Logan County History: Celebrating Women’s History Month Miss Lydia “Lida” Canby


By Mary E. Mortimer

Lydia Canby was born April 27, 1832, on a farm near DeGraff, Ohio, to Dr. Joseph and Margaret Haines Canby. Dr. Canby was one of the first doctors in the DeGraff area and a friend of John Chapman, better known as “Johnny Appleseed”. Miss Canby recalled that “Chapman frequently stayed at their farm on his wanderings though that section of the state and that he was a good storyteller and general talker. He was well versed in orchard work, carried the best apple seeds in his knapsack, and was a successful grafter of fruit trees. He did not wear shoes in the summertime because he liked to feel the mud ooze up between his toes when he walked through wet ground.” Chapman planted and grafted apple trees in the Canby orchard and Mrs. Canby washed and mended his clothes while he stayed at their home.

Miss Canby lived on the family farm until she was about 16 or 17 years old and then moved to Bellefontaine. With her love of reading and collecting books, she founded the first circulating library around 1871 on the second floor of Melodeon Hall in Bellefontaine. She started the library with some of her best books and added history and travel books as she could afford to buy them. Miss Canby recalled, “Everywhere I could buy books cheap I did so, and I watched all kinds of places to purchase them.”

“The charge for books was $3.00 per year for a membership ticket, giving all privileges. Without such a ticket, the sum of 10 cents was paid for each book, only one being allowed out of the library each week per person.”

“The police told me that I saved the town $15 per month by keeping the boys out of mischief. They would come up to the library and read as quiet as little mice. Our library hours were on Saturday afternoons and evenings.”

“The library was kept up amid the greatest hardships and with much opposition, but nevertheless, we prospered. After a year or two, I thought it would be a good idea to bring some entertainer for benefit of the library and I did so, and among them were Murdock, the reader, Nellie Brown-Pond, Mrs. Mary A. Livermore etc. I remember that we cleared $75 on the Murdock entertainment and of course I was enabled to buy with the money a good many books for the collection.

Then we had a lecture course, and this was steadily opposed, people saying it would never do at all and couldn’t be supported, but we had the people just the same and we never lost money on any of the entertainments. I remember that Wendell Phillips, the Boston Glee Club, Helen Porter and other eminent artists of that time were booked for the city and gave very pleasing entertainments here. One of the memorable stars was Mrs. Scott Siddons. She appeared in the Court House and gave readings. She became very angry the night of her engagement because she felt she did not receive enough encores. As a means for money making, we had an excursion to Put-in Bay and got enough money to buy a piano.”

In 1874, Mrs. Rebecca Brown donated $3,000 to the library. It was then referred to as “The Brown Library”. Mrs. Brown passed away in 1887. She expressed her wishes for a free public library in her will and bequeathed her home and land to the City of Bellefontaine.

A short time later, the Brown Library was moved from Melodeon Hall to the second floor of the People’s Bank building in the Riddle & Rutan Block. The library reported in May of 1880 that they had “over 1,500 volumes of well selected reading matter, which is a good nucleus for a fine library.” By September of the same year, they had 2,000 volumes. Life memberships were sold for $30.00, payable in six annual installments of $5.00 each.

Around 1894, Miss Canby and a group of earnest citizens began campaigning for a free public library. In May of 1901, the Board of Managers of the Bellefontaine Free Public Library was formed. A new library was opened in the H.H. Good Building next to Memorial Hall with Miss Mary Reagh as Head Librarian. Miss Canby donated many of her books to the new library.

In 1905, Miss Canby and Mrs. Brown’s wishes for a free public library were granted when the Carnegie Free Library was opened at the corner of N. Main St. and E. Sandusky Ave. in Bellefontaine.

On June 23, 1916, The Weekly Examiner published a tribute to Miss Canby by Mrs. Thomas S. Gladding.

“I never think of my girlhood days and their advantages without thinking of dear Miss Canby and the contribution that she made to the life of all Bellefontaine’s youth of my own generation.

The modest library in a little room in the old Riddle & Rutan building, which we used to reach by what we called the back stairs (since the front stairs led to my father’s law office), and where every week, on certain nights, we were met with a warm welcome by the lady whose optimism and indefatigable hard work and generous use of her own money made the loan of books and the reading room possible. She not only collected books unwearyingly from her friends and fellow townsmen, but she also bought books very generously. Her own time during library hours was a free gift, and her overflowing interest in the young people’s reading was an unfailing fountain.

I can never forget the thrill of interest and anticipation with which I used to browse about the shelves, reading the titles of books, taking them down for fascinating peeps, and finally choosing some to take home. Miss Canby was there to encourage us, to tell us of new books, to pass the time of day with all those who came in and out, and to radiate a general atmosphere of good cheer.

We did not realize in those days that our friend, Miss Canby, was not only helping us cultivate a love of books but was also laying a solid foundation in the taste of the town for the beautiful library which now stands really as a monument to her work and foresight.

I have always been glad that I was brought up in a country town. And I am increasingly grateful to Miss Canby that she gave to that town, as she really did, its first public library and its first delightful courses of lectures and concerts.”

Miss Canby passed away on March 27, 1917.

Visit the Logan County History Center to learn more interesting aspects of Logan County history. The History Center is open for tours Wednesday – Sunday from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm.