The Best Of Times
The Worst Of Times

Between 1925 and 1953, the T. B. Scott Library experienced a roller coaster ride of riches to rags to riches.

It began in 1925 when Mr. Franklin Wood resigned from the Board of Trustees after thirty-five years of continuous service during which he had missed only two meetings. At his retirement he pledged thirty-five-hundred dollars to the library, "to be used for the best books on Christianity, science and standard fiction."

Two other unexpected gifts marked the decade. In 1926, a second Thomas Blythe Scott, son of the library's founder, returned to the Rapids to renew old acquaintances and to view his childhood home on what had once been called "Quality Row" - now Third Street. During his visit he announced his gift to the library: five-thousand dollars to add to the original Scott endowment and five-thousand for immediate expenditures.

Three years later, Mr. Isaac Witter's annual "Christmas gift" to the city was made to help the library meet its expenses. He placed four-thousand dollars at the disposal of the Board of Trustees and gave one-thousand dollars to the J. D. Witter Free Traveling Libraries.

Another very significant event occurred during this decade when Miss Mary McMillan (later Mrs. Laertes N. Burt) began her long years of service to the city library - as a trustee for twenty-five years and as a long-time benefactor. Because of her part in the library's development, her story is important.

Her grandparents had emigrated from Scotland to England and then to the United States where, in 1852, they had begun to farm in Waushara County, Wisconsin. As their sons grew older, they, in turn, came to Centralia (later Wisconsin Rapids). George, who never married, came first; Archie, his wife, Margaret, and their daughters, Mary and Anna, came in 1891. Here the brothers worked in various occupations, and both invested their savings in the area's growing mills and manufacturing companies.

Anna and Mary graduated from the local high school and from Stevens Point Normal. Both went on to advanced degrees and to distinguished careers in high school and college teaching. Both women, after inheriting their father's and their uncle's estates, worked at being enlightened donors to their church, to the colleges where they had studied or taught, to hospitals, and to the T. B. Scott Free Public Library.

The years of the 1920s were quiet years, when the trustees had to meet only four times a year and when they then dealt with such weighty problems as the cost of a coffee pot for the library's office. The library dozed, with finances adequate for the few services it offered and no new services visualized.

But in 1932 the library began to feel the effects of the nationwide depression. The city appropriation was reduced, and would be reduced further; salaries were slashed, and would be slashed again; and the County Board of Supervisors cut off its entire appropriation to the Wisconsin Rapids, Marshfield, and Nekoosa libraries.

The T. B. Scott Library Board of Trustees then reluctantly decided on a fee of one dollar a year for all out-of-city borrowers. The number of such borrowers dropped from 1385 to 8.

The hardest year was 1933. Because the book budget for 1932 had been so drastically cut, the library was forced to become a beggar. The trustees issued a call in the newspaper, asking the public to donate recent books and magazines; the library collected fifty-four books and a "number of magazines." The September meeting of the Board ended with a general sense of discouragement over this meager response and over the library's grave financial problems.

That late afternoon the Board secretary, Mrs. Daly, walked home from the meeting and opened her mail. Here she found an envelope postmarked London, and in it was a check for one-thousand dollars made out to the T. B. Scott Free Public Library and signed by Laura Mae Corrigan.

There are two interesting facts concerning this gift. First, as a young woman, Mrs. Corrigan had lived in Grand Rapids before her marriage to the son of a Cleveland industrialist. Making their home in London the couple had entered society as friends of several members of the royal family, especially the Duke and Duchess of Kent.

Because of her elaborate entertaining and her wide-spread charities Mrs. Corrigan became internationally known. That she should hear about the library's plight from her sister, Mrs. Edward Bassett of Wisconsin Rapids, seems probable; that she should make this spontaneous and generous gift seems highly typical.

The second fact is that no gift could have come at a better time. On November 3 the librarian reported to the Board that she could not keep the library open during November and December unless she could immediately use six-hundred dollars of the Corrigan gift.

In the following year the County Board appropriated $414.63 for the Scott Library, and the one-dollar fee was removed. Federal programs provided some clerical help and some maintenance work on the building. The worst of the hard days was over.

One important event of these years, however, was the library's acquisition of the invaluable Taylor collection of views of the city and river, together with the accompanying reports on the history of Wisconsin Rapids. As early as 1896, young Tom Taylor had appeared before the Library Board of Trustees and had asked for financial help in creating this collection. The Board could back him only to the extent of thirty dollars, but the city eventually financed the project.

In 1934 the collection was placed in the library on a special stand created for the large volumes. Incidentally, that same stand was repaired and put into use in time for the library's centennial. The value to the city of Mr. Taylor's work cannot be exaggerated.

Perhaps it might be added, here, that almost from the library's founding, both the public and the librarians harbored half-formed ideas that the library ought also to be a museum. Generous patrons showered potential museum pieces on the library: collections of stuffed birds, fossils, or minerals; collections of Egyptian brass, Japanese prints, and Indian baskets. Few people could resist the thought that the library would benefit from a souvenir grandfather brought back from a trip to Yellowstone Park. The library, in fact, was in danger of becoming the city's attic.

Each gift doubtless had value, but the library did not have display cases, nor space for cases if there were any, nor personnel to mark, catalog, and display the items. The museum idea was one that languished and then came to life periodically through the years.

Difficult as the depression years were, they brought people to a fuller appreciation of library service. The unemployed found materials on where they could gain saleable skills; others began turning to the works of such writers as Stuart Chase in an effort to understand the economic changes. Still others found that recreational reading was an inexpensive form of entertainment, and the librarian reported that Zane Grey was the favorite with young and old. (Colonel Sherman Potter would be so pleased to know this.) The great book on the early years of the decade was Grapes of Wrath, and the library could not buy enough copies of Gone with the Wind.

In order to serve more patrons, more employees were added. The State had established standards of training and experience for various levels of certification for library workers, and some of the assistants at the Scott library had taken required courses and were eligible to handle positions of responsibility. The typical staff at the library now consisted of a graduate librarian, one or perhaps two local women who were certified for various positions, and clerical workers.

But increased library use brought added pressure for better space. For the past years the Common Council had allotted a certain sum to the library (usually about six thousand dollars) but had retained two-thousand dollars of this appropriation to be used to maintain the building. Since the library used only part of the old city hall, this caused endless misunderstandings and conflicts.

More than that, the city was sometimes slow to use the money for critically needed repairs. Floors sagged, roofs leaked, window sills rotted, and at one point the children's room had to be closed because of the danger from falling chunks of plaster.

To add to these problems, the building was used by an endless line of community organizations. Boy Scouts clattered up and down the stairs, patriotic groups opened their meetings with a stirring song and march, clubwomen held benefit teas. The library functioned by locating work areas in any empty space it could find: the adult reading room was downstairs, but the children's room, the magazine room, and the J. D. Witter Free Traveling Libraries shared the upstairs with a series of differing organizations and government agencies.

On May 13, 1941, the Library Board of Trustees made the following statement: "The facilities of the library are exhausted. Be it resolved that the Library Board of Trustees petition the Common Council of Wisconsin Rapids to take under consideration the matter of enlarging the library building and increasing its equipment by the expenditure of not less than twenty-thousand dollars. It is further resolved that such building be begun not later than the spring of 1942."

The spring of 1942. Notice that date.

When it arrived, the United States had been at war since December, and Bataan was of far greater concern than a library building. The Common Council, of course, denied the request but gave the library the use of the entire old city hall building.

World War II added to the library's outreach program: books were sent to military installations and loaned to the Red Cross canteen set up at the Episcopal Parish Hall. Most of all, it brought hundreds of new users to the library itself. Both new and old users were seeking the library's answers to their questions: Where is Guadalcanal? Where is New Guinea? Where is Kwajalein? These were no longer dots on a map; they were places where their sons and husbands might be serving.

Never before had the community been more aware of the library as a source of information and knowledge. Encyclopedias and atlases were worn out by constant use; current books by war correspondents William Shirer, Ernie Pyle, and Quentin Reynolds were in constant demand; reserves piled up for such books as See Here, Private Hargrove, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and A Bell for Adano.

During this wartime period, in 1942, Mr. Isaac Witter died. This meant the loss of one of the community's most useful and generous civic leaders. Among his many bequests to the city was an endowment of fifteen-thousand dollars for the T. B. Scott Library.

He did not leave money to the J. D. Witter Traveling Libraries, for both he and the rest of the Board recognized that this last privately financed traveling library in Wisconsin had outlived its time. In 1947 the service ended and its endowment came under the ownership of the T. B. Scott Library.

That same year Mrs. Isaac Witter made known her decision to make her home in California. Her brother-in-law, Mr. George Mead (President of Consolidated Water Power and Paper Company) then bought the Witter home on Third Street and gave it to the city for the use of the library.

In April, 1948, the library vacated the old building where, for forty-five years, it had moved about from one space to another in uneasy joint occupancy with a host of others. Now, for the first time, it was to have a home of its own - the white pillared Georgian house which, with its twenty-three rooms and its lawns and gardens, had long been a city show place.

Mr. Mead's generous gift solved the library's housing problems for the next two decades. A special program on April 19 dedicated the new library and "honored the men who helped the library through the years."

The first years in the new facility were filled with greatly increased children's work: special displays for Children's Book Week; library tours for grade school pupils; summer reading programs that closed with parties, balloons, decorations and refreshments. The staff made the gracious building a place that the children loved.

The 1950s also brought grave losses and serious problems. Mr. Mead became ill and had to resign his position on the many civic boards and committees where he had so faithfully given his time and judgment. The loss of his outstanding abilities made his resignation from the Board of Trustees a heavy blow.

Almost at the same time, Miss Jessie Sanford, the librarian of many years, suffered a long illness and died in 1954. For almost a year, a loyal staff of clerical assistants headed by Mrs. Stella Salter somehow kept the library operating until the trustees could find a graduate librarian. Never had the library so needed strong guidance and direction.

Continue with Chapter 4.