Our Verona Public Library: "A Century of Service"
Written on the occasion of the centennial of the Free Public Library of Verona, New Jersey
by Robert L. Williams
April 25, 1993
In the opening years of the 1890s, the little country hamlet of Verona was beginning to bustle with activity and awaken from its long and peaceful slumber as an agricultural community. With the new railroad line running through the northern portion of the community, more people began to flock westward and with these people came a need for more businesses and churches. It is to this setting and period that our library traces its roots.
In exploring the heritage of the Verona Public Library, it is necessary to take a brief look at the life of its founder, Anna M. DeGolier. Anna was born in 1836 in South Mayfield, New York, the eldest of eight children. Because her family was living in Montreal, Rev. DeGolier went on a trip in a schooner through the Great Lakes. While he and a companion were standing on deck one day, the boom of the sail struck and knocked them overboard, drowning the pair. News of the tragedy reached home about a month later and with Anna being the eldest child, the burden of responsibility was on her shoulders to hold the family together. This would be no easy task, especially in what, at that time, was a male-dominated society. From Montreal, the family moved to Chicago where they lived for some time. While there, Anna taught at a young ladies' seminary in Evanston, only a short distance from Chicago.
It is recorded that in 1874, Anna, along with her sister and brother-in-law, came to Verona. Mrs. William Pitt Rich, a friend of Anna's, commented about her in an article which appeared in the Caldwell Progress: "I remember once that Miss DeGolier told me that they did not know that the property they had purchased was over the Verona line until they came into the house. They were quite disappointed, she said, at its being so far in the country." Fortunately for us, Anna's destiny was here in Verona and not elsewhere.
Ten years later, in 1884, Anna opened a studio in Montclair where she taught painting. Her best work was portraiture. But somehow, to Anna, this was not enough.
In the early 1890s, while visiting her sisters in Ohio, Anna realized the value of a women's club and brought the idea back to Verona. She once said, "Statistics show that there is the greatest percent of insanity among farmers wives, who have few associations and fewer books. What a woman needs is to get out among people and have something about which to think as she goes about her household duties." Anna called together the women who had been members of the former Athene Literary Society, an organization of both men and women which dated back to 1879.
The first meeting of Anna's group took place on January 24, 1893 and they named their organization the Isabella Literary Club. Officers were elected and Anna was elected president. According to the Club's constitution, its goal was to promote intellectual growth, increase knowledge in the vital affairs of the day, and cultivate the social element. These goals were certainly upheld as some of the activities of the club included essay writing, readings, and musical numbers such as piano solos and vocal duets. According to Grace Kaas, among the minutes of the club was found a debate, "If modern women take an interest in civic affairs, men should help solve the domestic problems." This certainly branded these Victorian ladies as progressive for their time, as the suffrage movement was still in its infancy.
At the fourth meeting of the club, a motion was passed to expend the surplus funds for a library. Several other motions were passed which included the purchase of books necessary for immediate use by the club. These books were to be turned over to the library. In addition, each member was to contribute, semi-monthly, five cents for the benefit of the library. At this time, the library was housed in Anna's sister's home at 5 Brookdale Avenue, a beautiful Victorian house which stood on the east side of Brookdale where Celentano's parking lot [was] located. Anna acted as librarian.
In its early years, it seemed the library was always on the move. In 1895, it was moved to the Verona Club House located on the north corner of Derwent Street and Claremont Avenue. Although greatly remodeled, this building still stands. In 1897, the library was moved to the old brick Bloomfield Avenue school where it was incorporated with the school library, and in 1899, to rooms in Judge Johnson's newly constructed building which today stands adjacent to Center Drugs. Twelve years later, the library returned to the Bloomfield Avenue school which had been enlarged in 1902.
In the meantime, following several public meetings, a citizens' committee met jointly with a committee from the Isabella Club on February 6, 1900. This resulted in the formation of the Verona Public Library Association. A corporation was created and its first annual meeting was held in March of that year. One of the first actions was to name Anna DeGolier as librarian. Shortly thereafter, the Isabella Club gave all its books and bookcases to the trustees of the Library Association with the condition that the Association would allow the women of the club the free use of the books for one year. Another provision required that the property would revert back to the Isabella Club if the Library Association disbanded.
Anna DeGolier died in the autumn of 1901, but despite her death the library continued to grow as the flame she held so firmly was passed on to others. Money was raised to finance the library through public subscription and benefits organized by the Isabella Literary Club. In the fall of 1911, at the general election, the people of our community voted to establish a free public library and, in 1912, officers were elected. Approximately 1,500 books, money, and furniture of the Verona Public Library Association was turned over to the Trustees of the Free Public Library of Verona. In 1916, the trustees of the library received notice that they would have to vacate the room in the schoolhouse because it was needed for more classes. Thus a search was begun for new quarters. The library obtained a Carnegie grant for $11,000 and a lot on the corner of Bloomfield and Montrose Avenues was purchased with funds from the Library Association supplemented by public subscription. Architectural drawings for the new building were made but the sudden rise in construction costs at the advent of World War I prevented immediate action. It was not until 1922 that construction began on the library and rather than being constructed on the corner of Bloomfield and Montrose, it was included in the Civic Center.
But before the new building was completed, disaster struck on the morning of January 7, 1923. The municipal building, which was formerly the old Methodist Church on the east corner of Grove and Bloomfield Avenues, caught fire. It was at this location that the library had relocated in 1916 and it was estimated that 5,000 books were destroyed in the fire. It was about 3:30 a.m. when police Lieutenant Rowland, who was trying doors in the business section, spotted flames leaping from the roof adjoining the chimney. The fire truck, recently purchased police car, and a car used by the Water and Sewer Department, were taken out of the building. Only a police motorcycle burned. The fire spread so quickly that just as the last car was being taken through the doors, a part of the roof and two steel cells on a balcony over the door plummeted, blocking further entrance to the front of the building. Despite assistance from Montclair and Overbrook Fire Departments, the building, with the exception of a rear annex, was completely destroyed. It was said that the many books in the library burned the longest.
Dorothy Davenport Lang, who lived nearby on South Prospect Street, had a vivid recollection of that fateful morning in early January. "I remember the strong wind that night, the covers of burning books blowing up the street and my father climbing on the roof with buckets of water, just in case."
Of the 5,000 library books accumulated over a thirty year period, the only ones saved were those in circulation which amounted to about 325. Even though most of the loss was covered by insurance, the Library Board virtually had to start from the beginning in replenishing its shelves. Finally, on September 7, 1923, the new library building was opened, and thus a new era began.
Nearly seventy years have passed since the Library opened the doors of the original portion of its present building and a century since its founding. Many milestones have been passed along the way - too many to be included in this brief history. How pleased and surprised Anna DeGolier would be if she could see and visit the library today.