Of Lees and Ladies: The Early History of the Canby Library

Hear this edition of Canby Then in all of its audio glory on Episode 5 of the Canby Now Podcast.

In any small town, few public institutions are more beloved, more celebrated, more vital to the health and overall well-being of the community than the local library. Perhaps only the wastewater treatment plant comes close, and for…very different reasons.

Canby has hosted a free, public library since as early as 1896, though the library has taken on many different forms—and many different locations—over the years.

The earliest Canby “libraries,” from 1896 to 1916, were tiny collections hosted by an inconstant smattering of downtown business owners. These were, essentially, a 20th century version of theLittle Free Libraries that can be found in neighborhoods today.

In February 1924, a new organization took shape. The Canby Women’s Civic Club was founded by over 100 local ladies “for the purpose of advancing the educational, moral, civic and aesthetic interests of the town.”

“Ambitious” would be an understatement in describing the Canby Women’s Civic Club. Their first goals were to establish an orchestra of young people, reinstate the Canby band and form a reading club, study club and literary society. Oh, and they also decided it was high time Canby had a real library, and for the next 100 years, this tradition would continue of strong, active, creative and civic-minding women leading the charge to build, maintain and strengthen Canby’s library services.

For 10 years, the Club kept open a volunteer library in town, but in 1935, the group decided the town finally needed a permanent location with a staff librarian. In 1937, three members, Portia Shewey, Mabel Gabriel and Edna Johnson went door to door to ask for the community’s support, gathering 643 books and a “tidy sum of cash” to start a public library.

Their dream became a reality in June of year, when the Canby City Council agreed to furnish a room, space and lights for a library to be maintained at City Hall. Like the libraries already established in Molalla, Sandy, Milwaukie and Estacada, the Canby library would be a project of FDR’s New Deal, specifically theWorks Progress Administration, which employed millions to carry out public works projects in virtually every community in America throughout the 1930s and 40s.

Portia Shewey and Edna Johnson were appointed to the first library board, along with Harvey Everhart, Frank Cutsforth and George Gabriel. Its first bookshelves were made by the Stefani Lumber Company, and construction for the new library proceeded smoothly. There was just one problem: They didn’t have enough books!

The people of Canby and the surrounding areas were asked to donate at least one book to the town’s first official library. Residents were advised that the books could be dropped off at the Canby Herald office, or any of the board members’ homes. No addresses were given; presumably, in those days, everybody knew where everybody lived.

The first librarian was Doris Willbourn, whose position was funded by the National Youth Administration—another New Deal brainchild.

Following in her footsteps a few years later was Ora Lee Cattley, whom you might remember our history piece on the Canby Ferry. She was the cousin of M.J. Lee, who “out-christened the Queen of England” the day she smashed a bottle of champagne across the bow of the ferry bearing his name, but she was much more than that.

Like Lee, she was a descendant of the town’s earliest pioneers. Her grandparents, Philander (hint: this guy) and Anna Lee, arrived in the Willamette valley in 1848, and two years later, took title to a 611-acre donation land claim that now lies at the heart of Canby. Her father, Heman A. Lee, was the city’s first mayor when it was incorporated in 1893. Her uncle, Albert Lee, was Canby’s first merchant and also served as its first railroad agent.

The youngest of eight children, Ora Lee was a beautiful young woman. In 1910, at the age of 20, she was crowned the first-ever queen of the Clackamas County Fair. Maybe that explains how she was able to out-christen Elizabeth II.

A small nugget of her early life is preserved in a letter she wrote the editor of The Oregonian in 1941. She recalled watching her pioneer grandmother, Anna, plucking feathers from a live chicken outside her house one day. Another grandchild said, “Grandma, it hurts him to have his feathers pulled out,” to which she replied, “He can’t help it if it does.”

Ora shared her family’s passion for civil service and seeing Canby grow. In 1934, she was elected the first female board member for Canby Union High School. She was also a charter member and president of the Canby PTA and was active in a number of other service, historical and fraternal organizations.

She and her husband George for many years ran a diner, the Kozy Corner Confectionary, on the corner of Highway 99E and Ivy.  Soup, a sandwich, pie and coffee would set you back 35 cents. The diner was later converted to a Greyhound bus depot.

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