Her Legacy: Meet the Women of West Michigan Who Made History

Mabel Balyeat

(1883-1985) Founder of the Kent District Library

by The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council

Early in the twentieth century, when most of Kent County had no library service, books generally available to rural schoolchildren were owned and loaned by their teachers. But in 1927, Mabel Balyeat led an initial Federation of Women’s Clubs project where area women held “book showers” in an effort to create a county-wide library system. Eventually, women’s clubs were joined by the Kent County Parent-Teachers Council to form the Kent County Library Association, one of only three such county systems in the nation.

 Unfortunately, the United States was plunged into economic depression just as the association was organized, and funds were short. But in 1934, after hearing a lecturer’s account of funding for recreational programs by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), Balyeat envisioned a “new deal for books.” Once she had convinced FERA authorities that reading was in fact recreational and had secured sufficient funding to hire a supervisor and staff for seven libraries, the county needed to establish an official umbrella organization, the Experimental County Library. 

Then Balyeat went to work. She spearheaded a program to secure more books from area individuals and organizations, including the Grand Rapids Public Library, and opened the first library site. It consisted of a handful of books displayed on tables constructed from boards and sawhorses. And a library card could be had in trade for eggs. But by 1935, the library association had a collection of 2,500 books and operated 19 library branches in schools, grocery stores, and gasoline stations across the county.

Balyeat’s dream of a unified county system was realized in 1936 when the Kent County Board of Supervisors formally established the Kent County Library and appointed her to its five-person board of directors. Elected president, she continued to serve until 1946. Mabel Balyeat lived to be 102, and before her death in 1985 she saw the opening of a new central headquarters in 1971 for what is now the Kent District Library.


The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is dedicated to educating the community and celebrating the legacies of local women, preserving knowledge of their past and inspiring visions for their future. For more information or to get involved, visit ggrwhc.org 

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