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Belleville Celebrates 140 Years of Library Service

 

September 13, 2018



Belleville is proud to have a long history of library service for their community, dating back to 1878. The original library was one of the first in the state. The 140-year anniversary will be celebrated on Sunday, December 2nd, from 1:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m., at Belleville Public Library at 130 S. Vine Street.

Today’s public library houses numerous resources, services and programs that are free of charge and available to everyone. The library’s dedicated and helpful staff are available to assist with various needs. Although the library is now a hassle-free, accessible and fully functional agency, this was not always the case.

The origin of the Belleville Public Library stems from one Belleville couple and their dedication to providing knowledge through a personal collection of about 50 books.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Story moved to Wisconsin in 1859, making the thousand-mile horse and buggy journey from Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. The couple first moved to the Madison area to try their hand at farming, which they soon realized they did not enjoy. Within the same year, the Storys decided to move south of Madison to the Belleville area.

After opening up a feed and grain business, Mr. Story’s personal reading collection began to grow vastly and he could not house it. Although Mr. Story was passionate about sharing his books, he did not want to distract from his grain business by selling the works out of his store.

On November 28, 1878, Mr. and Mrs. Story organized a meeting of some of their close friends and proposed the need to organize a library association within the Belleville community. With various donations from community members, the local high school, and of course Mr. Story’s collection, the group gathered about 130 books to begin the “Belleville Lyceum Library” in the same year.

The impromptu library committee decided that book borrowers would be required to pay a fee of one dollar per year to qualify as a library subscriber. It was also decided that twenty-five dollars would grant a lifetime membership to its services. New titles were slowly purchased with the money collected from memberships, a cost averaging about forty cents per new book.

Although the new library offered dozens of new books each month, it lacked a very important asset: a true library building. Mr. and Mrs. Story continued to discharge books from their feed store, which they did not intend on doing. For a few short months, books were discharged from Dr. Wheelwright’s office on Vine Street, which was also a far cry from a permanent library building.

In 1890, Mr. and Mrs. Story donated the library to the village with an understanding that the village would make a yearly appropriation for the upkeep of the library. After the Belleville Recorder printed the first catalog of the library’s holdings in 1894, it was recognized that the library was growing rapidly, and needed a new home.

On June 25, 1895, the Belleville Lyceum Library was moved into the upper floor of the town hall. This building still stands in Belleville and is situated in what became known as the “Library Park,” in the heart of the community.

With growing interest, the village voted on a tax to support public library funding for the upkeep of the building and the materials it held. The Belleville Lyceum Association decided to change the name of the local library to “The Belleville Free Library” in the spring of 1904, to promote the village’s new tax offer.

The new tax proposal allowed the library to expand its staff, hiring two new librarians, Jane Morse and Mina Oliver, after Mabel Story retired. Each librarian earned about $38 a year, which was a high salary for a woman during this time period. Both librarians only worked one day a week as the library was only open from 12:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., every Saturday.

Arguably the most remembered librarian, Velma Hoesly, was hired in 1918 following her Belleville High School graduation. Mrs. Hoesly worked very hard as a librarian and completed many tasks beyond simply shelving books.

The library was heated with one small coal burning stove that had to remain burning when the library was occupied. Mrs. Hoesly would gather the coal to fuel the stove from the first floor of the village hall, which also happened to be the local jail. In her 1976 oral history project, Mrs. Hoesly recalled being scared of the different inebriated men sleeping in the jail cell that she had to pass by to collect the coal. Mrs. Hoesly also battled mice and bats throughout the year, rewarding students twenty cents for every mouse caught and disposed of.

Another operational challenge was addressed in 1950 when the village approved adding a flush toilet and cold water faucet to the library building. This was thirty-eight years after running water was available in the village.

In 1953, the library became open for two evening hours every Monday and Wednesday. Many adults had stopped coming to the library due to the installation of televisions in homes, so Mrs. Hoesly proposed these after work hours.

Though Velma Hoesly faced many obstacles, nothing gave her greater joy than teaching the children of the village how to use the library and read. Mrs. Hoesly held the first library story hours and conducted countless summer reading programs to encourage the local children to keep learning during their seasonal vacation.

Many children in the community adored Mrs. Hoesly, as she credited her hard work as a labor of love. Velma Hoesly retired from her position as a librarian in 1963, after serving the library for 43 years.

Mrs. Philomene Armstrong was then hired to serve as Belleville’s next librarian, with a payment of just over $500 a year.

In February of 1969, Mrs. Armstrong was offered a job with the Dane County Library System, leaving Mrs. Rosemary Ziehli as the new head librarian.

The library was flourishing in the early 1970s after becoming part of the new Dane County Library System. Many more books were purchased, new windows were installed, and bookshelves were replaced due to the extra funds.

Though recently updated, the old library building was dubbed a fire hazard. After many attempts, a vote for a new library building was approved by a village referendum in 1975. The move to the current library building took place almost 40 years ago, in March of 1979.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the library ran smoothly despite their low budget. Rosemary Ziehli retired in 1995, and Jean Christensen was promoted to take her place.

Belleville Public Library entered the modern age through “automation” in 1997. The paper card catalog was replaced with a computerized system shared with the other libraries in the South Central Library System. Patrons were now able to go on a computer workstation and request materials from other libraries.

In the years since automation, library services have expanded to provide information and entertainment in new formats. Community members could use computers with internet access at the library.

Following Jean Christensen’s retirement in 2013, Bronna Lehmann became the Library Director.

The Belleville Public Library has become a community gathering place, sponsoring numerous classes, speakers, and other cultural events for community members of all ages. An average of 153 people walk through the library’s door each weekday.

As the library collection has grown to over 31,000 items and programming for children and adults increased, the need for a larger library to meet today’s needs became evident.

In 2016, the Library Board and Village Board began to plan for a new library and community center for Belleville. It seems appropriate that as we celebrate 140 years of strong library use in Belleville, plans are being drawn up for a new, expanded facility that will serve Belleville residents for decades to come.

The Belleville Public Library will be celebrating the 140th anniversary throughout the fall. People are invited to share a story about their use of the library either by submitting it online at http://www.bellevillelibrary-wi.org/story or by filling out a form from the library.

If you have photos from earlier days at the library that you’d like to share, please contact Susan at (608) 424-1812 to arrange to have them scanned. Photos and stories will be displayed at the anniversary party on December 2nd.

 
 

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