Library History - Brown Street

On a Wednesday night early in 1899 people from all over North Kingstown - Wickford and the outlying villages - came by foot and horse drawn vehicle to the new library on Brown Street. The Greek Revival structure with its welcoming porch and two-story columns was filled to capacity in spite of the winter cold. The Wickford Standard reported that the townspeople "were packed in like sardines" to attend the opening of the North Kingstown Free Library. After a musical overture of National Airs, Contractor James H. Bullock turned the keys of the library over to James A. Greene, President of the Board of Trustees. Other Board members were Joseph Reynolds, William Congdon, Charles Reynolds Thaddeus Hunt, Lyman Aylesworth, and Robert Rodman.

The library had been established and the building erected in 1898 with a gift of land and $10,000 from Caleb Allen Chadsey. Born in 1822 at the family homestead on Davisville Road and left an orphan as a boy, Chadsey had been apprenticed to a cooper in Newport, had shipped out on whaling voyages, and in 1849 had joined the gold rush to California. On the return trip through the Straits when the crew mutinied, he had taken command of the vessel and brought passengers and ship safely home. Back in Wickford, Chadsey started a grocery store at the end of Main Street and, until his death in 1894, took an active role in community affairs.

The Rev. Frederick B. Cole of St. Paul's Church addressed the crowd at the opening ceremonies and dedicated the building "for all that is true and beautiful, for all that is just and lawful, for all that is dignified and courteous, for sound honest government, for the happiness of home and the enlightenment of life. The library flourished on Brown Street for seventy-seven years.

The first librarian was Addison Luther, once a church organist at St. Paul's. His library job included custodial duties. He started with 2,000 volumes, most of which had come from a lending collection organized by St. Paul's Church at the old Guild Hall.

Many citizens were benefactors of the library. William Dean Davis and later Elizabeth Le Moine Miller willed money for books. Davis, a woolen manufacturer, was born in 1813 in Davisville, the village named for his family. He went to public schools in North Kingstown and the Kingston Academy. He joined his father and uncle in woolen manufacturing, spinning, weaving and cloth finishing. For a time he represented North Kingstown in the Rhode Island General Assembly. The owner of woolen mills in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, he died in Providence in 1903. A portrait of Davis as a young man hangs in the South County Room.

Frances Burge Griswold, author of the book Old Wickford, the Venice of America, published in 1900, is the subject of the other large oil portrait hanging in the South County Room. This was a gift to the library from her niece.

Daniel Berkeley Updike, a descendant of the original settlers at Smith's Castle, contributed printed portraits of men and women of local historic interest, Italian engravings, maps, books, and a framed letter signed by President James Madison, praising the Gilbert Stuart portrait of his wife, Dolley Madison. D.B. Updike was the founder of Boston's Merrymount Press. He had no descendants and gave generously to North Kingstown as a memorial to his family, the Updikes who had platted the village of Wickford, first called Updike's Newtown. The Audubon prints which now hang in the library meeting room were among Updike's gifts to the townspeople. A number of local histories were printed at the Merrymount Press, and the library now maintains a special collection of Merrymount Press books. When Annie Merithew was hired as librarian in 1917, a janitor was also hired to tend the building. Miss Merithew lived on West Main Street, where "Bagelz" stands now. She could easily walk to her job at the library, where she checked out books to library patrons young and old for thirty-seven years.

The Rhode Island Library Association held its annual meeting at the North Kingstown Free Library in May 1937. Greetings to the group were extended by Mrs. Joseph Warren Greene of the Board of Trustees. Morning activities included a lecture on "Current Trends in Library Service," a forum dialogue on "The Menace of Mediocrity" with Miss Esther Johnston of the New York Public Library and Prof. I.J. Kapstein of Brown University. A chicken pot pie and ice cream lunch followed at the Wickford House on Main Street. In the afternoon Prof. Herbert Cross of Pleasant Street presented a slide lecture on "Wickford's Most Famous Son Gilbert Stuart." Four private homes were open for tours, as well as the Barn Museum and the Gilbert Stuart House, where tea was served.

By 1950 the collection had grown to over 10,000 volumes. Some had been in the library for many years and were well used. A story-telling group for children five to ten years old was started by Mrs. Sherwood Baldwin. Small wooden chairs for the program were given by the North Kingstown Woman's Club and the North Kingstown Recreation Association.

However, with fifty years of service and changing community needs after World War II, the library had fallen behind the times. The handsome old wooden building, damaged by hurricanes and rot, needed repairs, inflation had eroded finances, and the book, magazine, and reference collections all needed upgrading. When the North Kingstown Town Charter was adopted in 1954, the governance of the library changed significantly. Before this time, the Town Council appointed trustees to the library board for life or until they choose to resign. Now guided by state library law, five trustees were appointed for staggered three year terms. In 1955 through the efforts of the North Kingstown League of Women Voters, the library appropriation was raised from $3,000 to $8,000. Gladys Hellewell, former librarian at Quonset Naval Base and a resident of Saunderstown, was hired as librarian when Annie Merithew retired. Renovation and reorganization began.

With part-time and volunteer assistants, the collection was weeded and recataloged. Gladys Hellewell reported that children pasted and mended books, sorted cards and applied plastic jackets; and homemakers, high school students, and Navy wives typed, shelved books, lettered, sorted magazines and helped in other ways. Nearly 34,000 new catalog cards were created. A grant from the Rhode Island Foundation was used to mend the porch, with engineering drawings contributed by Charles Ayres. Robert Aldrich and Edwin Schuler gave plumbing and sheet metal work. Mrs. Joseph Warren Greene Jr. provided funds for redecorating the local history room upstairs; Norman B. Smith gave a table and captain's chairs and an antique Terry clock; Mrs. Richmond Via11 gave books of Rhode Island history. The North Kingstown Teachers Association, the Pettaquamscutt Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Ye Kings Towne Garden Club all made substantial contributions.

The newly organized Friends of the North Kingstown Free Library, with Mrs. Charles Ayres as chairman, planned a fund drive for children's books, a weekly story hour for pre-schoolers, a youth canteen, a homemaker's forum, and programs of lectures and movies. Regina Leeper, a Wickford resident and also Quonset librarian, was hired as Hellewell's assistant. She worked at the North Kingstown Free Library for twenty-five years and was an active member of the Friends of the Library, managing their annual book sale. She ran a weekly team of book menders and had responsibility for keeping the book collection in top condition with additions and withdrawals.

Henry Dawson, who had served as chairman of the Board of Trustees, was succeeded by Elizabeth Rodman. A life-long resident of North Kingstown and a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, Miss Rodman was familiar with local library issues.

With the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, the Construction Battalion Center (Seabees) at Davisville and the trend toward suburban living, North Kingstown population had grown from 4,000 to 20,000, a 500% increase. The library, which had not grown in size, was too small. Because the town was already struggling to build schools, the Library Board decided to raise $40,000 for an addition through public subscription, rather than requesting tax funds. A Building Committee was formed with Vice Admiral James H. Foskett, chairman, T. Morton Curry, Mrs. W. Henry France, Mrs. John J. Hellewell, secretary, Robert J. Kelley, Harper Moulton, Mrs. Benjamin R. Sturges, and Alden W. Wilson. Miss Rodman presented the first gift in the campaign to the Town Council in March 1960, a check for $7,584 from Mrs. Arthur Booth of Hamden, Connecticut, in memory of her sister Anne S. Nugent.

Plans for the project, drafted by Wickford architects MacConnell and Walker, called for a two-story addition at the back of the library almost doubling its space: a large reading room on the main floor with a deck outside and a meeting room below. The campaign for funding was a success, and the addition was built. In 1963 the library won a Dorothy Canfield Award from the Book of the Month Club, given to small libraries throughout the United States judged to have rendered outstanding service to their communities. The staff of the library grew with June Walch and Shirley Payne added as part-time assistants. When Hellewell retired in 1965, she was named an honorary member of the Board of Trustees.

Selecting a new director was always a challenge. One candidate left after a short trial period. But, living in Davisville, was Edna B. Lager, with a library degree from Simmons College, Boston, and experience in the Philadelphia Drexel Institute and in Providence Public Library's Reference Department. She became director and stayed for fourteen years to oversee big changes. It was soon evident that the 1962 addition to the library was not a long term solution, as borrower registrations and circulation statistics continued to rise. Carolyn Thornton was added to the staff.

During the 1950's and 1960's, federal and state legislation set standards for libraries to insure that adequate service was available to all. In order to qualify for state and federal funding, libraries were expected to meet these standards by a certain date. Besides space requirements, there were staff and collection requirements and requirements for hours of service. As a start, the three libraries in North Kingstown, the North Kingstown Free Library in Wickford, the Willett Free Library in Saunderstown, and the Davisville Library, formed a loose association under the leadership of the North Kingstown Free Library. The Davisville Library later dropped out.

Rhode Island was divided into regions to provide better access to material through interlibrary loan. The North Kingstown Free Library was part of the Southern Region with the Westerly Public Library designated the regional library for the area. Carolyn B. Hearn was the Regional Coordinator for many years. From her office at the Westerly Library, funded by the Rhode Island Department of State Library Services, she acted as advisor to and liaison between South County libraries and other libraries in the state.

Under the regional system, Providence Public Library became the state's Principal Public Library. Interlibrary loan requests from North Kingstown went first to Westerly, then to Providence, and then to in-state colleges and universities and to other sources outside of Rhode Island. Library networking became an integral part of library service.

By now the library at 55 Brown Street was again too small. The library continued to serve as both an intellectual and a social center for the community. Two special events at the library each year were the Christmas Open House, when the Girl Scouts gathered on the library steps to sing carols to villagers and Christmas shoppers, and the summer Friends of the Library Book Sale, run by Regina Leeper, on the library steps during the Wickford Art Festival.

To address the need for expansion, in 1967 the town bought the Tower Discount property next door. The building was razed and the site cleared, but there were problems. The Brown Street area was subject to hurricane flooding, and there was little space for an enlarged septic system.

Federal grants for library building projects were available at this time. In order to qualify, an initial survey was required. The Trustees hired Francis Keough, library consultant and director of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Public Library, to evaluate library services in town. The Keough Report, completed in December 1968, underscored the need for expansion and recommended a new central facility on a different site, more than tripling the square footage and collection sizes. At that time the library had 17,000 volumes housed in 5,000 square feet. Keough put the town's need at 60,000 volumes housed in 18,000 square feet.

Anticipating a big job ahead for the library board, a referendum amending the Town Charter to enlarge the Board of Trustees from five to seven members was passed in November 1970.

In the early 1970's, the library extended its hours of service from forty-nine to over sixty hours per week. Susan Berman, then a graduate student in URI's library science program, and Edith Shearer were hired. Regina Leeper was put in charge of circulation and technical services, Susan Berman was appointed reference librarian, and Shirley Payne headed children's services. Carolyn Bromley was hired, and Deborah Brennan, who was just beginning a career in librarianship, joined the staff as cataloger.

With an incentive grant from the Department of State Library Services, the library hired two young photographers, David Perrotta and Susan Thorpe, to do a series of photographs showing the town at the time. Twenty years later, those photographs reflect North Kingstown at the end of the library's era on Brown Street.