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Building Greenville: Wealthy son honors father with library

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Sheppard Memorial Library on Evans Street in the 1940s.

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By Roger Kammerer
For the Daily Reflector

Sunday, April 14, 2019

This story is part of an occasional series of features provided by the Greenville Historic Preservation Commission that will focus on city’s history and historic structures.

Going back in time to 1929, Greenville was in real need of a library.

The Greenville Graded School, also called the “Evans Street School,” built in 1903, burned in January 1929, along with the city library inside of it. All the outstanding books were recalled and a temporary wooden building was built on Evans Street to house them.

Dr. and Mrs. Robert L. Carr of Greenville decided to ask Harper D. Sheppard, for $20,000 to build a real library, as a memorial to his father, William Henry Haywood Sheppard, a longtime Pitt County Clerk of Court.

Harper Donaldson Sheppard (1868-1951) was a native of Pitt County, who struck out on his own at the age of 17, and wound up after several interesting jobs, as a worker in a shoe factory. He rose up through the shoe industry and eventually started the famous Hanover Shoe Company in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and became a wealthy man.

Harper Sheppard was enthused with the idea of a library and felt that $20,000 wasn’t enough to put up the type of building he wanted as a memorial to his father. He gave $50,000 and only three conditions to the Greenville Library Commission: First, the town would provide a site; second, he would name two of the three people on the building committee, being Dr. R.L. Carr and Haywood Dail; and third, that all future support of the library was to be assumed by the citizens of Greenville.

James S. Ficklen, who was then head of the Library Commission, was named as third member of the building committee. The building committee pushed ahead rapidly to get the building done the next year.

The local school board donated the Evans Street School site for the use of the library. The Greenville Library Commission hired Lester N. Boney of Wilmington as architect and sent plans to Sheppard in Pennsylvania.

Sheppard replied in early December 1929 that “he was more than pleased with the architectural type of the building, and that he did not have any idea that a building of such magnitude and quality could be built within the limit of his gift.” Harper then increased his offer to $60,000 in order that no expense should be spared in the erection of the building.

On Dec. 11, 1929, contract was let to John W. Hudson of Raleigh to construct the building. Work began about Jan. 1, 1930, and after bouts of inclement weather and materials being delayed, the library was finished in early October 1930.

The beautiful neo-classical library was formally presented to the city on Oct, 15, 1930, by Harper’s son, Lawrence B. Sheppard, with many people from all over the state present and UNC system president Frank Porter Graham making the address.

The library had a most distinguished visitor on Nov. 17, 1941, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited and complimented the library while on a visit to Greenville.

The library was renovated in 1969 and in 2000, in which a 34,000 square foot addition expanded the facility to 60,500 square feet. Sheppard Library is now the largest public library building east of I-95 in North Carolina.

The latest addition was christened when the City of Greenville and Sheppard Memorial Library held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct 23, 2018, to  open the fun new giant outdoor chess and checkers park on the library's central lawn.

Roger Kammerer is an artist and historian who has documented Pitt County’s history. He works at Joyner Library at East Carolina University and is a member of the Greenville Historic Preservation Commission.

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