WHAT’S IN A NAME: Hawkes Library

Published 5:30 pm Saturday, February 25, 2023

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Tucked away on the bank of the Chattahoochee River in West Point, an eye doctor’s bifocals sit on a mantelpiece of a small library, watching 100 years of patrons enjoy the shelves full of books the wearer himself never got to see. 

Albert King Hawkes was an optometrist and philanthropist in the 1880s. A native of Massachusetts, he made his name in Atlanta, Georgia, with a successful optical company.

Unlike most, his vision for wealth didn’t lie in personal comfort but in funding the opening of 100 children’s libraries in rural towns across Georgia. He hoped to bring books to every child in rural Georgia towns. Later in his life, he dedicated his time and wealth to funding children’s libraries in several rural communities. 

“His idea was to help these small rural towns that didn’t have libraries or a lot to offer for the children. So the children of the area would learn to love the library, would learn to read, would get kind of a full-rounded education,” said Chairman of the Board of Trustees Debra Robertson.

Many times, Hawkes’s libraries were the first free public libraries in those towns. Such was the case with the West Point Hawkes Library.

“Many, many years ago, there was no library in West Point,” said Hawkes Librarian Rebecca Cotney. “The gentlemen started a lending library out of their personal libraries.”

In the 1910s, the West Point Women’s Club requested Hawkes to put a library in their town. Hawkes corresponded with Elizabeth Pattillo in 1914 and 1915 about sending books to stock the library. In one letter, Hawkes confirmed that he received a collection of $100 raised by children of West Point for more books.

“I was very glad to get the few lines for they encouraged me to continue the work, and it was so good of the children to contribute what they raised, also the Board of Education. I believe good books for children are a wonderful force for the moulding and training of their little minds!” Hawkes said in a letter to Pattillo.

By 1922, the Hawkes Children’s Library was open. The library books and the movie theater showings were and remain free to all children of West Point. 

Luckily, across the street from the donated land, a movie theater was already built. Throughout the week, the library scheduled free movie screenings for children. Also, the bridge from one bank to the other over the Chattahoochee River was right in front of the plot of land. The Hawkes Library was located in a prime spot.

“At the time, the river bridge crossed right here, so everyone who came to town came by the library,” Cotney said.

Hawkes’ legacy is preserved by continuing his vision, which gives children in rural areas free access to books and entertainment.

Unfortunately, Hawkes didn’t reach his goal of building 100 libraries. In 1916, he passed away before he was able to see more than six libraries built. The library in West Point was one of the last that he ever built. Another library founded by Hawkes was opened post-humously in Cedartown  in September 1921. 

Leaving no widow or children, Hawkes left stipulations in his will for the allotment of funding for several libraries, with more than $5,000 to be used in supplying the West Point Hawkes Library. His sister, S.O. Cundy, and later his niece, Helen Cundy Bryan, took on the maintenance of Hawkes’ philanthropic endeavors.

Only three of Hawkes’ libraries are still standing. However, of those, the one in West Point is the only one still functioning as a free public library. In this way, Hawkes’s legacy lives on perched on the bank of the Chattahoochee River.

Today, Hawkes Library provides West Point’s only free access to computers. It is situated close to downtown so that citizens who don’t have transportation can walk there. 

“It’s still impacting the city, and it has for the 100 years that it’s been here,” Cotney said. 

“It’s been a very valuable source of information for West Point.”

The Hawkes Children’s Library of West Point and the Hawkes Library in Cedartown, Georgia are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

A few of Hawkes’ libraries are still standing, but the West Point location is the only one still in active use as a library.

“I came here as a child across that bridge. And then when our girl was born, we brought her here, and she grew up in this library. Now she’s a librarian,” Cotney said. “We’ve had generations come through this library. People will come back, and they’ll walk in the door and they’ll say it even smells the same.”

To this day, Hawkes looks over his last standing library from a portrait hung over the mantel.