading room on a trial basis.

By 1882, the reading room was open every day and evening, and the library contained 3,000 books. By May 1883, the library contained nearly 4,000 books. The Institute continued to be very active, but they soon got behind with the rent, and the printing of catalogues added to the deficit. Lectures had been a key part of the services offered by the M.I. in Uxbridge during its early history. Night classes, which started being offered in 1873, were still well attended, but lectures and entertainments drew fewer numbers.

By October of 1884, Mr. McGuire was making some changes in his building, and Mr. Russell was going to have to pay more rent. An agreement was made with the council for use of the Market Hall, lighted and warmed, for all Institute meetings, lectures, concerts and entertainments, provided that they did not interfere with regular business. The Market Hall was located at the north-east corner of Brock and Toronto Streets. The Institute continued to use the Market Hall until it moved into the new Joseph Gould Institute late in 1887.



In April of 1886, Joseph Gould announced that he would build for the town a new Mechanic’s Institute building on some land which he owned at the corner of Pond and Toronto Streets. Pond Street ran south where Davie Pharmacy is located. At a council meeting held on April 13, 1886, there was a motion that thanks be tendered to Mr. Gould for his generous proposal in the matter of erecting this building for the use of the town’s people; together with the assurance of the council that they would assist him as far as possible in his laudable purpose by granting him the necessary facilities for erecting the same on the site proposed by him; and that the clerk forward a copy of the resolution to him.

Joseph Gould intended to supervise the construction, but that was not to be for he died on June 29, 1886. However, he had already “seen and approved of his architects plans”. The name of the architect is still a mystery but it is likely that John T. Stokes of Sharon designed this building. Mr. Stokes, who was still very active in the 1880s, had planned Joseph Gould’s Toronto Street home which was built in the late 1850s and the mansion House Hotel built in the early 1870s. He also had the ability to design the stone foundations for this building which sits on the slope of a hill. These walls have not cracked in over 100 years, even with gravel trucks rolling by.

Mr. Gould directed in his will that his executors (sons Isaac, Charles and Joseph E. Gould) complete the Institute project according to plans and pay the costs out of his personal estate. He also directed them to make a gift of the building to the Corporation of the Town of Uxbridge. Joseph Stopps was contracted to do the masonry work, and W. Walker to do the woodwork. The bricks were made from clay taken from the Gould farm on Mill Street and the lumber was cut at James Leask’s saw mill at Leaksdale. In July of 1886, Isaac Gould M.P. came to the M.I. meeting with a copy of his father’s will and there was a discussion about the feasibility of going ahead with construction that year. It was decided that they should wait until the spring of 1887.

The M.I. continued to meet, and in January of 1887 a committee was appointed to arrange for a series of entertainments. It was also decided to try to raise money by direct appeal to people with a subscription list. By April, the librarian, Mr. Russell, was working hard to bring in subscriptions. In November, George Long was paid for building a wall along the side of the new M.I. The second floor of the new building had quarters for the librarian and Mr. Russell was hired for another year.

The official opening took place on December 9, 1887. The main address was given by the Hon. George W. Ross, Minister of Education who said that the building was the first donation of its kind in the province, and the library was the best in the province for the size of the town. The new building cost $4,200 and now contained over 5,000 books. The clock for the library tower was bought from the Seth Thomas Clock Co., Thomaston, Conn. and was bought through Phillip Taylor of Whitby at a cost of $315. The original wooden mechanism can be seen in the library and is wound by a large crank.

In 1890, Sarah D. (Hughes) Willis and George Willis took charge of the library. By May of 1893, the directors, who expressed their appreciation for Mrs. Willis, thought she should be paid something and a committee was appointed to talk to the council about this. Mrs. Willis was officially appointed librarian in June of 1893. In May of 1895, it was moved that the name of the Institute be changed to “Uxbridge Public Library” as required by a new act.



In July of 1896, the council gave a grant to the library to build a balcony and there was a discussion about the installation of electric lights but the board felt that they were too expensive at that time. In January of 1898 Dr. May, Superintendent of Public libraries addressed a public meeting on the growth of Mechanic’s Institutes and Public and Free Libraries. The Uxbridge Library was ranked 20th in the province, cities included. A motion was passed to make Uxbridge a Free Library and to appoint a Board of Management. I.J. Gould was chairman of the new board and Mr. Nutting secretary. The librarian was directed to open the library on the free system on March 1, 1898 – and in July, the decision was made to install electric lights.

By 1904, the reading room was receiving 4 daily papers, 15 weeklies and 14 magazines. In 1907, 946 people borrowed books. When Mrs. Sarah Willis the librarian died on July 28, 1907, Mrs. R.F. Willis filled in until May of 1908 when Marshall L. Nutting the secretary-treasurer became librarian. Mr. Nutting died on April, 1911 and Mrs. Nutting, his wife, carried on as librarian.

In 1912, a statue presented to the board by Dr. Nation was repainted. This was a Grecian statue of a girl carved by the late Walter Nation from one piece of a tree, including a wreath of flowers worn on the arm. It can still be seen in the library today. In July of 1913, the library received some renovations and the goddess “Minerva” was removed from her place by the entrance.

In August of 1920, J.E. Littlejohn took over as librarian from Mrs. Nutting. Dr. Joseph Bascom died in July of 1929 and left $2,000 to the library. The money was to be invested and the interest used to buy books and magazines. In the spring of 1931, a request from the John Peel chapter of the I.O.D.E. for permission to place a war memorial on the library lawn was granted. Mrs. Gilfillan became librarian at the beginning of 1939 and was succeeded by Mrs. A.W. (Pearle) St. John in August, 1942.

In May of 1951, a bequest from the estate of Rosetta Alberta Harrison left $200 to be used for a separate children’s department. By the end of October 1952, work was completed making the former reference room into a children’s library. An archway joined it to the book room. The reference library was moved to the east wall of the reading room. By February of 1959, the 100th anniversary of the founding meeting, the library contained 8,779 books and there were 875 borrowers. The circulation was 16,743 and total assets were $36,654.

Mrs. Agnes Arbuckle became librarian in September of 1963. The library became a member of the Central Ontario Regional Library Service (CORL) in 1966. This provided for interlibrary loans, including books, and other print materials, film, cassettes, large print books and talking books.

In the spring of 1967, plans were made to turn the reading room into a children’s library and use the area housing the children’s books as a reading room. This new children’s room, a Kinsmen project, was opened in the basement of the library in January 1972. Two cisterns were removed from the south corners of the basement, a steel beam was added for support, and the fireplace moved to the north wall. The west basement wall was pyramidal being 6 feet thick at the bottom and sloping towards the ceiling. A window was built in one area of the new wall so part of this original wall can be seen.

On November 8, 1972 a plaque to mark the centennial of Uxbridge as a village was unveiled on the west, outside wall of the Library. Mrs. Margaret O’Regan was hired as librarian in September of 1974. In 1981, the Uxbridge Public Library was declared an historic building. Exterior renovations took place in 1985. The bricks were cleaned, wooden shingles put on the roof, and the paint restored to its original colour by Colonial Restoration of Newmarket.

In 1986, work commenced on an addition to the library, which more than doubled the usable library space. This beautiful building was planned to blend architecturally with the existing library but to provide patrons with an up to date service in comfortable modern surroundings. This addition was completed in 1987, which marks the centennial of the Joseph Gould Institute building.

The library underwent interior renovations during the summer of 2014 and is now open for new and old patrons to visit and explore.