The Venerable Mill Library of Willimantic (Now Windham), Connecticut

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by Karen Stevens. Originally published in the June 2008 edition of Connecticut Libraries

Growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, I had a favorite librarian. Phyllis had noticed I devoured books about horses and suggested a new title. “You’ll love how imaginative it is,” she promised. The horse and rider characters spoke animatedly to each other once they entered the enchanted forest, kind of like the Christmas miracle of the barn animals talking at midnight. Stupid, stupid! (I had yet to discover Charlotte’s Web.) My focus was the real world. I was going to be a famous artist when I grew up—or a cowgirl. I wanted to draw life as it really was, just like in the original illustrations and stories of Will James’s Smokey the Cow Horse, 1927 Newbery Medal winner. I had discovered a forgotten shelf of his western tales, so beloved by an earlier generation, and was working my way through them. I read them as fast as I could pore over illustrations so vivid and exciting that my senses tingled.

In 18th century colonial America, individuals such as Benjamin Franklin assumed personal responsibility for realizing their dreams. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” was Poor Richard’s well-known maxim. A young printer’s apprentice, Franklin was not a wealthy man who could readily build a library of his own. But good books were obtainable from overseas; they could be imported— with effort and at considerable cost.

Franklin’s “Junta” debating club, a gathering of Philadelphia tradesmen— printers, clerks, merchants, cabinetmakers, cobblers and surveyors— already knew what interested them. They had been meeting regularly since 1727. Their minds were alive and they craved the information to be found in books.

So, in 1731, they organized The Library Company, which many scholars regard as America’s first successful lending library. Formally chartered, it was a subscription library where pooled resources provided the initial funding to invest in books jointly owned. Annual fees supported future purchases for the proprietors. Today in Philadelphia, The Library Company is open to the public. It now serves as a research facility, boasting an original collection along with many new reference materials and serving young students and university scholars.

A century later, in the rapidly industrializing United States of America, another unique library eventually emerged to serve its public in the mill area of Willimantic, Connecticut. Dunham Hall Library opened its doors on March 2, 1878. It was located on the top floor of what was the company store and later served as general offices for the Willimantic Linen Company, which became the American Thread Company in 1898.

An oil portrait by noted artist Charles Noel Flagg was installed in memory of the company’s founder, Austin Dunham (b.1810 - d.1877). His image presided over generations of library patrons in much the same way that George Washington’s presided over the classrooms of schoolchildren.

Since the company’s organization around 1854, it was from Dunham’s extraordinary success in business that financing was available for such benevolent gestures as free public libraries.

Dunham got off to a good start by wisely stockpiling cotton before the Civil War, while it was still obtainable. As a result, he never suffered ensuing shortages and he weathered the periods of financial crisis suffered by others. He always reinvested in the business and accrued the wealth; stockholders were happy. But the vision for many progressive ideas came from a man hired by his son, the Dunham protégé, William Eliot Barrows, who was hired as assistant treasurer in 1874 and, by 1882, became company president and general manager.

In 19th century America, unique and privileged individuals like William Eliot Barrows assumed responsibility for social betterment, with a profound sense of paternalistic commitment for the greater good. “Father knows best,” was a saying fit for the times. Like a forced dose of castor oil, it was for your own good, so open up and swallow. To your health!

Barrows initiated many projects, such as worker tenements, many of which still stand today, and later on, model housing in a gracious neighborhood known as the Oaks, boasting attractive cottages along curving streets. His own country mansion looked down over all. He encouraged gardens and instructed what should be planted, awarded prizes, imposed penalties. His factories were the first to have electric lights. Mill number four was vast, yet personal; it had stained glass windows and tastefully arranged exotic plants.

Women had separate changing areas, free uniforms were provided and coffee breaks were offered to his workers. Barrows reflected his society’s industrial paternalism; in effect, his workers were his children, his to guide and nurture.

The Dunham Hall Library was gracious and welcoming and free. It had mellow wood paneling and vaulted ceilings with carved arching supports in the Eastlake tradition. Uniquely, it was open to the public as well as the mill community. Barrows had been much impressed by an English company library he visited in Yorkshire, and he applied and expanded upon what he had learned. Dunham Hall was well supplied with books, starting with 600 volumes and growing to 2,500 by 1889. It was comfortable, with two fireplaces, and well lit with gaslights. There was a room for reading and another for lectures, programs and classes. Wholesome games such as checkers and chess could be set up for leisure enjoyment. Drawing classes were offered. The talented were offered singing lessons, choirs were formed and there were concerts with invited performers.

Edifying speakers lectured on temperance. Barrows did not neglect spiritual matters; as an Episcopalian, he offered his workers Episcopalian services and Sunday school classes at the library.

Barrows expected his workforce to learn English. During the summer of 1882, free reading and writing classes were organized in the library and generously scheduled, with evenings for both men and women. But he imposed a strict deadline, and while there was a degree of success, many lost their jobs.

As long as business continued to prosper and the shareholders were happy, cottage communities for workers, and showcase libraries were countenanced. But nothing lasts forever, and by 1883, William Eliot Barrows was no longer with the Willimantic Linen Company; he had been fired. Innovations turned to frills. The corporate conscience atrophied. But, surprisingly, the Dunham Hall Library continued to serve the Willimantic area for years to come, alongside Willimantic’s public library.

The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica describes Willimantic’s two libraries, its public library and the Dunham Hall Library, and the 1920 Encyclopedia Americana also lists both libraries. The Willimantic Chronicle’s esteemed matriarch, Lucy Crosby, recalls walking with her class from her school to Dunham Hall one sunny day in the late 1930s, “Each child was given the opportunity to select one book from the collection to keep for their very own,” she says. The valiant library closed in 1941 and its remaining books were sent overseas in 1942 as part of the “Victory Book Campaign,” for American GI’s serving in the Second World War.

The American Thread Company’s Willimantic operations ceased in 1985. When the Windham Textile and History Museum was organized in the familiar old building, around 1988, to preserve the history of Connecticut’s textile industry and to assist in Willimantic’s revitalization, the Dunham Hall Library on the top floor was given new life as a research facility for the museum below. Today, Dr. Jamie H. Eves, assistant professor of history in residence at the University of Connecticut, serves as librarian and archivist.

Recently, about a dozen books from the original collection found their way back home from community donors, identified by their original Dunham Hall bookplates. Their titles reflect the days of leisure reading: Lark Ascending by Mazo De la Roche (1932), Who Goes There? A Story of a Spy in the Civil War by B. K. Benson (1900), In Old Bellaire by Mary Dillon (1906), to name a few. As if by a miracle, the shelves have refilled with books reflecting the history of the mills and their workers. Today one might find generations of high school yearbooks. I Dunham Hall Library with approach by outside staircase no longer in place today. The Connecticut Magazine Vol. 9, 1905 found a Connecticut souvenir volume of the Chicago World’s Fair from 1893. There are area maps, directories and technical books on mill operation. Wonderful old photographs abound. A unique resource for the area’s industrial history is accumulating and being cross-referenced on the computer. The Dunham Hall Library is experiencing a rebirth as researchers, young and old, seek out their heritage, assured it is being respected, studied and preserved.

Was it Phyllis who ultimately introduced me to the wonderful world of E. B. White, and Charlotte and Wilbur and Pearl? It might well have been—later on, when I was more receptive. Browsing the shelves, making serendipitous discoveries on my own, has always been my pleasure. But over time, a good recommendation from a trusted librarian has also introduced new wonders and opened new worlds.

Karen Stevens has worked in several Connecticut libraries and has served as a trustee on her local library board. She lectures on aspects of vanishing Americana, and has a special interest in the local histories, legends, and tales associated with Connecticut libraries. She lives in Scotland. Contact her at librlady@gmail.com.

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