The Edith Wheeler Memorial Library, opened in 2007
The first true public library in the United States (that is, an institution fully tax-supported and open to all residents of the community on a free and equal basis) was the Peterborough Public Library in New Hampshire, which opened its doors to adults and children in 1833. Peterborough’s action started the American public library movement which, while slow to progress at first, had caught on by the end of the 19th Century. In 1893, the Connecticut General Assembly passed “enabling legislation” that permitted cities and towns to establish free public libraries and to allocate tax funds for their upkeep and operations. In fact, the state even agreed to award a small grant of $200 to serve as “seed money” to encourage interested communities. Having a public library in town suddenly was a matter of civic pride! Compared to these long-ago dates, the Town of Monroe’s library is a mere baby: it was founded in 1954, 61 years after the General Assembly’s forward-thinking enabling legislation. Monroe’s is one of the newest public libraries in Connecticut.
It should be noted that several attempts to form a public library in this town prior to 1954 were made. In the late 1700s, the Reverend Elisha Rexford established the “New Stratford Library” at the Congregational Church on what today is the Monroe Green. In the 1860s, another minister of the Congregational Church, the Reverend Benjamin Swan, revived this library, but it survived only for a short time.
From 1910 to 1915, Mrs. Henry Habersham, wife of the Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, operated a town library in the brick rectory on The Green. (This house subsequently served as the rectory for St. Jude’s Roman Catholic Church.) The library operated out of the little room to the right of the front door. Mrs. Habersham was a great reader and missed easy access to books, so she arranged with the Connecticut State Library for a shipment of books to be sent to Monroe every month. When the Habershams moved, however, the library ceased operations and the books were stored away. Subsequently, they were sent overseas to American soldiers fighting in World War I.
In the late 1940s, Vera Tracy, an employee of the West Hartford Public Library, donated books to the Stepney Methodist Church on Stepney Green for use as a town library. Located in the church basement, this library was staffed by volunteers and was open to all townspeople into the early 1950s, at which time its books were donated to the new town library being built on The Green.
In November 1954, the residents of Monroe, acting in town meeting, resolved that “the Town of Monroe shall establish, maintain and operate a free Public Library for the use and benefit of all inhabitants of the Town…” The next year, a committee of prominent citizens was formed under the devoted leadership of Dr. and Mrs. I. L. Harshbarger, and this committee spent the next 3 years planning, building, and stocking a new, permanent Monroe Public Library, the institution that exists today.
Following a long and discouraging search for a building site, the first home of today’s town library was erected on a parcel of land on the west side of The Green, a gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Vernik. The building, built by Easton contractor Albert Krisco, was a true community project. Townspeople donated everything from money to building materials to labor to paint to furniture to equipment to landscaping to books. This 1,000 square foot brick facility designed in colonial style was dedicated on March 15, 1958 and officially opened for business the next day, featuring an inventory of 4,300 volumes. Mrs. Billie D. Glenn was the first librarian and the library was open 13 hours per week. Library Card #1 was presented by Mrs. Harshbarger to Mr. Taylor Glenn in appreciation for the 3,000 books he donated (this card bore an expiration date of December 31, 1999!). In the municipal election of 1957, 6 town residents were elected as members of the newly established Library Board of Directors, with Mrs. Harshbarger serving as first chairman. She continued in that capacity until July 1966.
Almost immediately, a Friends of the Library group was organized to support the library through fundraising, by sponsoring programs and receptions, and via other means. The Friends organized at the St. Peter’s Church rectory, and the Reverend Richard S. Martin served as first president. This Friends group still is active today.
The sturdy little building on Monroe Green was much loved by the community and served the town’s library needs for ten years, but by the late 1960s Monroe’s population had doubled to over 10,000. The library became seriously too small to meet its mission. Speaking to the Town Council in 1968, Library Board Chairman Mrs. George B. Tyler Jr. stated that the library now required a facility of 17,000 square feet in order to offer a complete children’s department, an adequate reference collection, and a greatly-expanded adult section to house the many more books needed to serve the needs of Monroe’s growing population. Mrs. Tyler subsequently was appointed to a building committee charged with overseeing construction of a new municipal government building.
The second Monroe Public Library building, occupying the south wing of the colonial-style brick Town Hall/Library/Police Department municipal facility, was designed by Antinozzi Architects of Stratford and built on land behind The Green for $1.4 million. The general contractor was the Mutual Construction Company of Bridgeport. The library opened for business in its new 8,456 square foot quarters on May 1, 1972, and it was formally dedicated with the rest of the municipal building on September 17, 1972.
Between 1972 and 1990, the library expanded greatly in terms of staff, collections, services, and programs. By the late 1970s, the library was open 55 hours per week. In 1976, the position of Children’s Services Librarian was added to the staff, and the position of Adult Services Librarian was established in 1985. By the mid-1980s, just 13 years after dedication, the library already had outgrown its quarters. An attempt was made during that decade, and again in the 1990s, to secure voter approval to expand and renovate the facility, but these were unsuccessful. As the library approached 30 years in its second home, it was seriously overcrowded and desperately in need of extra room to store its collections, to hold programs, and to offer other modern-day library services.
In 1993, the library was the fortunate recipient of a generous bequest from the estate of the late Edith S. Wheeler of Monroe, most of which was earmarked for erecting a new library building. Ms. Wheeler’s money was invested and reinvested for several years by her fund’s trustees, all the while increasing in value. In the autumn of 2001, library officials were successful in securing a $500,000 construction grant from the Connecticut State Library to supplement the Wheeler Trust funds, and they then engaged the services of Bruce Tuthill, partner in the firm Tuthill and Wells Architects of Avon, to prepare preliminary plans for a new, stand-alone library building. On September 29, 2003 and September 28, 2004, the residents of Monroe overwhelmingly approved an appropriation of $6,290,000 to build a new public library in the 2.5-acre field adjacent to the Town Hall complex on Route 111. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Tuthill’s architectural plans were finalized, the construction company of A. Secondino and Son of Branford was selected as general contractor, and a Building Committee and Clerk of the Works were appointed to oversee construction. Groundbreaking for the new library took place on November 15, 2004, with many local residents and several town, state, and library dignitaries on hand. The new facility, which opened in March of 2007, contains 32,000 square feet with adequate space to house collections, services, and programs for 25 years. It was renamed the Edith Wheeler Memorial Library, a fitting memorial to this wonderful benefactor and library supporter.
And now, a word about Edith S. Wheeler:
Edith S. Wheeler was a direct descendent of Moses Wheeler, for whom the bridge joining the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways over the Housatonic River was named. Born in England, Moses Wheeler settled in New Haven in 1638, later moving to Stratford and establishing a river ferry service there. He lived to age 100, and his descendants still populate the area.
His descendent Edith was born and raised in Stratford and graduated from Arnold College, which subsequently merged with the University of Bridgeport. She was a physical education teacher for the Bridgeport public school system from 1941 to 1977. At the time of her retirement, she was head of physical education for all city schools.
Ms. Wheeler moved to Monroe in 1962 and lived with her sister, Ruby, in a farmhouse on Fan Hill Road. After retirement, she volunteered in the Children's Room of the Monroe Public Library and, for 11 years, was a regular part of activities there. During fundraising events such as the annual Friends of the Library booksale, she donated orchids and other plants grown in her greenhouse.
Upon her death in April 1993, Ms. Wheeler left behind a will designed to share her considerable wealth with Monroe and Stratford for many years to come. In addition to a considerable donation to the University of Bridgeport that established the Wheeler Recreation Center at UB, Ms. Wheeler bequeathed $1,000,000 to the Monroe Public Library. Similar-sized bequests were earmarked for Masuk High School and the Stratford school system, to establish scholarship funds. Clearly, Edith S. Wheeler was a good friend to the library.
Many thanks to Laurie Loveland, whose excellent booklet “The Story of The Monroe Public Library” (1983) provided much of the information contained in this history. Additional information was contributed by Robert Simon, Judy Standerford, and Jon Wason (“Edith Wheeler Left a Legacy.” The Monroe Courier, July 14, 2005).