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From Acorns to Oak: The Women Who Built Seaford’s Free Library

side view woman reading

The Formation of the Acorn Club – A Vision for Community

Public libraries were scarce in Delaware at the dawn of the twentieth century, particularly in farming towns. Twelve women, inspired by the saying “mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” banded together in 1902 to form the Acorn Club of Seaford, with a vision to enhance their community. Their determination culminated in the founding of the Seaford Free Public Library. 

The Acorn Club’s early meetings took place in rented rooms, with members contributing chairs, books, cups, and saucers. Starting modestly with 100 paper-bound volumes and an additional book from each charter member of the Acorn Club, the library’s collection grew to 285 by the end of its first year. Members donated books and operated a traveling library, alternating librarian duties among themselves until hiring a part-time librarian, Miss Elizabeth Prettyman, for $1 a week. 

These humble beginnings laid the groundwork for the club’s expanding ambitions and steadily improving facilities. By January 1904, the club had upgraded its quarters in the Cottingham Block in Bridgeville, adding improvements like re-carpeting, a piano, and an antique desk. Under the leadership of Mrs. Madison Willin, the club made its rooms accessible to ‘the country people’ and to ‘men friends’ once a month. 

Art nouveau woman reader beneath Tiffany lamp in a library

Continuing to work towards a Free Public Library, the club opened its room to the public for free reading every Friday evening and began distributing reading material at Seaford’s railroad station by February 1908. They raised money producing plays and entertainments. According to the ‘Morning News’, the members raised “nearly one hundred dollars last evening—February 18, 1908—from a play entitled ‘The Old Maids’ Club.’” 

As the Acorn Club’s passion for the Free Public Library increased, so did their activities. Readings, lectures, chamber music, high teas. By May 1908, president Mabel Read reported that the library consisted of 300 volumes, and the club even printed a broadsheet called “The Great Oak” to stay in the public eye. 

Such spirited community engagement not only generated funds but also fostered a sense of ownership and pride that would lead to further growth. By 1909, it boasted 404 books. Mrs. E. Greenabaum, the president, proudly stated that “the club has taken the town library under its auspices and paid for the sanitation of the public school.” 

The Acorn Club, and with it the library, moved in 1910 into a larger space in the old Henry White brick building at Pine and King streets.  

Turning Point – Mrs. Thomas Rawlins, Expansion

This growth reflected a turning point for the Acorn Club, leading to a critical moment in its leadership. Mrs. Thomas RawIins 1910 election to president brought much needed statewide donor connections. Rawlins had wielded an influential role in the Delaware State Federation of Women’s Clubs as State chairman for libraries and literature.  

In comparing the goals of the Acorn Club and the Federation, she declared that “these bodies are deeply interested in better library conditions in all Delaware towns and in problems of wholesome amusement for young people.” Rawlins was close friends with Emily P. Bissell, Christmas Seals fundraiser extraordinaire, and promptly leveraged Bissell’s philanthropist network. 

Rawlins aimed to better reach book lovers in outback rural areas by sending into the field the first bookmobile of sorts in Sussex County. She tapped Mary Hopkins, a member of the State Traveling Library Commission, to purchase a library touring car in 1912. Hopkins headed out with stacked books on the car seats to visit nearby farms, loaning books and magazines. By 1916, she managed five bookmobile routes in a significant county territory. 

Red headed woman reads oversized book in a library's wicker chair

Beyond these innovative expansions, the Acorn Club also committed to ensuring access to the library at convenient times for the local community. The club’s dedication kept the library open on Saturday afternoons from 1915 onward, catering to country people who came into town for shopping. The club’s successful fundraising efforts swelled the Seaford Library collection to more than 1,200 volumes. 

Mr. and Mrs. Willard Morse presented the Seaford Public Library with a set of Thackerey’s complete works in fifteen volumes and two volumes of ‘The Rise of the Dutch Republic’ in 1916. These gifts, along with Morse’s additional donation of many more volumes in 1921, added over 200 standard works, all bound in half-calf, to the library’s respectable collection. Other major donors followed suit. 

These substantial contributions, along with the dedicated efforts of the Acorn Club, transformed the Seaford Library into an institution that was ready to stand on its own. The Seaford Library, by 1932 large enough to no longer be considered a project, chose that year to separate from the Acorn Club and became instead an independent organization administered by the Seaford Library Commission. 

Nonetheless, the Acorn Club continued to donate money for seven more years to the realized dream they had fought so hard to establish. 

A Mighty Oak – The Legacy of the Acorn Club

The women of the Acorn Club sowed the seeds of education and community enrichment in Seaford, watching them grow into a mighty oak. Their diligent work underscores a timeless truth: from modest beginnings, great things may come. 

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