By Curtis Badger
When the new Eastern Shore Public Library opens in Parksley it will be a homecoming of sorts. While it’s true that the Accomac library marked its 60th birthday last month, Accomac was not the home of the first library on the Eastern Shore. That distinction belongs to the town of Parksley, which celebrated the grand opening of the Parksley Free Library on March 26, 1892. In 2020, after the passage of some 128 years, Parksley will again celebrate the opening of a new library.
According to The Countryside Transformed, a digital archive of maps, photographs, and printed media maintained by the Eastern Shore Public Library, the Parksley Free Library was the brainchild of Elizabeth Chadbourne, an enterprising young woman from Boston who spent her summers in Parksley and began the library with a donation of 500 volumes.
The Parksley Free Library opened with a grand celebration, complete with speeches, music, and fireworks. As the Peninsula Enterprise reported, “The opening was a splendid success. There was not even standing room for one more. Miss Chadbourne made the presentation address, in her usual happy style, outlining the progress of the work of collecting the Library and making an eloquent plea for its liberal use and support. Miss Willie Wright, in well chosen words, gracefully accepted the gift on behalf of the trustees.”
Parksley was a child of the railroad, which opened on the Shore in 1884 and profoundly changed the landscape in which people lived, worked, and traveled. Parksley was the product of a land rush, a planned community that in a very brief interval morphed from farmland to a commercial center. It is generally assumed that wealthy businessmen were the catalyst that drove the railroad and the growth it spawned, but in Parksley, Lizzie Chadbourne was a mover and shaker of the first order. Opening the Parksley Free Library was just one of her accomplishments.
Lizzie was the daughter of William and Elizabeth Chadbourne of Boston and was well known as a public speaker. The Norfolk Landmark described her as “a silver-tongued elocutionist” in its Feb. 26, 1889, edition. William Chadbourne was a Boston police officer, and when he retired from the force around 1890, he built a home in Parksley where the family spent their winters. Lizzie was described in the news media of the day as “a shrewd and accomplished young woman from Boston” who quickly became involved in land sales. Lizzie was a principal owner of the Parksley Land Improvement Co., which bought much of the land surrounding Parksley.
The Chadbourne family built a three-storied home on Wilson Avenue, and Lizzie bought a 50-acre parcel near what today is the community of Whitesville. She named the parcel Savin Hill after the neighborhood in Boston where her family lived and began selling lots. The holdings of the Parksley Land Improvement Co. grew quickly and soon included Half Moon Island and much nearby farmland. While many of the lots were sold to northerners looking for a temperate winter home, local folks also bought land in Parksley. Businesses in neighboring communities such as Leemont moved to Parksley to take advantage of the growing population and the amenities provided by the town.
And among those amenities was the Parksley Free Library, which opened with a fireworks display by the National Fireworks Company of Boston that the Peninsula Enterprise called “the most elaborate ever seen in this section.” Perhaps there will be fireworks again in 2020.
A campaign is underway to fund the new ESVA Heritage Center, which will require specialized architectural design, environmental controls and equipment. Those wishing to donate or to be recognized with other Founders of the Heritage Center should send donations to ESPL Foundation, P.O. Box 554, Accomac, VA 23301, call 757-787-2500, or visit www.shorelibrary.com
By Curtis Badger