One Hundred Years of Progress: 1890 - 1990
Dwight Foster Public Library
Fort Atkinson Wisconsin

The following is a history of the Dwight Foster Public Library written by local resident Bill Starke in honor of the library's centennial.

A Start Is Made

In 1890 there were only a dozen public libraries in all of Wisconsin. In 1872 a general public library law was passed by the state which made it possible for cities and villages to establish libraries and levy taxes for their support. Shortly thereafter public libraries began to appear around the state.

Following the provisions of law, the first public libraries in Wisconsin were: Sparta (1874), Madison (1875), Fond du Lac (1877), Milwaukee (1878), Janesville (1883), Beaver Dam (1884), Neenah (1884), LaCrossse (1888), Ashland (1888), Superior (1888), Green Bay (1889), and Menomonee (1890).

These early libraries were really quite restricted in what they could offer their patrons. Their book collections were small, assembled primarily by personal donations and were weighted heavily with classics. There were no trained librarians and the persons placed in charge of the book collections were poorly paid, some merely served on a volunteer basis. Only La Crosse actually had a library building. The others were operated as reading rooms in rented or donated quarters. By 1895, there were only twenty-eight public libraries in the state and only one of these had the services of a trained, professional librarian.

Meanwhile, in Fort Atkinson, two local women's clubs were endeavoring to establish a free public library for their city. One was the Tuesday Club, founded in 1881 by sixteen members. It is the second oldest women's club in Wisconsin. It was a women's study club that met weekly, at which time a member would present a topic for discussion such as a book review, or a paper on Italy, France, England or some such country.

As there was no library in Fort Atkinson, books for study were procured from the State Historical Library in Madison. Finding what a necessity a library was, after some years of this inconvenience, they were determined to have one in Fort Atkinson. They began discussing the possibility of establishing a library with city leaders--many of whom probably were their husbands.

On October 12, 1883, fourteen ladies met in the vestry of the Methodist Church in Fort Atkinson and organized a local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. They held monthly meetings and endeavored to do their part to improve the quality of life in Fort Atkinson.

The subject of the possibility of establishing a local public library and reading room was first discussed at their meeting on November 4, 1889, but on March 10, 1890, at the home of Mrs. J. D. Clapp, the twenty-one ladies present actually pledged to raise $100 in 1890 to help fund a new library.

At the W.C.T.U. meeting on December 7, 1891, Mrs. W. H. Rogers, president of the society, acted as chairman and appointed a committee composed of herself, Mrs. U. P. Stair and Mrs. Hilton, to petition the city council to ask the voters to appropriate $500 for a free public library.

On January 4, 1892, the city voted to authorize an expenditure of $500 for library purposes, but later the city council discovered they could not release the funds because there was no money left in the city treasury! The city council then said that local citizens would have to raise $500 to match the amount voted by the electorate, and a committee of men was appointed to do so but nothing was done.

In frustration, on January 12, 1892, at a meeting of the W.C.T.U., a committee of ladies was appointed to raise the $500. The W.C.TU. donated $100 and in a few months the $500 was promised on paper and a group of prominent businessmen was appointed to collect the money.

Again, nothing was done so the women went to work themselves. By May 21, 1892, they had raised $80 by putting on cost suppers, $20 by donations and $400 by pledges that they collected. They then deposited the funds in the Citizens State Bank payable to the Businessmen's Association because they had promised to sponsor the library project.

The Businessmen's Association and the city council met as a joint library committee on May 25, 1892. The city agreed to donate the money for equipment and maintenance. Also that year the committee secured a loan of books from the Congregational and Methodist Sunday Schools. They asked Henry E. Southwell for his advice in ordering new books and $866 was spent for books. Many German books were purchased or donated since many residents could read German but not English.

Our First Library

Fort's first library was located at 115 South Main Street at the northeast corner of Main Street and East Milwaukee on the second floor of the Wigdale building (now J M Carpets). On October 6, 1892, Miss Sue Nichols was hired as librarian for $100 a year and $10 was appropriated for Miss Cornelia Petit to assist in getting the library started and cataloged.

To help promote the library, local ministers were asked to devote one Sunday to preaching on the value of a library and to also take a collection for the library.

In May of 1893, the city council was requested to appoint a library board and Mayor A. R. Hoard appointed nine members. The by-laws were adopted May 24 and it was pointed out that the cumbersome by-laws documented were longer than the U. S. Constitution. It went into every detail as to organization expenditures, committees, the conduct of the library and even the librarian. For instance, the librarian was to give a bond with two responsible sureties for satisfactory perfomance of her duties. The first annual meeting was held on June 13, 1893, at which time Mr. Mayne, the first chairman, resigned and W. D. Hoard agreed to finish out the year as president.

The first library budget was submitted to the city council in 1893 as follows:
Librarian's salary$100
Electric lights (based on number of light bulbs)$21
Library (not specified but it was felt it was for rent, books and other expenses)$200

By 1894, the library was operating smoothly and was open three days a week from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The library board recognized the need to improve the skills of the librarian and so, in 1896, it granted an additional $15 to Miss Nichols to attend summer school for librarians in Madison. Her regular salary was now $120 a year.

Residents living outside the city were also desiring to use the library, so in 1898, a resolution was passed authorizing residents of the Township of Koshkonong to become borrowers at the library provided they were sponsored by a citizen residing in the city, who was also a taxpayer. However, they later ruled that clergymen and teachers need not be sponsored.

The 1899 annual report showed a balance on hand of $242.57. It was noted that $15 was received from the Tuesday Club, the women's organization that worked hard to establish the library and that is still an active club in Fort Atkinson.

Letter from Mrs. U.P. Stair to Governor W.D. Hoard, March 19, 1890.
Letter from W.D. Hoard to Mrs. U.P. Stair, March 28, 1890.

The New Century Begins

The minutes of the March 1901 meeting noted that, because of a new law, Fort Atkinson's Superintendent of Schools, Professor J.A. Hagemann, was now a member of the board. A committee was appointed to write to Andrew Carnegie the multi-millionaire steel mill magnate and philanthropist, to ask for a gift toward a new public library building. There is no evidence that a reply was ever received.

In 1904, a committee was authorized to write Mr. Carnegie again and ask for $10,000 to build a new library. Later it was reported that letters had been received from Mr. Carnegie's private secretary which said Mr. Carnegie saw no reason for superseding the present quarters of the library and the matter was dropped.

A good example of the old expression, "The more things change the more they stay the same," occurred at the May 10, 1905 board meeting when the librarian asked for suggestions as to how she could keep order in the library!

One board member suggested that more young people would read Charles Dickens if a more valuable and attractive set would be purchased. The board also was concerned about getting more good books for young readers, especially the boys, "as a means of keeping them from reading the trash which many were reading!"

By 1910, the library board was convinced it was time the library was moved from its by now cramped second floor quarters in the Wigdale building and into its own building. A committee, therefore, was appointed to see whether money could be raised by popular subscription to purchase the Frank W. Hoard lot at East Milwaukee and Merchants Avenue. (The present location of the library.)

Photo of the former Frank Hoard property on the corner of East Milwaukee Avenue and Merchants Avenue.

The Library's First Move

On May 9, 1910, the library board appeared at a special meeting of the city council and requested that the city purchase the Hoard residence, taking the deed in the name of the city and the property to be used for library purposes. The request was granted and the property was purchased for $3,000.

Amont the subscribers were the D. A. R., W.D. Hoard & Company, E.W. Wilcox, L.B. Royce, H.H. Curtis, J.F. Clapp, A.R. Hoard, F.W. Hoard, L.B. Caswell, U.P. Stair, N.S. Greene, W.D. James and W.H. Rogers. Others were Jones, Cornish, Swart, Aspinwall, Hopkins, Hagemann, Gates, Barrie, Purdy, Rankin, Bullock, Downing, Burchard and Goodrich. (It may be noted that many of Fort's street names are from this group of past city leaders.)

The lot south of the library was purchased in 1911. The library board sponsored a tag day and staged an operetta to raise the balance needed to buy the lot.

New Library Is Built

In 1912, Henry E. Southwell of Chicago, son-in-law of Dwight Foster, who in 1836 became the city's first settler, offered to give the city $10,000 for the purchase of a new library building. His only stipulation was that it be of good design and that it be named in honor of Dwight Foster. The gift was graciously accepted.

In the spring of 1915, the city council appropriated $4,000 toward the erection of the new building and later added an additional $1,100. The Hoard residence, which had housed the library, was moved to a new location on Bluff Street and the new library was built on the old site.

The library board had its first meeting in the new library on April 17, 1916 and at that time, Miss Sue Nichols, who had been the librarian since the library was created in 1892, resigned. On August 1, Mrs. John N. Davis was hired for $65 per month.

New Library Dedicated

The handsome new library was dedicated on October 13, 1916. The program was held on the library lawn and the Fort Atkinson Military Band played a concert. The program continued inside in the new Reading Room with a solo by Mrs. J.S. Hagemann, a financial statement by A.J. Glover, a statement of appreciation by Paul Burchard and a response by Mr. H.E. Southwell and Mr. Charles B. Rogers. The total cost of the library was $16,695.23.

A newspaper clipping from the Milwaukee Sentinel of Sunday, October 1, 1916, commented on the new library. It said that the building was unique in design and that the arrangement was ideal for a small library. "The building is of cement and hollow tile, Kellastone outside finish of green granite and red tile roof. The library has 5,000 volumes and current periodicals."

Photo of new library building in 1916

The Minute Book states that on January 10, 1917, Mr. Hagemann and Mrs. Davis, the librarian, were asked to make a list of necessary books and equipment and let Mr. Southwell know the amount required. Mr. Southwell's daughter, Mrs. Mary Worcester, also gave $1,000 to the library in 1917 and again in 1919.

By 1924, the library was again growing too small and discussions were begun to see what might be done. Nothing was accomplished for several years and in 1927, the board decided to ask the city council for the money needed to build an addition, but apparently it was turned down.

Continue: The library from 1929 to 1970

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