History of the Library
A history of the Fernie Library and our current building which survived the Fire of 1908.
The old Fernie Post Office building in 1909. This building would eventually become the Fernie Heritage Library about 90 years. after its original construction. (Photo courtesy of Fernie and District Historical Society)”
1899: A Reading Room for Fernie:
The Fernie Public Library started back in 1899. The Fernie Free Press reported on Dec. 8 that “A movement is on foot among the prominent ladies of the town to do something in the way of starting a public reading room in Fernie”. The supporters secured a room in the Farquharson’s Hall and in a few months the reading room had become a reality. The new reading room was a place where people could spend their evenings reading papers, magazines and writing letters. Soon, the reading room was also lending out books. The Crowsnest Pass Coal Company paid all expenses involved with starting the reading room.
In 1911, plans were made to secure a better library facility for the citizens of Fernie. It was proposed that the new library be set up in the basement of the Knox Presbyterian Church. By 1912, this library was in operation. Rev. Mr. Grant and Mr. J. F. Macdonald were responsible for receiving library subscriptions which cost $1 per year at that time. Each new library subscriber was given the privilege of selecting one new book they would like secured for the library.
1920: Formation of the Fernie Library Association
On the 8th of September, 1920, the Fernie Public Library Association was formed under the provincial “Public Libraries Act.” Fernie was the 9th community in BC to form such an association. However, the association struggled and after eight years it ceased to exist.
1945: A Library in the High School
In 1945, Mr. Sidney Crookes, then the principal of the Fernie School, investigated the possibility of forming a community library. It was discovered that the Fernie Public Library Association had never formally been dissolved. The Public Library Commission of the Provincial Government was willing to grant $200 to the library association provided it would be matched by an equal grant from the City of Fernie. The City, although facing bankruptcy at that time, managed to come through with the funding and in October of 1945, the library opened to the public in the hall of the high school. By the end of 1947, the library had a total of 878 books.
1952: The Library Moves:
The library moved into two rooms above the Fernie Post Office in 1952. Grants were raised at that time to $300 a year from the Public Library Commission and matched by the City of Fernie. At the time, the library was operated by volunteers and was only open for six hours a week. The library contained over 3200 books and membership was free. In 1958, over 10,000 books were circulated from the Fernie library.
Years later, the Post Office building would undergo an extensive renovation and become the Fernie Heritage Library.
1966: Plans for a New Library:
In 1962, the East Kootenay Associated Libraries was formed with headquarters in Cranbrook. One of the aims of this organization was to help small libraries in the area exchange books in order to increase the amount of books available to all the libraries in the region. These libraries were allowed to keep some of these exchanged books permanently.
The library board desired to build a new building or remodel an older one into a new library. Financial considerations made this impossible until the Fernie Public Library was chosen as a Centennial project for 1967. In order to be eligible to receive the provincial funding for a new library, $1.40 per capita needed to be raised. The library board held several fund raisers including holding tag days, bake sales, raffles and door to door canvasses. Aid from the Rotary Club and Elks Club and donations from service clubs, church groups, businesses and individuals brought the total of the building fund to $5,100 by January 1966.
1967: Centennial Library becomes a Reality:
The Centennial funding was approved and the construction of the new library went ahead. The City of Fernie donated the downtown lot for the new library and the library board continued to raise the additional money needed for the project. After several months of construction, the library moved to the new building on June 23, 1967, much to the relief and joy of the library board.
1977: Centennial Library Addition:
Thirteen years later the Fernie Centennial Library celebrated the opening of a spacious new extension to their building. The planning for this extension began in 1977 when the library held a tea to celebrate the 10th year in the new library. It was decided that the library needed expansion to continue to meet the needs of the community. Over three years later, the new addition was completed.
1999: The Fernie Heritage Library:
The restoration of the Fernie Heritage Library was almost complete when a tourist pleaded with head librarian Diane Sharp for an impromptu tour. Sharp, though tired from a day of applying final touch ups to the 90-year-old former post office, acquiesced. Gratified by the quality of the work and its fidelity to the building’s original elegance, Swiss visitor Larry Palmer thanked Sharp for the tour with a $100 cash donation to the restoration fund.
So continues the story of what has now become the Fernie Heritage Library, a community effort that will leave a lasting impact on this city of five-thousand people nestled in the mountains of Southeast British Columbia. As you will discover, it was the community of Fernie that made this project happen and it is the community of Fernie and its visitors from around the world that will benefit from this selfless undertaking.
The early 20th century saw an expansion of Canada’s government structures, created to exemplify the success of the budding new dominion and its provinces. Post offices, court houses, and other public buildings emerged in tribute to the nation. Among these, completed in 1908, was the Fernie post office and customs house, a fitting addition to a community that was helping to fuel the nation. As the Fernie post office was being built, the coal fields of the Elk Valley were contributing significantly to the growth of British Columbia and Canada.
Coal ran the trains that linked the country and warmed Canadians through long hard winters. Indeed, revenues from coal provided governments with the necessary funds to create structural monuments to the dominion.
Fernie after the fire of 1908–note the gutted post office just left of the center of the photograph –BCARS A08894
Finishing touches had not even been made on the Fernie post office when disaster swept through the city. On August 8, 1908. the entire city of Fernie burned to the ground with the exception of a handful of buildings. The nearly completed post office was spared complete destruction but the interior was completely gutted by the flames. Ninety years later, when the restoration crew was working on the ceiling of the upper floor, they encountered charred timbers left over from the fire of 1908.
The building was quickly refinished and opened in 1909 to serve the citizens of Fernie as the post office and customs house. From this refinishing until 1974 the building was Fernie’s post office. In 1974 the City of Fernie completed a property exchange with the Federal Government which saw the building act as City Hall until 1982. Between 1982 and 1994 the building had a variety of occupants including provincial ministries, Shell Canada, and a forestry company.
Although it served as a post office until 1974, the building had a number of other tenants along the way. Among these was the Fernie Library which was located in two upstairs rooms between 1952 and 1966. In is therefore fitting that the library has made a return to this historic building, this time as the primary tenant.
The dream to restore the former post office as the Fernie Heritage Library had its roots in the mid-1990’s. It was realized that with the potentially growing community, the existing facility was no longer suitable for the demands that were being placed upon it. Diane Sharp and the library board began the process of preparing for the project and commissioned architectural and engineering reports on the building and its possible use as a public library.
Determined to respect the building’s architectural integrity, the Fernie Public Library board retrieved from the Public Archives in Ottawa a full set of original blueprints and construction specifications stipulating “a complete and first-class job.” At the time of the original construction of the building, the government required contractors to pay stonecutters a minimum of $6.00 a day and “ordinary labourers” $2.50 a day. It also specified that the birch floors were to be oiled, not varnished. Accordingly, the second-floor office floors were re-oiled during restoration, rather than coated with a modern urethane finish.
Building codes and practicality did require some deviation from the original blueprints: a gas furnace has taken over from the old steam boiler and a modern elevator has replaced the original concrete vault. In the end, the restored building was very close to the original blueprints. The following relates some of the specifics of the restoration project and how they were accomplished.
Each of the columns in the former post office required complete restoration, from replastering the columns, bases and capitals to fabricating new capitals for three of the columns on the upper floor.
Column & Cornice work during Reconstruction.
Column & Cornice work during Reconstruction. Note the two columns where the Capitals need to be replaced
The restoration on the cornice plasterwork was extensive, every piece of it required repair or replacement. John Dooley was able to restore much of the cornice in place, but over 100 feet of it needed to be run on the bench. The 100 feet needed were run 1/8 of an inch larger than the original cornice work and a final 1/8 inch skim coat was applied to the original cornices to ensure a smooth, seamless finish.
Running some of the 100 feet of new cornice.
Preparing the ceiling to put the new cornice in place.
Finished capital, ceiling and cornice work on the upper floor.
All but one of the original doors had been replaced with steel doors at one point in the buildings history. Fortunately, one door remained, although in a poor state of repair. As well, in the original building specifications, precise instructions were given for the materials that the doors were to be constructed from. Rather than a solid door, the contract called for a two-inch pine core with 1/4 inch oak veneer. Gary Carpenter, the finishing carpenter for the doors, used fir and then upon examination of the remaining door, discovered that the original contractor had in fact used a cedar core rather than the intended pine. Not surprising considering the stands of massive old growth cedar that were available in the Elk Valley at the time.
The one remaining exterior door–the rest had all been replaced with steel doors.
One of the newly fashioned doors–created to the same specifications as the originals.
When it came to restoring the maple floors on the stairs and in the upstairs reference room and office, the library went back to the original specifications set for the initial construction. Rather than using a modern urethane product, the library opted for oil. The floors were stripped of the wax and damage accumulated over the years, sanded and painstakingly oiled over the period of a week, again by generous volunteers.
The staircase between the main and upper floors was relatively intact, needing a few replacements and a good cleaning. The maple floor was restored to the original specifications and the railing and spindles were carefully cleaned with toothbrushes. To meet with current safety code, two brass railings were added to the top of the railing at the landing, bringing it up to the required height.
Staircase Landing with Refinished Floor
Staircase railing–note the added brass and restored top of the pillar.
Over the years the tops of all the pillars had become chipped and damaged, each of these was replaced with replicas of the originals. The only difference was that the thin rims that had been so easily damaged on the originals were made slightly thicker to survive the coming years.
The exterior of the building was in relatively good condition but needed some attention to ensure that justice was done to the original craftspeople. All of the brick and granite was repointed and the exterior fixtures were removed, restored and replaced. The steel doors that had been serving the building for many years were replaced with replicas of the originals to help bring back the dignity to this jewel in Fernie’s crown.
Workers Cleaning the Exterior of the Library.
The Entrance to the Library on a snowy day in April.
To meet current code specifications it was necessary to replace the existing steel fire escape. In this case, none of the original structure could be saved so it was determined that a new fire escape would be built with the greatest sympathy to the building. It was at this time that Rolland Beliveau offered his services to the library. At 82 years old, Rolland had worked as a steel fabrication designer all of his life, he was trained in Quebec and lead a distinguished career in both Quebec and the East Kootenays.
Detail of interior fire escape access during construction.
Taking the building into consideration, Rolland designed the fire escape to complement the historic structure. When the time came to build the fire escape, Rolland oversaw the entire process, including traveling to Lethbridge to supervise the cutting and carefully watching John and Joe Macosko as they welded the structure in Fernie. Once the two story steel structure was completed, Nohel’s Group Construction provided their crane to lift the fire escape into place.
Fire escape interior access–this feature was designed to match the existing staircase.
As access to the fire escape was originally through a window, a new access had to be created inside the building. One of the original windows on the upper floor was converted to a door and steps and a landing were built to access the door. The new steps, landing and railing were designed to duplicate the existing stairway design between the main and upper floors. The pillars were fabricated anew while the railings and spindles were salvaged from the now condemned Fernie Secondary School. A small piece of this former educational institution will be forever preserved in another, the Fernie Heritage Library.
Fernie Heritage Library is a monument to Fernie community spirit. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and uncounted hours of volunteer labour turned a worthy but tired city property into a legacy for future generations of Fernieites.