Every morning when Washington State Librarian J. M. Hitt sat down to his breakfast his faithful pet dog would bring him a copy of the Morning Olympian. The problem was, it was not his paper. But, the newspaper reported on September 15, 1907, the mystery only deepened. “Just where this canine Raffles [a popular literary thief] finds his loot,” they wrote, “has not been discovered as two or three complaints have come in from that locality. None of the nearby residents have been without the Olympian and the ‘purp’ doubtless brings it from a distance.”
Jesse Martin Hitt was born on October 16, 1854 in Martin County, Indiana. He attended Valparaiso Male and Female College (now Valparaiso University) in Valparaiso, Indiana. A mischievous student, he once helped put a calf in the belfry as a prank. Hitt earned a bachelor’s degree at the Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1876 and a master’s degree in 1878. Hitt became a teacher. He even served as principal of a school in Delphi, Indiana.
Moving to Vermont for work, he married Ida A. Collins (1856-1934) in Montpelier in 1878. Reflecting at their 50th anniversary, they remembered how they had originally wanted to keep the marriage quiet, but were greeted at the train depot by most of the town and pelted with congratulatory rice and old shoes. Some friends and relatives, discovering their secret, had stayed over from Ida’s grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration held the week before.
The newlyweds taught school in Vermont before moving to Boston where Hitt became an agent for D.C. Heath and Company book publishers. Hitt was president of the National Educational Association from 1883 to 1885. In 1889, the Hitts and their sons Henry and William moved to Sehome (now part of Bellingham). Hitt became the Whatcom County school superintendent before moving to Port Townsend where he became the Jefferson County school superintendent.
On February 1, 1905 Hitt’s career took a new direction when incoming Governor Albert Mead appointed him as Washington State Librarian. Hitt served in the position for 26 years. Ida was his chief assistant.
The job proved quite a challenge. When he began, the library was stuffed into the McKenney Building in downtown Olympia, which the state rented for offices. The library soon moved into the former Thurston County Courthouse when it became the capitol. This location proved temporary, and the library later moved into the basement of the Temple of Justice (home of the Washington State Supreme Court) on the new state capitol campus.
Hitt struggled with a lack of funding even as he expanded the state traveling library’s reach into logging camps and advocated for better local library laws and improved library services to the blind. He also organized the Washington Library Association in 1905, serving as its first president. His concerns reached beyond the state and he was even made president of the National Association of State Libraries in 1921.
The toughest challenges for Hitt came during the administration of Governor Roland Hartley. “The state has too many libraries,” Hartley declared to the state legislature in 1925 and tried to close the Washington State Library. Although he failed, he also tried to put it under the jurisdiction of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Hartley harassed the traveling library, recalling all the books to Olympia, storing them in the state senate chamber and allowing only non-fiction books to go out on loan.
Hitt’s interests also lay outside his State Library work. He and Ida were active club members. Ida belonged to the Woman’s Club, Eenati, Thurston County Humane Society, Thurston County Educational Club, and St. John’s Episcopal Church Altar Guild. She actively helped the Woman’s Club of Olympia open its book collection to the public. This collection eventually became the Olympia Public Library. Her husband was later appointed to the city library board and served on the board for many years. After his death he left money for the library to expand its collection.
Hitt’s list of club memberships was extensive. He was an officer in the Knights of Pythias, Elks and Ancient Order of United Workmen. Hitt belonged to the Boy Scout Council, the Salvation Army advisory committee, and organized a youth stamp club at the YMCA—Hitt was an avid stamp collector. A dedicated Rotary Club member, he was presented a signed scroll in 1929 honoring him for not missing a single meeting in 9 years, totaling 468 lunches. Interested in genealogy, he was the first secretary of the Captain Robert Gray Chapter No.6 of the Sons of the American Revolution when it formed in 1915 in Olympia. He was even made third vice president of the state organization. He was a vestryman in the Episcopal Church for over 50 years.
Another of Hitt’s major contributions to the city of Olympia was through the Olympia Flower Society. He loved gardening, and according to his obituary his house had one of the best gardens in town with over a hundred varieties of roses. He served as president of the Olympia Flower Club for many years. The prize for the best six roses of any one color or type was named the Hitt Cup.
In 1930, Hitt became ill and was forced to resign as state librarian. He passed away on January 9, 1931. Mildred Pope was appointed State Librarian. Hitt’s legacy as State Librarian lives on in the many programs and resources at the Washington State Library and the continuing contributions of Olympia’s clubs to the community.