By CATHY MOUNCE, Register Staff Writer
The next installment of the Morton Museum of Cooke County’s lecture series at North Central Texas College’s (NCTC) Little Theater, was a program about Cooke County pioneer Lillian Gunter.
Gunter was a trail blazer in the formation of the Free County Library system of Texas.
NCTC History and Humanities professor Dr. Pat Ledbetter spoke of the changing times in which Gunter lived.
“Lillian Gunter came of age during the time that a great Progressive Movement was happening across America in which the industrial age was replacing an agrarian culture of the country,” Ledbetter said. “Cities were teeming with immigrants, new inventions led to a change in daily activities and new ideas constantly altered the scope of American thinking.”
Morton Museum Director Jayleane Smith spoke of Gunter’s early years.
“Lillian Gunter, born in 1870 in Sivells Bend, was the first of two daughters born to Texas settlers Addison Yancey Gunter and Elizabeth Ligon who had moved to Texas in the 1850s,” Smith said. “Her father had moved to Texas from North Carolina and her mother came from Missouri.”
The plantation where Gunter grew up became a cross road of information for the family as travelers came to the area with new ideas regarding what was going on elsewhere in the country. Gunter’s education was influenced greatly by these travelers as well as by her father’s varied interest in politics and the world outside Sivells Bend.
In Gunter’s time, most women were not involved with matters outside the home but Gunter’s unorthodox early education and independent spirit reportedly encouraged her free thinking.
Partly due to health issues, Gunter was sent at the age of 12 to the Sacred Heart School in St. Louis, Mo. where she continued her education. At 15, she attended Virginia Wesleyan Institute in Virginia where she was exposed to classes formerly only offered to men.
After the death of her father in 1892, she returned home to manage the estate until a depressed economy forced the liquidation of the property. She and her mother then moved to Gainesville in 1901.
Gunter was active in many aspects of Gainesville city life including the temperance movement. She also participated in demonstrations championing the right of women to vote.
A local literary society she participated in known as the XLI Club piqued her interest in books and she wanted to find out how the subscription and antiquated library system of the time could be improved.
She initiated the movement to build and fund a library for all Cooke Country residents by applying for a grant through the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. Carnegie, the great philanthropist of the time offered to provide libraries for counties with certain stipulations.
“Andrew Carnegie said that he would construct libraries for cities under certain conditions by applying for the grant, making a business plan to run the library and by providing for funding to cover operating expenses,” Smith noted. “Gunter filled out all the paperwork, bulldogged the local government and saw the completion of the building in 1914. Today the Gainesville building is now being used by the Butterfield Stage Theater group.”
In 1917, Gunter led the crusade to pass legislation for laws regarding the public library.
Using her own funds, she traveled to New York and California to educate herself on their library systems in order to bring a higher quality library system to Cooke County.
The Texas legislature passed the County Free Library Law in 1919 as championed by Gunter. Gunter directed the Cooke County Library until her death in 1926.
“Lillian Gunter not only lived during a very dynamic time in America but she demonstrated what it takes to be a professional business person,” Ledbetter said. “Regarding the library, she took the initiative to find funding. She defined and acquired skills specific for that endeavor. Once thought of as a man’s profession, after Lillian became involved a librarian became known as a woman’s profession. She asserted control over her work environment by designing the library.”
“Gunter adopted a code of professional ethics in that her responsibility was to make information available to the public,” Ledbetter said. “She created a structure of branch libraries to support the outer areas of the county.”
Other than the library, Gunter was also part of the Red River Valley Historical Association, a forerunner of the Morton Museum of Cooke County. She died of cancer in 1926, and is buried at the family cemetery in Sivells Bend.
She never married but her legacy lives on in the books and information that can be found at the Cooke County Library.