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A Look at the History of Philanthropy, often from Women

by Nancy Pritchard Weiss

Even in Pomfret, we don’t live in a vacuum.  The roots of our beloved Pomfret Public Library go deep into the community but they were also encouraged by attitudes and actions around the country.  Our town and our public places are the products of the times when they were established and the people who worked to develop them, operate them, and through private gifts, as is my topic tonight, to embellish them.

People, nearly all of whom were and are women, wanted to make sure that the library they loved went on into the future with resources, rooms and staff to allow all of us to read, mingle, think a little deeper, and enjoy the special nature of our town.

Andrew Carnegie, the great robber baron, steel magnate and philanthropist set the stage by making an enormous commitment to public education through the endowment of public libraries.  Through his gifts, 2,509 libraries were built across the country between 1883-1929.  Our library is not one of them.  It would be much fancier if it were, but momentum reverberated across the land and our library was part of it all.

The roots go back to 1740 when Pomfret established the first public library in eastern Connecticut.  It was called the “United Society for Propagating Christian and Useful Knowledge” and it had 30 members – all men from surrounding towns. The Reverend Ebenezer Williams, minister of the Pomfret Congregational Church was the librarian.  It had 40 books.  I’m sure we can imagine what the collection might have been and how lively the material it contained.  Nonetheless, it was a library, even if only for the few.

Where our library now stands, the second minister, Rev. Aaron Putnam built a house near where the Ben Grosvenor Inn once stood.  He married the sister of Dr. Hall, one of the first physicians in town.  One day he left his bride to pick wildflowers for her.  She was thrown from a two-wheel chaise that had run over a rock and died apparently right where the library stands today.

By 1880 work began on creating a circulating library and this is where the energy and philanthropy of women is beginning to be seen.  It was a subscription library with about 100 books.  It cost $1 per year to belong and the books were kept at the Community House on Pomfret Street.  By 1883 it was moved to a room at the Pomfret Club house from which we have some charming notebooks.  Women and girls signed in and out and apparently when bored, drew on the registration book and had some fun.  By 1898 there were 2,724 books in circulation by 1908- 5,000, mostly gifts and largely novels and biographies.

In 1911 the present building was designed and built with a gift from Helen McHenry Chambers Bradley, the widow of George Lothrop Bradley.  I’ll get into George’s story in a bit, but Helen, who was born in 1856 and thus a widow at 50 and built the library when she was 56.  It was one of many legacies the Bradley’s gave.  Their home was on Bradley Road, where once Lois Orswell lived and is now the home of Andy Rzeznikiewicz.  It burned in about 1922.  There are wonderful architectural renderings of the various guest houses the Bradley’s built that now are Pomfret School faculty homes.

As an aside, the Bradley’s had one child, a daughter, Emma Pendleton Bradley.  She came down with encephalitis when she was 7 and never recovered.  She was very disabled and needed round the clock care until her death in 1907 at the age of 28.  The family founded Bradley Hospital in Providence for children with disabilities by donating their home to become the first neuropsychiatric hospital for children.  In his will, George Bradley noted that there would be preference for poor children from Rhode Island.

George Bradley, who died at 60, had made a fortune by becoming a friend and early investor with Alexander Graham Bell.  He helped develop the telephone and made huge profits in his shares of New England Telephone.  Later he was part of the development of Florida through investments in the Florida Coastline Canal.  He was one of the founders of Pomfret School.

Helen Bradley, who of course called herself Mrs. George Lothrop Bradley, gave the library.  The land on which it stands was given by one of Pomfret’s most prominent citizens, Benjamin Grosvenor.  In the deed it says that if the building ceases to be a library it must be returned to the Grosvenor Trust.

In 1928 the building became a public library.  The subscription members, mostly women donated 10,000 books to the town and the Pomfret Public Library was formed.

The library underwent two major renovations, and a major redecorating under the direction of Laurie Bell.

The first was in 1977 when through a bequest from Abilene Averill the Children’s Room and a work room were added.  I’ve looked into the life and bequest of Miss Abilene.  Tom Borner, who lives in an Averill house, knows some of the stories.  Abilene and her sister, Abigail, lived in the house at the four corners across from the Putnam Bank.  The Averills were prominent and earned the ire of Anne Averill Wright, their niece, by refusing through the board of education to allow Anne to attend high school with town support.  Her father sued and Anne went to school.

Abilene never married and must have inherited considerable wealth.  She died in 1940.  In her will, made in 1936, she left funds to seven people, all named Bennitt, who lived in the mid-West.  By 1975, Dorcas Bennitt died and the library was given the remainder.  It was $155,000!  Half was to be called the Maintenance Fund, which was to be the basis of a new library.  The other half was called the Building Fund, but it was actually for upkeep of the building.  This quirk has kept Board of Trustee Treasurers alert ever since.

Other women have also stepped up as donors.  Eva Jane Prior in 1983 left 100 shares of GE stock.  Eva Jane was from a prominent Pomfret family, the Covells.

Virginia Burdick Blumberg left $20,000 in her will in 1990.  Her mother had been the librarian for many years.  Virginia had worked for Newell Hale.  Betty and Sylvia Danenhower remember her and I must have met her at parties.  She married an older man and died in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In 1995 Margaret G. Deal made a bequest of $55,145.  She lived at the corner where Martha’s Herbiary now stands.  She and her sister, Helen Blodgett, who gave the charming figurines in the case, carved by J. Gregory Wiggins, were successful members of the wallpaper business, Schumacher, in NYC.

In 1995 and 1996 the Aicher family wanted to create a memorial to their daughter Sarah, who died tragically in the bombing of a passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland.  They gave the memorial garden that was designed by Rudy Favretti from Storrs.  Joyce Aicher, who was a member of the Board of Trustees, made an additional gift for the maintenance of the garden.

Elizabeth Wood loved the library and served it well.  When she died in 1997 her husband, Colonel Gilbert Wood, gave $20,000.  He specified that the funds should go on to the purchase of “well-bound books… classics, and books you believe will become historically known”. Laurie Bell uses it only for books, not for electronic materials.

Other gifts from women have added character to the library.  Ester Gustavson Shelton in 1982 gave “all my books on dancing and poetry and all sketches of me done in pastel by Beatrice Stevens”.  She also tossed in $150.  It is Ester and her sister who were the models of the lovely pieces in the biography room.

Eleanor Freedly Johnson, whose portrait stares down on visitors from an upper rail in the library was a voracious reader.  She gave money and books, especially “The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book”, the “English Fairy Book” and “Mycenae and Tiryns”.  Betty Woods had them appraised and I believe they were sold to a collector.

More recently a gift of books shelves commemorates the life of Sharon Sama who was associated with Pomfret School and died quite young.  Also a bench marks the life of Mary Patenaude, who loved the library and whose family are still much involved.

Betty Hale, whose husband Newell served for years as the chairman of buildings and grounds and who helped implement the handicapped accessibility ramp, made a generous gift to support the landscaping project.

I can’t forget to mention two men, Seldom B. Overlock, whose grand house stood where the Vanilla Bean is now.  He gave $5,000 in 1935, the depths of the Depression, stipulating that only the income be used.

In 2002 the library was the beneficiary of a gift of $20,000 from the estate of Phillip G. James, who had been a local school teacher, chairman of the library board and a member of the State Library Board.  Phil also donated his collection of books on military history and the Royal Family.  Elaine Nelson contacted book dealers interested in these topics and obtained a very good price for the materials.

Books related to music were purchased with a gift in memory of Patrick Wood, a Pomfret protégé, who father, Bob Wood, served on the Library Board.  There is also a charming frieze of knights in shining armor, once again done by local artist, Beatrice Stevens, that was given by former resident, Dan Blackmore.

An elegant banjo clock hands on the wall near the entrance to the Children’s Room.  It was made in 1950 by John Payson Grosvenor.  It was then given to Mr. and Mrs. Irving Beebe, who lived next door to the library.  Mrs. Beebe once served on the Library Board.  I was donated in 1977 and only Betty Rollinson knows how to wind it properly and make it work.

The Pauline Field Reading Room is named for a former librarian.  The comfortable furniture was a gift in honor of the 50th wedding anniversary of a Pomfret couple.

The Marjorie Sirrine Room is in honor of another former librarian, who for twenty years as head librarian and for many previous years as assistant, was the heart and soul of the place.  Anyone who ever heard Marge’s melodious voice will never forget it.

Jon Hedu, a friend and former colleague of mine, gave the pastel drawings of the characters in the Pomfret Nativity Play on the occasion of its revival in the late 1970’s or 1980’s.

In closing, I’d like to mention Eleanor Vinton, one of the important Vinton sisters who left their mark on our community.  Mary Vinton Clark built Elsinore.  She and Eleanor build and gave Christ Church to the community in honor of their parents, Alexander Hamilton Vinton and Eleanor Stockbridge Thompson Vinton.  Eleanor was the librarian for 20 years as the plaque at the entrance notes.  The plaque was put up in 1905.  My research indicates that she died in 1903.

But there are hundreds of other benefactors to our library!  Who built the lovely sound garden and the woodland trail?  You did.  Friends of the Library, Pomfret Lions and Yves Geyer, as an Eagle Scout project.

Who established and planted the gardens in front?  You did.  Friends of the Library with green thumbs.

There is something Caroline Sloat told me that is called Gilded Age Syndrome.  That means that we think only the robber barons, such as Andrew Carnegie, with whom I began this talk, can really make a difference with their gifts.  That is just not true?  While some of the donors, mostly women and often quite well-off, were and are important, it is all of us who are the most important donors.

Think of the books that have been donated!  Think of all the work that has gone into fundraising with the book sale.  Think of all the volunteers, patrons, and the tax payers, of course, who really make the library function.

Without the staff, the Board of Trustees that gets elected and then must grow old, very very old in the job because the terms are longer than some marriages.  They are donors too.

Pomfret Public Library is a gem in our remarkable community.  As an institution it reflects the values of our town.  It is open to everyone, although sometimes we need to try hard to convince people to walk through the door for the first time.  It is historic, but it is not a dinosaur. It has one foot firmly planted in the 21st century and yet it is still a place for people to relax, even knit, or talk about books, entertain children or make lots of noise in the Aicher Garden and on the woodland path.

So hats off to all the women (and a few men) who gave gifts large and small to our library.  Their generosity is remembered and put to good use.

They wanted people to read, communicate and be part of the community.  I think they would approve of what has been done with their gifts and with our gifts as well.

From a presentation delivered at 12th Annual Friends of Pomfret Public Library Annual Meeting, September 25, 2018 at The Inn at Woodstock Hill.

Deepest thanks to Nick Beams, Adult Services Librarian, who was a great help with this presentation.  He assembled all the slides and put them into an appropriate way to show them to the Friends. Thanks also to Laurie Bell, Librarian, for her consistent, professional presence.  She moves our library ahead and maintains a welcoming attitude that makes everyone feel welcome. Finally, thanks to the Friends of Pomfret Public Library, especially President, Elaine Nelson, for supporting the library, establishing the group and making it fun and for recruiting me to write this piece of the history of donors to the library.

(transcript of presentation at the Friends Annual Meeting, 2018)