The Darwin R. Barker Library and Historical Museum have been an important center in the life of Fredonia, New York for over 100 years. The evolution of the library-museum was complex. Darwin R. Barker, born in 1820, was the son of Leverett and Desire Barker. The homestead, located at 20 East Main Street, was built in 1821. D. R. Barker married Helen Pettit in June of 1846 and became a partner in her family’s business, which manufactured and sold Pettit’s Eye Salve. The business was sold in 1879 for a goodly sum, and Darwin R. Barker became a local philanthropist greatly involved in causes and activities of the time.
Throughout the 1800s, many individual groups attempted to organize a community reading room and library. The first libraries in the 1800s were organized and sustained by individual memberships. A fee was paid by persons wishing to borrow from a collection of books, making library use private and expensive. Libraries founded in Fredonia became more affordable in 1826, but they continued to charge fees. Materials were limited.
The forerunner of the Darwin R. Barker Library as we know it today began in 1874 with the Holly Tree Inn, which was organized and operated by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in an effort to get young men out of the “saloons”. While Mrs. D. R. Barker was involved with this effort, her husband was trying to organize the Fredonia Library Association. In 1876, the Holly Tree Inn reading room merged with the Fredonia Library Association. The women were to take care of the day-to-day operations, and the men would manage the finances.
Various fundraisers were held to maintain the library, but residents were told that in order for the library to be self-supporting, more participation was necessary. In 1882, D. R. Barker bought out the other heirs of the family home and presented it to the Fredonia Library Association. An agreement was made with the Barker family that the portraits of Leverett and Desire Barker would remain in place as they do today. In 1883, a bill was introduced in the New York State Assembly that incorporated the Darwin R. Barker Library in Fredonia, New York. Nine men were directors of the association. They were empowered by this act to receive the Leverett Barker House and land and to use it as a public library. It was to be tax-free, but the directors were responsible for its upkeep. It wasn’t until July of 1895 that Melvil Dewey, Secretary of the New York State Public Libraries Department, officially signed a certificate of registry for the Darwin R. Barker Library Association.
Soon after the Barker House was designated as the new library building, Mr. Harry McNeill offered an album of early settlers. That is believed to have been the first of many historical items donated to the Library. The lady managers encouraged residents to make “contributions of fine pictures and really choice bric-a-brac”. An April 2, 1884 article published in the issue of the Fredonia Censor appeared to be inviting persons “to donate articles of historic interest”. The Historical Room of the Darwin R. Barker Library opened in 1905.
In 1950, the Barker home was remodeled and expanded while “retaining its historic lines.” By the 1970s, both the library and historical rooms had outgrown their allotted space in the Barker home. This time, under the leadership of Mrs. Frances Ritenburg, the nine-member board of directors formed a building committee to search for a solution. A fundraising committee headed by George B. Weaver, Jr. got underway. With the dedicated efforts of this Board of Directors and with the generous support of the community and area businesses, the new library was realized. The land adjacent to the existing Barker home was donated by the Town of Pomfret.
Today the Darwin R. Barker Library houses over 50,000 print titles, including a delightful children’s collection. In 2015, over 43,000 library users came through the doors of Barker Library.