by Ann Havemeyer
The tenth anniversary of the opening of the Norfolk Library was celebrated on March 6, 1899. Isabella Eldridge, founder of the Library, organized the event which included a program of music and addresses at the Library, followed by a luncheon at the Eldridge residence and an afternoon performance of a popular song cycle “In a Persian Garden” (Liza Lehmann, 1896) at the Eldridge Gymnasium (now Norfolk’s Town Hall on Maple Avenue). Formal invitations were sent out to over one hundred people, who answered with personal letters to Isabella. These letters are part of the Library’s Special Collections, and they shed light on the response of the community at large to the importance of the Library.
Isabella asked several people to speak at the event. Librarian Henry Eddy spoke about the history of schools and libraries, and Rev. John Calvin Goddard gave an address entitled “The Library in the Small Town.” Hartford architect George Keller, who designed the Library, spoke about architecture. As it turns out, Keller was a reluctant speaker. In his letter to Isabella, he accepted with pleasure her invitation to attend and thanked her for the railroad tickets which he and his wife would use on the train from Hartford to Norfolk. However, he expressed some trepidation: “I hope you will not insist on having me ‘speak a piece’ for even the thought of it terrifies me. I would much rather design a new library.” In addition to the Norfolk Library, Keller designed libraries in Ansonia, CT, and Granville, MA. David F. Ransom, author of George Keller, Architect (Hartford: Stowe-Day Foundation, 1978), called Keller’s library designs “the crowning achievement of his career.”
Isabella Beecher Hooker, a Norfolk summer resident and a founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association, wrote to Isabella:
Dear Miss Belle,
(That’s the way I am addressed by intimate friends) – I am surely going to Norfolk on Monday to return in the afternoon because I have a big suffrage convention on hand for Wednesday of next week – Susan B. Anthony comes to me on Tuesday for the whole week – I wish you could meet her. But my present thought is that possibly the weather may not be sunshiny and in that case I should not dare risk taking cold – so I would like to send my daughter, Mrs. dr. Hooker [Mrs. Edward Hooker], and perhaps Isabel in my place if you cordially approve. I can’t find notice of the trains in Courant this morning but conclude there is an eight o’clock train and that I go directly to the Library on arriving. Mr. Hooker sends greetings but having a slight cold must not go so far from home.
I am faithfully yours,
Isabella Beecher Hooker
Miss Sarah Porter (1813-1900) was too frail to attend the Tenth Anniversary event but offered this thought: “May the library be more and more a true home for rest, refreshment and quickening.” The sister of Noah Porter, President of Yale College, Sarah studied privately with Yale College professors and in 1843 founded Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, CT. The school’s progressive curriculum, which included the sciences as well as the humanities, attracted the daughters of the educated and affluent. Isabella Eldridge and her sisters attended Miss Porter’s School.
In his letter to Isabella, Howard Carter, headmaster of the Robbins School in Norfolk, reflected on the generosity of the Eldridge family: “We esteem it a rare privilege to have lived for ten years in the same community with people who could create and sustain such an institution as the Norfolk Library. You have indeed built a monument which will render your memory forever independent of granite or marble.” Carter’s son Howard Cordis Carter was born on March 6, 1889, the very day the Norfolk Library opened, and Isabella gave the ten-year old boy a silver watch at the Tenth Anniversary event.
One of the more interesting letterheads—in Chinese characters—is to be found on the stationery of Frederick Wells Williams, a professor at Yale. Williams was born in China, in the Portuguese colony of Macau, in 1857 to American missionary, diplomat, and scholar Samuel Wells Williams, author of The Middle Kingdom: A Survey of the Geography, Government, Education, Social Life, Arts, Religion, &., of the Chinese Empire and Its Inhabitants (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883). Frederick Wells Williams compiled his father’s work in The Life and Letters of Samuel Wells Williams, LL.D., Missionary, Diplomatist, Sinologue (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889).
To commemorate the Library’s tenth anniversary, Isabella gave each of the invited guests a small book, privately printed in a limited edition of 200 copies. Attractively bound in red cloth on board with tie ribbons and the Norfolk Library insignia in gilt lettering on the cover, the book contains the program of the day’s festivities, a facsimile of the invitation to the opening of the Library in 1889, a list of the Library’s builders and workers, photographs of the interior of the library, and the poem Sanctuary written by Dr. Richard Burton for the occasion.