A Living History: Sturgis Library

The library as it appeared during the 1890’s, courtesy of the Sturgis Library

On Cape Cod some places scream historical significance while others are more unassuming. Sometimes those that are unassuming are the places that are still in daily use. One such place is the Sturgis Library on Rt. 6A in Barnstable. It is frequented daily by numerous locals and visitors alike, some who may not realize the history inside of the walls of the building.

The Sturgis Library started its existence off in 1644 as the home of Reverend John Lothrop. Born in Etton, England in 1584 Lothrop would gain prominence as spiritual leader of a church in the country. The issue with his leadership was the fact that it was unlawful to worship a religion that was not worshipped by the King. Thus once it was found out Lothrop, and forty-two of his congregants, were arrested in 1632. Not willing to testify against themselves they remained imprisoned where some would die. In 1634 many of those remaining in jail were released including Lothrop who shortly thereafter left England for America. He would land in Scituate and remain there until 1639 when he settled the town of Barnstable.

The Reverend Lothrop lived and preached in the homestead from its construction in 1644 until his death in 1653. His legacy is tremendous as some of Lothrop’s most famous descendants include: Former Presidents James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush; Wild Bill Hickock, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Clint Eastwood, Shirley Temple, and not surprisingly Kevin Bacon.

William Sturgis, another descendant of Lothrop, was born in the home in 1782. He would go to sea at the age of fifteen after his father, also named William, passed away. Sturgis would found Bryant and Sturgis, clipper ship owners engaged in the Northwest and China Trades in 1810. His career at sea was long and successful. Upon his retirement in 1863 Sturgis willed his home, along with $15,000 in bonds, to the Town of Barnstable for use as a public library.

The historic Lothrop Room in the library, courtesy of Sturgis Library

The Sturgis Library opened its doors in 1867 and included 1,300 volumes, many from William Sturgis’ private collection. The former family home has two distinctions attached to it. One is the fact that due to the fact that Reverend Lothrop performed religious services in the front room of the home it is the oldest structure still standing in America where religious services were routinely held. Second is the fact that it is the oldest building to house a library in the United States. Though the building itself was built in 1644 the library is not the oldest in the country. That distinction goes to the Darby Free Library in Darby, Pennsylvania which has been in continuous use since 1743.

In 2017 the Sturgis Library is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It has an unparalleled collection of records and history for Cape Cod. There are extensive genealogical records back as far as Mayflower Society Records, records of many longtime Cape Cod families, and offbeat items such as old telephone books and Barnstable High School yearbooks. There are archival collections housed in a climate controlled vault which house such priceless objects as deeds from Cape Cod towns as far back as the 1620’s. All of these precious pieces of history are available for viewing.

Library Director Lucy Loomis tries to sum up just what makes the Sturgis Library such a special place of living Cape Cod history.

How the library looks today, courtesy of Sturgis Library

“I feel that what makes Sturgis Library unique is that it is not simply a public library but also a research archive, historic home, historic meeting house, and the oldest building housing a public library in the country. People come here for many reasons — to check out library materials, to attend programs, do research, gather with friends and neighbors, attend events, pursue lifelong learning, or visit their ancestral home. I think that’s what makes it a dynamic place to visit, and to work at, and sets it apart from other libraries.”

In many ways the Sturgis Library is today what it was when it was first constructed, a family home, though the ‘family’ today is the town of Barnstable, and Cape Cod as a whole.

The Sturgis Library is located at 3090 Rt. 6A in Barnstable Village and online at SturgisLibrary.org.

By Christopher Setterlund

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