Editor’s note: This is the first in an series of occasional articles marking the 100th anniversary of the construction of the Milford Public Library.
By Earleen Fisher
Vice President, Friends of the Library
MILFORD — The initial rejection was devastating: Word had come from New York City that Milford’s application for a Carnegie Foundation grant to construct a real library building was being turned down. The Milford Public Library had been launched in 1907 with a single table and chair in the back of the interurban rail trolley’s waiting room in the Milford Hotel on Main Street.
After a few years, leading citizens of the town of Milford, surrounding Van Buren Township and neighboring Jefferson Township, embarked on a campaign to give the library its own building and to greatly expand its collection of books. They decided to apply to the philanthropy created by Scotland-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
The story of what happened next was told to me in the early 1960s, separately and with details matching, by two persons in positions to know:
- Arilla Bowers, widow of Pitt Bowers who had been the office man at the gravel pit south of Milford. Before her marriage, as 20-something Arilla Arnold, she had been the town’s first librarian. She had a steel-trap memory, and I used to visit her on her front porch on Henry Street to press her for pieces of town history. I’d come away with anything from who the drainage ditches west of Milford were named for to how her father had sold a second-hand spool bed to two of my great-grandparents when they got married in 1884.
- Donald Vanderveer, a lawyer who had served as a Kosciusko County Circuit Court judge in the 1930s. Even in mostly stay-at-home retirement, he dressed as if for the courtroom in black suit and necktie. His father, Richard Vanderveer, was one of the first trustees of the Milford library — and a member of the little group that wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
The Carnegie Foundation was generous when it came to libraries. Between 1883 and 1929, it provided grants to build at least 1,689 in the United States and several hundred more in other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
The foundation seems to have been remarkably trusting when it came to follow-up on how its grants were spent, but getting the money in the first place could be hard. The Carnegie Foundation wanted assurances about community need and support, including ongoing administration and financing.
So, according to both Bowers and Vanderveer, a small delegation, including Richard Vanderveer, took the New York Central train into the heart of Manhattan, pleaded Milford’s case and commitment to building a library and to keeping it going for future generations. They must have been convincing. By 1915-16, the grant was on its way.
The grant, for construction of a library building, was $10,000 — a fairly standard amount for Carnegie library grants to small towns. At roughly the same time, three other Kosciusko County towns received Carnegie library grants: Warsaw, Syracuse and Pierceton.
In the recurring-coincidence aspect of small-town life, an examination of old files at the Milford library turned up things I’d never known from my own family: The lion’s share of that $10,000 construction grant — $8,325 — went to Doty Brothers Construction, headed by Alonzo U. Doty, that same great-grandfather who’d bought his marriage bed from Bowers’ father, and his younger brother, J. Elmer Doty.
Their work, completed in 1919, remains the core of the red-brick library building at the corner of Main and Catherine streets. By comparison, the 1995 expansion and renovation, which more than doubled the floor space, cost $1.2 million.