On Sunday, John Graham would have been 170 years old, so the public library celebrated the milestone a day early with cake and tours of the former Graham home.
“It was a good opportunity for people to familiarize themselves with the John Graham Library,” said director Mary Schoedel. She became director last August and led the team during the past month to gather materials for Graham’s birthday party. She thinks it’s the first time the library has celebrated his date of birth with an event.
Born Aug. 4, 1843, on a farm two miles east of Newville, Graham was the son of George and Eliza Graham. His biography indicates he attended local schools and received a commercial education at Eastman's College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He returned to Newville after his schooling in 1866 to work at a bank and then a successful tannery. Graham was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1882 to represent Cumberland County and served until 1885.
Next, he became a leader in the electric railway business in Wilkes-Barre and helped to organize the Cumberland Railway in Carlisle about 1908. He was the railway’s first president and was a director at the time of his death. Passing away Dec. 15, 1915, at the age of 72, Graham directed in his will that his home on Parsonage Street become a public library. He also donated $20,000 to help with renovations and other expenses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, that is about $460,000 in today’s dollars.
One caveat, Schoedel explained, was that Graham’s third wife, Katherine, was still occupying the home, so the building couldn’t become a library yet. Katherine lived many years until 1962. The library started to rent some rooms of the home in 1961 and it underwent a major renovation in 1965 to make it more suitable for a library. More recently, an addition was put on in 1991 to house offices and a children’s room.
Visitors Saturday could eat white cake on Graham’s original dining table and also take a tour of the library, guided by Schoedel.
“I knew it had been the Graham’s [home] but it was very interesting to learn about the structure,” said Dorene Benjamin after the tour. The Green Ridge Village resident didn’t know about the rooms’ original uses – like that the dining room now holds juvenile/teen works. And she thought it was interesting that the library didn’t open until long after John Graham’s death.
Stephanie Bear, Newville resident, didn’t know that the library used to be Graham’s home. She “really enjoyed” reading about the house and liked the fact that the library was located in the borough.
Built about 1883, the original house was constructed in an Italianate style. Records indicate that sometime between 1894-1904, Graham added a modified L-shape to the house and then sometime between 1910-1923, a second addition was built that included the Beaux Arts porch.
Many bookshelves surround the walls today, making it difficult to envision the home’s former grandeur. But original photographs and old newspaper clippings displayed at the birthday party offered a glimpse into the mogul’s life and generosity.
(Photo by Curtis Garland)