OPINION: The beginning of Southington and Meriden libraries

Last week, I wanted to show enthusiasm for libraries and support specifically the plan for expanding the Meriden Public Library, as opposed to simple renovation. A library can play an important role in the health of a community. All it takes is for the community to recognize that and be willing to make the investment.

What I didn’t mention was the Southington library, which was just as topical. But instead of awaiting a decision by elected officials, which is the situation in Meriden, the library question in Southington was up to the town’s voters to decide. I figured my support for libraries would make it clear I was in favor of voting yes without actually saying it directly. As it turned out, the library question in Southington was not controversial. It had bipartisan support and passed with flying colors. I’m not certain about the commitment in Meriden.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time the question of libraries in Southington and Meriden have coincided. Both municipalities started libraries at the beginning of the 20th century, about a year apart.

The first Southington library opened on May 7, 1902. A story two decades ago by yours truly, occasioned by the 100th anniversary of Meriden’s library, mentioned that a few days before the opening a Southington man had to be quarantined in his home with smallpox, and that the street outside his home was patrolled around the clock. To continue to pursue a tangent for the moment, I’ll point out that smallpox was eradicated from the world in 1980, though it continues to be studied in case it gets used in bioterrorism. It was eradicated because of vaccination programs.

Moving on: When you support a library you’re supporting something that has been around more than 5,000 years. The first library in the U.S was thanks to John Harvard, a clergyman who donated about 400 books to help start a university in Massachusetts in 1638. This, along with half his estate, was so important a gift the university was named for him.

In each case, libraries in Southington and Meriden came about largely because of donations from a single individual. In late 1900, Augusta Curtis donated $75,000 to have a library built in memory of her husband and daughter. There was a stipulation that Meriden chip in $3,000 each year.

In Southington, a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution donated $100, stipulating that the town contribute $200 to start a library in Town Hall. One of the town’s most successful businessmen, L.V. Walkley, donated $5,000 to set up a new library, and the town matched his contribution. Walkley had started modestly as a dry goods clerk in Hartford and became successful with a bag-making company and a dairy farm.

That all doesn’t sound like a lot of money, though of course it was at the time. Though Southington went first, its celebration of the first library opening was not as celebratory as Meriden’s. It included a speech from the chairman of the building committee and the town’s first selectman. The Meriden Daily Journal was there to cover it.

U.S. Senator Orville Platt was there when the cornerstone was laid for the library on Meriden’s East Main Street, in September 1901, and two years later a ceremony celebrated the donation of Augusta Curtis.

“The reading of good books does more to elevate a people than any other one influence,” said George W. Miller, Meriden’s first selectman, who accepted the donation.

Today, libraries handle more than good books, but they remain all about the aim to “elevate a people.” Southington voters have found them worth supporting. We’ll see how Meriden officials feel about it this time around.

Reach Jeffery Kurz at jkurz@record-journal.com.


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