Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Sarah Poage Caldwell Butler (21 August 1892–2 December 1983), librarian and civic leader, was born in Wytheville, the daughter of Manley Morrison Caldwell, a lawyer, and Willie Brown Walker Caldwell, a civic leader and later a Republican Party activist. Her parents moved to Roanoke, which had better schools, and her mother became a leader in the Woman's Civic Betterment Club, which lobbied successfully for public health and for improved schools, parks, and playgrounds. The club's objective of a public library remained unrealized, and the future librarian later credited the thwarted project with instilling in her the desire to enter that field.

After graduating from Roanoke City High School in May 1911, Sarah Caldwell entered Mary Baldwin Seminary (later Mary Baldwin University), the alma mater of her mother and grandmother, as a member of the sophomore class, which she served as secretary. She chose coursework to prepare herself to enter the Pratt Institute Library School, in Brooklyn, New York, the following year. Continuing her speedy educational progress, Caldwell received a certificate of graduation from Pratt on 16 June 1913. In September of that year she became one of the eleven members of the Training Class for Library Work with Children at the Cleveland Public Library. The students worked at the library but spent two mornings each week attending lectures and recitations. In 1916 Caldwell received her certificate of completion.

Caldwell returned to New York as a children's librarian at the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library, in Greenwich Village. On 5 December 1917 she married William Wilson Samuel Butler, a Roanoke physician. He enlisted in the navy three months later in answer to a call for more physicians and was ordered to Brooklyn. Until he was reassigned to Roanoke as a recruiting officer in the spring of 1919, Sarah Butler worked as a substitute librarian in New York. The younger of their two sons, Manley Caldwell Butler, served in the House of Representatives from 1972 to 1983.

Shortly after her return to Roanoke, Butler began discussing the benefits that a public library could bring to the city. About fifty representatives of local civic organizations met in January 1920 to form the Roanoke Library Association, and they elected Butler the first chair. In February the association presented plans for renovating the vacant mansion in Elmwood Park as a library, and next month the city council agreed to improve the building and maintain it, provided that the citizens of Roanoke subscribed to a book fund sufficient to support the library.

Butler presided over a meeting of community leaders in April to plan the citywide fund-raising campaign. A local banker chaired the campaign, but in spite of endorsements from the clergy and generous publicity from the newspapers the campaign fell short of its goal and raised only about $21,000. That sum was enough to go forward, however, and on 21 May 1921 the Roanoke Public Library formally opened. The mayor presented the keys to Butler, who accepted them on behalf of the new library's board, of which she was the first president. Within two months the library had 2,599 registered users, of whom more than 1,000 were children. In July 1921 the library board signed a lease on a building for a branch library for Roanoke's black citizens, who had also raised money for the library during the 1920 campaign. Butler presided at its opening on 13 December 1921.

In the autumn of 1922 the Butlers moved for a year to Baltimore, where William Butler studied at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, and Sarah Butler worked at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Back in Roanoke she resumed working for the library board and joined other members in unsuccessful efforts to expand the library's overcrowded quarters. Butler remained on the board until December 1930. In April 1925 she became a charter member of the Roanoke Valley Garden Club, which in June 1929 became a member club of the Garden Club of Virginia. One of the club's projects was maintaining the gardens and grounds at Elmwood Park, the site of the library, which earned the Garden Club of Virginia's Massie Distinguished Achievement Medal in 1930. Butler's husband shared her interest in horticulture, and in that year they moved to a new suburban house with two acres of terraced gardens.

Butler was a director at large of the Garden Club of Virginia from 1941 to 1944, first vice president from 1946 to 1948, chair of the finance committee from 1948 to 1950, and president from 1950 to 1952. During her term as president the club completed one of its largest projects, restoration of the gardens off the West Lawn at the University of Virginia. Butler served again as a director at large in 1952 and 1953 and chaired the nominations committee from 1958 to 1960.

Butler became a leader of women's work at Saint John's Episcopal Church and from 1940 to 1942 was first vice president and in 1944 president of the woman's auxiliary of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Wartime restrictions on travel limited the organization's activities, but Butler was no figurehead. In her annual report in 1945 she analyzed structural weaknesses of the auxiliary and expressed regret that it had not realized its potential.

On 1 March 1949 Roanoke voters approved a bond issue for construction of a new public library, which opened early in 1952. Twenty-six years later, when the city proposed to move the library from Elmwood Park to a vacant federal office building, Butler wrote a forceful letter to the Roanoke Times and World-News explaining that renovation of the vacant building would cost far more than expanding the existing library, which, she explained, could be accomplished without further encroachment into the park. Her letter (and "superior credentials" on the subject) caused the newspaper to call for reconsideration of the proposed move. The Roanoke City Central Library remained in Elmwood Park.

Sarah Poage Caldwell Butler died in Roanoke on 2 December 1983 and was buried in the city's Evergreen Cemetery. The library board commissioned a bronze sculpture of a child reading a book as a memorial to her, and on 13 November 1988 her two sons spoke at its unveiling at the library in Elmwood Park. On 2 January 2000 the Roanoke Times published a special issue on the twentieth century, including feature stories about ten selected city leaders. Sarah Butler, founder of the city's library system, was one of them.

Sources Consulted:
Birth Register, Wythe Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS), Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; BVS Marriage Register, Roanoke Co.; information, including undated typescript autobiography, provided by son M. Caldwell Butler; Barry Floyd Jones, "A History of the Roanoke Public Library, Roanoke, Virginia, 1921–1946" (master's thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1985); Carolyn Hale Bruce, Roanoke: A Pictorial History (1976), 125 (portrait); Mrs. James Bland [Christine Hale] Martin, ed., Follow the Green Arrow: The History of the Garden Club of Virginia, 1920–1970 (1970), 29, 253, 258; Roanoke World-News, 6 Dec. 1917, 5 Apr. 1920, 7 Apr. 1920, 12 Apr. 1971; Roanoke Times, 20 Mar. 1920, 21, 22 May 1921, 6 Dec. 1930, 12 Oct. 1969, 30 May 1996, 2 Jan. 2000; Roanoke Times and World-News (A.M. ed.), 19, 22 (quotation) Aug. 1978, 18 Apr. 1982, 11 Nov. 1988; Roanoke Times and World-News (P.M. ed.), 10 Nov. 1988; obituary in Roanoke Times and World-News (A.M. ed.), 3 Dec. 1983 (portrait).

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by John T. Kneebone.

How to cite this page:
John T. Kneebone,"Sarah Poage Caldwell Butler (1892–1983)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Butler_Sarah_Poage_Caldwell, accessed [today's date]).

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