(This is the second in our weekly series of Clarksville Faces of Women’s History profiles for Women’s History Month.)
For Women’s History Month, we are recognizing the faces of Clarksville who have historically broken down barriers for women in our community.
This week’s spotlight is on a group of women who came together in the early 1900’s to establish a permanent public library in Clarksville-Montgomery County.
In the late 1800’s, Judge Tyler kept books in his office, which served as Clarksville’s first library. A permanent home for the library was an afterthought until the courthouse burned in 1900. After the fire, Wilhelmina Barksdale, the wife of former Leaf-Chronicle publisher William Barksdale, suggested that a building be purchased to serve as a library.
Women from across the community-sponsored ice cream suppers, carnivals and concerts to raise money for the building. One early fundraiser, however, didn’t pan out when one of the women pointed out that many of the recipes in a cookbook they were selling contained alcohol and shouldn’t be endorsed, and the project was abandoned.
Many of the women belonged to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, but around 1918, 13 other local women's clubs combined, and the Clarksville Federation of Women’s Club was chartered and was in need of a home.
A heated bidding war soon took place for the Elk’s Club building, which was considered prime real estate in downtown Clarksville. The bidding narrowed to George Rawlings and Sallie Hurst Peay, wife of former Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay.
Each time Rawlings placed a bid, Peay would counter by raising the bid by a single dollar. This went on for some time until the bid reached $6,000 ($114,000 in today’s currency) and once again, Peay countered by a dollar.
“A woman who has nerve enough to raise a $6,000 bid by one dollar deserves to win,” the auctioneer said. “So, I will knock it off to Mrs. Peay.”
With a final strike of the auctioneer’s gavel, Clarksville-Montgomery County had not only a Women’s Club, but a place for the public library after a 20-year wait.
The Clarksville-Montgomery County Library can now be found in its modern home at Veterans Plaza on Pageant Lane. Today, we take time to thank Mrs. Runyon, Mrs. P.L. Harned, Mrs. Albert L. Macon, Mrs. E.E. Laurent and Mrs. Peay, who signed the charter for the original public library nearly a century ago.
It was their dedication and perseverance that secured a public library for the Clarksville community. For that, we recognize them and the women of the Clarksville Federation of Women’s Club as some of the “Clarksville Faces of Women’s History.”
Special thanks to members of the Montgomery County Historical Society, who provided much of the historical information for this article. If you would like to learn more about women who have made history in Clarksville, go to https://bit.ly/3vmsFTG