Early History of the Galena Public Library & Reading Room: 1894-1920

By Tom Brusch

It was in 1892 when Benjamin Franklin Felt, a prominent banker and landowner who had removed to Galena in 1842, presented to the City Council a petition of “leading taxpayers” to fund a free public library. The council said no, claiming that State law wouldn’t allow enough money possible to establish a library.

Typical for B.F. Felt, he took the initiative and offered to pay from his own pocket the total costs for two years, donate 1200 books to start the library as well as find and pay for a location and room. B.F. stipulated that the city of Galena would then take over and run the library with a tax of 40 cents per household per year.

The offer met with tremendous public support. When the Council voted 7-3 to accept the offer, talk of a petition was suggested by some citizens to remove the three objectors. In their defense, they claimed to be protecting the citizens from exorbitantly high taxes.

Besides the munificence of B.F. Felt, we today owe his daughter, Anna, our respect and thanks. B.F. said of Anna, “my daughter has done everything about the library but pay the bills. That is my part.” Anna was 35 in 1894, an independent young woman who had graduated from Wells College in Aurora, NY where she was a classmate and friend of the future First Lady, Mrs. Grover Cleveland.

The proposal accepted by the Council was unique in one important respect. B.F. made clear that four of the nine Library Board Trustees must be female. The Chicago Evening Post responded “We cannot find one woman on a public school or private library board in Chicago. Even private libraries like the Newberry lack woman among their directors. Galena truly has put Chicago to the blush.”

The Women’s Journal said, “This was the first time women had been made directors in any public library in Illinois.” Among those nine, of course, were four women, of which one was Anna Felt, who became financial secretary and remained on the board until her death in 1953!

The first meeting of the Board of Trustees met in B.F.’s home on Oct. 8, 1894, where terms of office were drawn, a rules and regulations committee of three was chosen and a request was sent to Washington D.C. to use rooms upstairs of the Post Office.

The Trustees agreed that the Dewey Decimal System then in vogue would be used and B.F. hired Miss. Lizzie Swan of Rockton, Illinois and graduate of a Chicago Library Science College to classify the first group of books.

The Committee on Rules reported that the name would be “The Galena Public Library and Reading Room; that no anarchistic, atheistic or immoral book shall be tolerated; that all well behaved persons over 10 years of age shall be entitled to the free use of Reading Room; that no person having any contagious disease be allowed in the library and that perfect quiet must be maintained in the Reading Room.”

A public ceremony at Turner Hall on January 3, 1895–B.F. Felt’s 74th birthday– officially opened the library to the public. The Gazette reported: “All in the hall rose in a silent but nevertheless eloquent testimonial of appreciation of Mr. Felt’s munificence. The exercise closed with one verse of the National Hymn “My Country ’tis of thee.”

Miss Julia Jones was hired first Librarian who served until 1903. The library was open every day but only the Reading Room on Sundays. The original library card ledger separated men and women on separate pages with David Sheean signing for the first card; Librarian Julia Jones, second; and B.F. Felt, founder, third.

The first book checked was by W.H. Tippet of East Galena, House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The public was not allowed to roam the bookshelves, but could purchase for $.10 a catalog of books available and the librarian would retrieve it, a practice followed until 1899.

A report by Miss Jones for the first five months of operation reveals that the library possessed 2386 books; lost 0; cards issued 1148; visitors 20,243! Also available were five daily papers, nineteen weekly’s and twenty-eight monthly’s. Disbursements totaled $118.90, Receipts $144.07, leaving on hand $25.17. The Trustees directed that on the 94th page of every book the words “Public Library, Galena, Illinois” be stamped, because the library was founded in 1894.

The Gazette hoped, however, that “the public will no doubt in short time begin to vary their light dishes of fiction with the more substantial food of solid literature.” A similar reaction came from a Trustees report to the City Council in 1896; “…some plan could be devised to encourage readers to take less fiction and more books of history, literature and science. Springfield fiction accounts for 56% of books borrowed, Galena’s is 87%”.

Henry H. Kohlsaat of Galena, who became a wealthy newspaper editor in Chicago, is responsible for the library receiving the famous Thomas Nast painting “Peace in Union” of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox in 1865. Kohlsaat paid Nast $10,000 for the painting, plus $500 for the frame. In public ceremony at Turner Hall in 1895, Nast and Kohlsaat presented the painting to the City of Galena, after which it was displayed upstairs of the Post Office. The painting now hangs in the Galena History Museum on Bench Street.

By the late 1890’s, with the Library overcrowded and the budget tight, the Board of Trustees admonished the City Council, saying, “we hope that you will hereafter come to a better appreciation of the value to the public, and especially to the poor of the public, of a free library in Galena, and change your attitude towards the Library by appropriating all that can and should be by the original proposal of B.F. Felt to the City for the Library.”

Starting in 1895, the Galena Public Library and reading room resided in the 2nd floor rooms of the Post Office, called then the Customs House of Federal Building.

This first library was due primarily to the effort and resources of Benjamin Franklin Felt, a prominent citizen and local banker. The library public grew rapidly and space for the books and reading room was crowded almost immediately.

David Sheean, a prominent local attorney who had become the dynamic President of the Library Board of Trustees a year after the library opened, had been talking with B.F. Felt as well as the Galena City Government about the need for a new library well before 1900.

The driving force behind the new library project was David Sheean, but the money came from the B.F. Felt Estate, B.F. having died in 1899, and B.F.’s daughter, Anna Felt. David would continue as President until his death in 1920, but Anna Felt would be the real leader of the library from her appointment to the Board of Trustees in 1894 until her death in 1953. It would not be stretching the historical truth to call the Galena Public Library today the B.F. and Anna Felt Memorial Library.

But back to the new library beginnings. David Sheean had contacted the great benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, about a library grant to Galena. In 1905, Carnegie offered $12,500 if a site was furnished and if the city taxes would maintain the completed library.

The B. F. Felt estate, through Anna, offered to match the Carnegie offer plus provide land for the library. The City of Galena accepted all offers with some hesitation. Three of the 8 aldermen voted against the gifts saying they didn’t want to burden the taxpayers. The newspaper said of one objector, “Ald. Murley has gone up in the air. If someone will express a wish he stay there we will cheerfully say, “Amen”.

Identifying a specific site became the talk of the town for a few weeks. David Sheean and Library Board of Trustees as well as the city government agreed that Grant Park was a good location. The three “flats”, or today’s entrances off Park Avenue, were mentioned. Objectors thought crossing the railroad tracks was hazardous and smoke from the Water Works Building was unacceptable, but Sheean pointed out that these were not obstacles to enjoying Grant Park without a library.

It became moot when someone pointed out a state law that a public building couldn’t be placed in a public park without a city-wide referendum. That ended talk of Grant Park as a location.

The Library Board quickly compiled a list of seven alternate sites for the library; two on Main Street and five on Bench Street. The two Main Street locations included a corner at Main and Meeker Streets as well as a lot “with the Gazette billboards next to McKeague’s Livery Barn”.

Bench Street possibilities included a lot across from the Baptist Church (Odd Fellows, today), a lot at Hill and Bench (Firehouse today), 2 others and the site finally chosen, the Mrs. Clara Newhall home lot.

The Main Street sites were ruled out primarily due to floods, and also Main Street was “where most of the loafing was done”. The newspaper pointed out that the Main Street location “contained six saloons and children and young girls would necessarily meet this loafing element”.

Anna Felt not only paid for the library lot and was instrumental in its choice, but stipulated that any site “must be viewed from the heart of town”. To ensure its viewing from Main Street and from train passengers across the river, Anna also purchased property in front of the library from Bench to Main Street which became known as Library Park.

There was only one objection to the location in that it was not centrally located downtown, but others pointed out that that could in fact be an advantage and anyway “was only a 3 minute walk from the Post Office”. Amazingly, parking was not an issue at this time.

Two homes were felled to build the library. The Newhall family home, a beautiful frame mansion built by Charles Hempstead was razed, as well as the Rochford family home attached to the Stahl home (still standing). Anna paid for windows to be cut and added to the Stahl House north side.

The new library was built of Indiana limestone in the Classical Greek architecture preferred by Andrew Carnegie. Claude & Starch of Madison, Wis. were the architects.

Excavation began on the new library on October 8, 1906 and the cornerstone was laid, appropriately for Galena, on President Grant’s birthday, April 27, 1907. The cornerstone itself is twice the size of all other building stones and Anna Felt helped place it into position. Silver trowel and mallets were used in laying the cornerstone. The silver was combined with wood handles cut from trees planted by Grant while living at his High Street home before the Civil War.

The cornerstone holds a copper box 8″ x 12″ x 6″ and it is full of neat stuff, including:

* roster of city officers

* roster of Library Board of Trustees

* a few coins

* pictures of Mr. & Mrs. B.F. Felt and daughter Anna

* architects drawing of soon-to-be-completed library

* picture of Library Board President David Sheean

* picture of view of Galena

* 2 U. S. Flags

* piece of wood from Old Stockade

* 2 newspapers

A newspaper selling advertising for the paper to go into the box said “you had better make sure that your name goes into that copper box, for it may be that otherwise it will be quite forgotten in 75 or 100 years”.

Dedication of the completed Galena Public Library took place on Independence Day, July 4, 1908. The Galena High School band played and Anna gave them $50 to split amongst themselves. Speeches were given by Mayor Sheere(r?) and School Board President Jim Nack. B.F. Felt, Jr. gave keys for the library to David Sheean. The new library was opened for the public.

The first new book for the library was Crain’s Standard American RR System Atlas of the World. The basement, or lower level, included an assembly room (auditorium), classroom and work room, upstairs was the children’s room, reading room and delivery (checkout) room. The Tiffany type fireplaces were a gift from Emma Robb, originator of children’s story-hour and a family friend of the Felts. The wrought iron stacks were original to the old Post Office library. Citizens whispered that the library was built without book stacks built into the rooms to discourage hiding places for young people with romantic ideas.

The newspaper referred to the “new Galena Felt-Carnegie Library”. The costs of the building, lots, endowments, etc. to initiate the new library was nearly $60,000 of which Carnegie gave $12,500. The Felts gave the rest.

On October 4, 1907, the newspaper printed “Arrangements have been made with the Sheriff to be on hand this eve to arrest any boy or girl who disturbs the quiet of the room”. The next month the reading room rules were changed to bar children under 15 years of age after 6 p.m. due to disturbances.

In May of 1908 the library advertised for fill for Library Park between Bench and Riverside (Major Street) because a team of horses and buggy had “fallen off” Bench Street to the lower level. The drop was filled and concrete steps were added in 1913.

The new library was noted for its fine guest lecturers in the lower level auditorium. It was determined after the new library became operational that more books were being checked out than had been at the old library, but the reading room had fewer visitors. Could it have had to do with those noisy kids the Sheriff was looking for?

A $25 reward was offered in 1908 for information as to who may have vandalized the cornerstone inscriptions. A newspaper editorial questioned whether an iron fence was needed around the library.

During the Great War in 1917-18 the library closed a few times due to a fuel shortage. Coal was going toward the war effort. Three days warning resulted in 1000 books checked out before the closings and circulation actually increased for those years. The library closed periodically in 1919 due to childhood disease scares. One Library Board Member opened his business office on Main Street and the librarians checked books from there. Many library books were also sent to the school for circulation at that difficult time.

Library Board of Trustees President David Sheean died in June, 1920 and the library lost one of its three indispensable founders. B. F. Felt had died in 1899, but Anna Felt would go on almost forever, until 1953, leading the library to its present position of respect in this community. Of course, many Trustees, librarians and patrons have contributed to its success, including its present leaders.

In June, 1920, the Library Board asked the City Council, “Why, with a population of 5000, only 1900 have library cards? Will you help us find the reason why every man, woman and child in Galena is not using the public library for recreation, study and pastime.”

Please visit your historic library it’s wonderful!