Antelope Valley Press - AV Living (Antelope Valley)

Early Lancaster librarian Eunice Gordon and her death at the Western Hotel

- WRITTEN BY Norma Gurba | Special to the Valley Press

When I was the director/curator of the City of Lancaster Museum/Art Gallery (now MOAH) and the Western Hotel/Museum, one of the most frequent questions I received revolved around any horrible deaths that may have occurred at the old hostelry.

Well, of course, there had been deaths, but usually these were the result of TB and the flu, as well as a few women who died during childbirth; there were no recorded murders/shootings here.

However, there was one very sad death — that of the town’s librarian Eunice Gordon (1877-1935), who died during a blazing inferno at the hotel. Born in Illinois, Eunice spent her early years in the Fowler and Dinuba communitie­s near Fresno. When she first moved to Lancaster in 1913, she resided with her sister Montra and brother-in-law Merton Livermore, on East Tenth Street. Merton owned his own vulcanizin­g shop and was later an engineer in the few local oil fields (1930).

Mention of a Los Angeles County branch library for Lancaster was first discussed in November 1911 (Los Angeles Times): “Much interest is being shown here in the propositio­n of establishi­ng a system of free county libraries. Lancaster is being assured of the location for one of the branches if the plan is carried out.”

Finally, Lancaster’s first official library — one of the 165 branches of the L.A. County Free Library system

Eunice on a Model T Ford in Dinuba, Calif. (1920s).

— was establishe­d June 24, 1913 and Eunice was identified as its “custodian” and then librarian in 1914. It was located in the Chamber of Commerce building. At this time, the library contained 1,426 books with 468 cardholder­s. The Lancaster L.A. County Free Library went

through several temporary homes including the Alice Real Estate Rutledge building, Mrs. Waldon’s store, the Women’s Independen­ce/Independen­t Hall and then Lancaster Pharmacy (September 1913), which was open only on Wednesday afternoons. When the third

Lancaster Grammar School was completed on Cedar Avenue, the Library then relocated into the old second grammar school, a two-story brick building across the street from the Western Hotel.

In 1915, Lodge No. 437 of the Masons was formed in Lancaster and took over the old school building renaming it the Masonic Building. This was where Eunice tended to her library duties on the first floor that was open from 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 8:30 p.m., weekdays. Eunice became one of the community’s most popular residents.

In 1923, the community decided a new library was needed and it moved into an attractive brick building constructe­d by the local Hull Brothers Company — who built many early Lancaster structures — for $6,700. It was located within the new Los Angeles County Government Complex, which also included a Justice of the Peace courtroom; soon after a jail was added. Eunice’s monthly town librarian salary was about $95 at this time. Later, her co-worker was Anna Clark, the branch/county librarian who was also in charge of 23 librar y outstation­s.

Eunice was also very involved with old Lancaster. She was one of the founding 30 members of the Lancaster Woman’s Club, which was organized in 1922, in the third Lancaster Grammar School auditorium.

Eunice, who never married — during this period, there was a long debate whether married female

librarians should be dismissed in favor of unemployed single women — lived with her sister until about 1931, when she moved to the Western Hotel. She certainly did not have a far commute to work, having only to cross the street. She was also a close friend with Myrtie Webber (1867-1978) ever since she first moved to Lancaster.

However, on June 26, 1935, the Southern California Gas Company was called by Myrtie to repair the pilot light and burner that had gone out in the hotel’s basement water heater. Unfortunat­ely, company employee Fred Landberg lit a match while conducting repairs and an explosion and fire immediatel­y ensued. Myrtie (68 years old), who had become a widow only the year before, had been sitting and chatting with Eunice in a room above the basement.

The AV-Ledger Gazette reported: “The blast ignited the clothing of Mrs. Webber and Miss Gordon. Mrs. Webber smothered the flames from her clothing by dropping to the floor and crawling (on her belly) to the fresh air. At the same time, she called to Miss Gordon to do likewise; however, the latter was too confused by the shock and endeavored to leave the room by a window.”

In doing so, Eunice was fatally burned from the blaze. Myrtie and Landberg also required hospitaliz­ation. The landmark Western Hotel was so badly damaged from the fire that when it was rebuilt, its roof peak was about five feet lower than it had originally been.

Dear Eunice is buried in Dinuba.

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