In The Beginning

In its centennial year, the Wisconsin Rapids free, public library celebrates one-hundred years of continuous growth.

What began in two dimly lit, upper-floor rooms in the little city of Grand Rapids has become the McMillan Memorial Library, set high on the hill that overlooks the heart of the city.

What began with a few shelves of books in a locked case is now the collection of materials that the library offers today: hard-cover books, paperbacks, large-print books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets; audio-cassette books, music cassettes, video tapes, records, compact discs, films, educational games, art prints; encyclopedias, directories, indexes, microfilm and fiche; the use of projectors, photocopiers, typewriters.

What began as a little book-lending service now offers facilities for theatre productions, public forums, discussion groups, lectures, regularly changing art shows and displays.

Yet the day that first little library was opened, on March 22, 1890, the forces were already in place that have created the library of today: philanthropy, public tax support, and civic effort.

This is the story of what those three forces have accomplished.

It begins with a bequest made by Thomas Blythe Scott, a former resident of Grand Rapids, who died in Merrill, Wisconsin, in 1886. Mr. Scott left five-thousand dollars to the city of Grand Rapids "for the purpose of procuring, establishing, and maintaining a library, forever free, for the use of the inhabitants thereof."

The man who made this bequest was a Scotsman who, after emigrating to the United States in 1839, had come to Wisconsin. After a few years as a storekeeper in Poynette, he had packed some merchandise and traveled by stagecoach to the little river settlement of Grand Rapids.

Sarah Wood Balderston, an early pioneer, later recalled the day in 1851 when Thomas Scott arrived in the Rapids. She wrote, "The coming of the stage was always a notable event. One day it brought Thomas Scott with two barrels of merchandise. Near where the Wood County Bank now stands, Thomas emptied his barrels, put boards across them, spread out his merchandise, and went into business."

After this exploratory venture, Scott settled in Grand Rapids and went into various enterprises before moving to Merrill where he conducted a highly successful lumber business.

In making his bequest, Mr. Scott was adding his name to that of others who, in the latter years of the nineteenth century, were among Wisconsin's early philanthropists. Frontier individualism, during the first half of the century, had scorned philanthropy as a form of charity. In the 1880s, however, it was beginning to be seen as what it is: an active effort to promote the public good.

The purpose of the bequest was also in line with a general effort to create the first free, public libraries in Wisconsin. These had been unknown in the State until the late 1870s, although various men's organizations had sporadically run differing types of lending libraries. An example of this might be the small rental library maintained for a short time in the Rapids by the Odd Fellows Lodge.

In an article that appeared in the Spring, 1976, issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, John Colsen pointed out that such libraries were short-lived. In their places came the free, public libraries created by those who, between 1882 and 1900, gave over nine-hundred-thousand dollars to Wisconsin cities for library buildings and collections.

Mr. Scott's bequest also brought into motion a second factor: tax support. By the terms of his will, the city should "provide and furnish a suitable and convenient room or building," but this stipulation created a problem. The city was already bonded to its limit to pay for the new iron bridge; it had no money for library rooms.

Three years of delay resulted in a referendum to approve the library, and eventually the Common Council rented space for it while building a city hall with four rooms to be allocated to the library. The temporary space consisted of two second-floor rooms on what became Second Street.

The third factor in the library's development - civic effort - began at the same time when a group of enthusiastic young women put on a "Paper Carnival" at Daly's Theater and used the proceeds to buy furniture for the library rooms. These women were the first in a long line of women's clubs and men's organizations that have continuously given strong support to library service.

In 1889 the mayor appointed the first Library Board of Trustees, and this group named Jeremiah (Jere) D. Witter as its president. From then until his death, Mr. Witter was one of the library's most far-sighted benefactors. Because of this, his story is a part of the library's history.

Born in New York State, Mr. Witter moved to Wisconsin where he and his parents created a farm in Waushara County. After one year at Milton College, he was admitted to the Bar and moved to Grand Rapids in 1860. Here he practiced law, served as County Judge, founded the First National Bank, helped establish numerous successful business enterprises, and gave years of service as a public official.

After electing officers, the Board's next important duty was to select a librarian. Here the Board was fortunate, for it chose a young high school graduate who became devoted to the cause of public libraries. Grace Balderston was the granddaughter of Joseph Wood, for whom the county was named. For a year she acted as librarian, and after her marriage to John Daly, she gave forty-six years of continuous service on the Library Board of Trustees.

An important note: in 1895 (five years after Miss Balderston was hired) there were twenty-eight public libraries in the State, and only one of these - only one - had the service of a trained, professional librarian.

In the first years, the trustees' instructions to each new librarian failed to include any directions on the library's operations; perhaps the Board was as ignorant of what such work involved as were those it hired. The instructions, however, carefully listed the librarian's really important duties: "to light the fires, trim the wicks, clean the lamps, and sweep the floors of the library rooms."

For all of her services, the librarian was paid $1.00... per week.

The trustees adopted the rules of the Green Bay library; admitted residents of Centralia to the use of the library under certain conditions; named the new institution the T.B. Scott Free Public Library of Grand Rapids; and carefully put in their cases the 1,172 new books they had bought.

The city library was then ready to open on the winter afternoon of March 22,1890. Through the windows of those upstairs rooms, passersby on the snowy street could see the glow that came from kerosene lamps and the potbellied stove. In the library room, each applicant for membership, together with his tax-paying bondsman, was signing forms, making his security deposit, and reading the printed lists of books (called a catalog) from which he made his selection. The pretty young librarian then carefully unlocked the book case and handed him his chosen volume.

The T. B. Scott Free Public Library of Grand Rapids was now in full operation.

The next fifteen years were undoubtedly the most crucial in the library's development. Before the first year ended, Mr. Witter realized that the Scott bequest was inadequate. In 1891 he gave the library an endowment fund of five-thousand dollars, thus matching the Scott bequest. A grateful Board of Trustees instantly moved to join Mr. Witter with the late Mr. Scott as a co-founder of the library and to change the library's name to the Scott-Witter Library. Mr. Witter blocked the move, saying that if the good influence of the library was increased by his gift, his sole purpose had been accomplished.

Shortly after this, in 1892, the new red-brick city hall, with its imposing belfry, bell, and city clock, was completed. The library then moved into four rooms on the second floor of this building located at the foot of Baker Street. After Grand Rapids and Centralia were joined (under the name of Grand Rapids) in 1900, the offices of the new city were located on the west side of the river, and the library began a gradual expansion into the former city offices on the second floor of what had been the city hall.

Everything was now in place for a successful library operation. It was certainly in place as far as the management of the library funds was concerned. Time after time, the early trustees met to manage the investments of the endowment fund: a loan to the city of three-thousand dollars at six percent interest; investments in local businesses; loans to county farmers that sometimes involved foreclosures, problems with insurance, missed payments, and other difficulties.

For a decade, the income from these investments was enough to meet the library's annual expenses for salaries, books, book binding, and firewood. These were the library's total operating costs, and they ranged from $581.88 a year to $901.07.

By 1900, however, the endowment income could not keep up with rising prices, and the trustees requested and received an appropriation of five-hundred dollars (soon raised to one-thousand dollars) from the city. Up to this time, public support had been in the form of rent and light.

The Board also carefully handled the library's expenses. No bill was too small to escape scrutiny: the cost of rubber stamps, ink pads, and tags was carefully debated. When a motion was passed to increase the librarian's salary from $1.00 to $1.50, an outraged minority of the Board forced a compromise that set the salary at $1.33 1/3 per week.

Library property was, rightly, a major concern, but for many years the trustees annually went to the extreme of meeting in the library to make a book inventory. Each trustee took turns at kneeling in front of the cases, calling out the name of each book, and checking it against the librarian's records.

Lists of those who owed fines were spread across the trustees' records, and malefactors who lost books, together with their vanishing bondsmen, were hunted down until the fines were paid. The loss of The Colonel's Opera Coat or Our Girls was of major concern.

No detail concerning the library's property, funds, or operation was too small to merit the Board's attention. It was a hands-on management that was based on the conviction that a public office is a public trust. No one, today, can fault them for this.

There was one responsibility, however, that the trustees grew to feel they could not handle: book selection. After struggling with the task for five years, they surrendered the job... but not to the librarian. Instead, it was given to a non-Board committee comprised, in the main, of their own wives.

The basis for any book buying was the belief expressed in one trustee's words, that the major purposes of a library were "moral enlightenment and uplift." The books should be "ennobling, elevating and pure." If mistakes were made in selecting books, these errors could be rectified.

For example, in 1894, the Board suppressed An Old Maid's Love, The Quick and the Dead, and A Woman Who Dared. These literary gems were probably no loss to posterity, but, unknowingly, the Board was moving into dangerous waters. The next year, the trustees voted "that we burn the book, The Luck of Roaring Camp, as being unfit to be in the library." Today, of course, this American classic is on almost all school reading lists.

In connection with the problem of book selection, it should be mentioned that one of the recurring themes in the early librarians' annual reports is regret over the public's deplorable preference for works of fiction. As one librarian reported in 1900, "Since the habit of reading novels cannot be cured, all we can do is give the people the best fiction and hope it may possibly help them to better things."

Thus, some of the great nineteenth-century novels found a place in the book collection along with the pious essays, the collected sermons, and the weighty travel tomes of the Victorian era. Popular demand even brought to the library such glorious romances as Richard Harding Davis' Soldiers of Fortune and Anthony Hope's Prisoner of Zenda.

The most pivotal event of these years, however, was the trustees' acceptance of the help offered by Wisconsin's Free Library Commission. This State commission was formed five years after the Rapids' library was established. Its purposes were to foster new libraries and to reorganize those struggling for existence.

One of the Commission's early acts, in May of 1896, was to help Senator J. H. Stout create a system of thirty-seven traveling libraries for Dunn County. (The word libraries here, refers to boxed collections of forty or fifty books that were sent to various places in an area and were loaned from there.)

Mr. Witter learned of this service and instantly gave the T. B. Scott library one-thousand dollars to create such a system for neighboring villages and townships in South Wood County. At his request, the Board of Trustees organized itself into a second Board to operate this project which the trustees insisted should be called the J. D. Witter Free Traveling Libraries.

This valuable service, the second to be established in Wisconsin, was offered throughout the area for fifty-one years.

Another Commission action was of even greater value, however. This was its creation of summer courses to provide training in library science. Before 1894, there were no library schools nor library courses in all of Wisconsin. According to the Fourth Biennial Report of the Commission, "the expense of operating two additional courses this year has been met by Mr. J. D. Witter of Grand Rapids." His support of free, public libraries went beyond the local area and reached out to the pioneer work being done on the State level.

In 1899 Mr. Frank Hutchins of the Commission conferred with the Scott library trustees, and, during this meeting, the Board learned of the vital importance of a card catalog. The trustees voted the necessary appropriation, and in the next year the preliminary work was done by the local librarian's assistant. Much of the professional work was carried on after that by Mrs. A. W. Evans, a graduate librarian who came to the Rapids on the recommendation of the Free Library Commission and at Mr. Witter's expense.

During her one-year stay in 1900, Mrs. Evans wrote the first seven-thousand cards analyzing the books in detail without the aid of Library of Congress cards. She also conducted an apprentice class in library science, one of only two such courses in the State. Two of her students later took the library courses offered by the Free Library Commission, and when Mrs. Evans left the Rapids, these women became, respectively, the librarian and the cataloger.

By the turn of the century, the trustees of the Scott library had thus taken three important steps into the future. First, they were operating the J. D. Witter Free Traveling Libraries which were spreading library service throughout the South Wood County area. Second, they had committed themselves to the goal of employing trained librarians. And third, they had established a card catalog that opened the library's resources to everyone.

Before his death in 1902, Mr. Witter had been the acknowledged leader in making these changes in the library's direction. He was also the library's most generous benefactor. His will added another five thousand dollars to the T. B. Scott Library's endowment, and it created a five-thousand dollar endowment for the J. D. Witter Free Traveling Libraries. He also left a tradition of service and financial support that has been carried on through the rest of the library's one-hundred years by his son, Isaac P. Witter; by his son-in-law, George W. Mead; and by his granddaughter, Emily Baldwin Bell.

Perhaps Mr. Witter's death made his fellow trustees feel a breaking of the ties that had held them together for so long. For whatever reason, the entire Board resigned in 1905. The Common Council then reappointed three members of the original Board: E. P. Arpin, F. A. Wood, and G. A. Gaynor. It named Isaac Witter to take his father's place as a Board member, and he was later elected to serve as treasurer Finally, wonder of wonders, the Council appointed two women: Mrs. Theodore Lipke and Mrs. R. B. Goggins. Mrs. Lipke resigned almost immediately, and the city fathers named Mrs. John Daly in her place. Mrs. Daly then began her many years of constructive work as a library trustee.

That year, 1905, seemed to mark the end of the little lending library operation and signalled the start toward real library services.

Continue with Chapter 2