Editor’s Note: “The Dodge Connection” is an ongoing series of articles tracing the history of Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, one of Council Bluffs’ most famous residents, as well as the varied connections of Dodge and the Dodge family members to the residents and businesses in the Council Bluffs-Omaha community.
Through the years the library existed in several different forms: book clubs, literary societies, a private reading room at the YMCA and a subscription library.
For those not familiar with subscription libraries, they asked for patrons to pay a yearly subscription or annual membership fee to use the library.
John D. Lockwood wrote in a letter from Council Bluffs on Jan. 12, 1862, to his sister, Susana Lockwood: “Our reading club met at Mrs. D’s last night — and was quite stormy — the club was — ‘cause a remark of Mr L’s that he never enjoyed a better meeting than the one at Mrs. E’s reported by Mrs. Andrews with some additions. I did not take the trouble to explain — which provoked Miss D. & Miss Lucy all the more.”
The library movement in Council Bluffs had its start in 1866 and has passed through several stages.
The first effort toward a public library resulted in the organization of the Young Men’s Library Association with Mr. D.C. Bloomer as its chair. Located in the Empire Building, which stood on the south side of Broadway between Main and Pearl Streets, it had only one room and was open only to men who paid a subscription fee.
Several hundred books were donated from his personal library. Unfortunately, this building burned, along with the Empire Block, in 1867. The next year the library was located in the Empire Block on Broadway.
Several hundred books had been collected and the library was getting a good start when disaster struck. On June 26, 1867, the Empire Block was destroyed by fire, and a casualty was the library and, with it, the library association.
For the next four years, the city was without a public library, but it had several reading clubs.
Renewed efforts began two years later, in 1869. In 1871, this organization was incorporated under the name Public School Library.
In 1873, the Public School Library was consolidated with the YMCA and was moved to the high school building, located in the Woodbury Building on Pearl Street. It was well stocked with papers, books and periodicals, but remained a subscription library, which limited its use to those who could afford to pay the $2 per year membership feem plus a 14-cent per book loan.
Many different entertainment events and socials were held to raise money for the library, like the one at the home of N.P. Dodge in 1873.
“Don’t forget to attend the entertainment on behalf of the Public Library, at the residence of N.P. Dodge, Esq. The entertainment will be rich, rare and racy. Mrs. Jarley will exhibit her unrivaled wax-works. There will also be a shadow pantomime and many other attractions. A collection will be taken up for the benefit of the library. Contributions on behalf of this estimable project, earnestly solicited, and may be sent to the care of N.P. Dodge.”
Despite the formation of the Council Bluffs Library Association in 1878, the library was faltering. At a board meeting in November of that year, all but two members resigned. Women were elected to replace the resigning male members, prominent among them Mrs. Grenville Dodge and Mrs. Nathan P. Dodge, and they took action.
They enlarged the subscription list, solicited donations and held fundraisers, which included oyster suppers, lectures and a most successful endeavor — the highlight of the social season — a Dickens party on February 18, 1879, which netted the ladies $370.
In addition, they persuaded the City Council to allow the library $15 a month for rent. Since Horace Everett provided the space rent free, the women used the money to purchase books.
In 1873, $2 would buy a one-year membership subscription in the local Library Association. The sum was just about the average cost of one new book. A public plea was made: “If from one to two hundred persons will give this amount the total will be enough to secure quite a little reading and do much to help an undertaking which must not be allowed to die.”
“For some months the library seems to have been in a swoon. But it was only fainting ... it was not dead. With the cooperation of many it would be very easy to make a library equal to the wants of our city. Large donations would be very timely but ‘many a little makes a nickel’ and a large number of annual members would give the most efficient aid. This would provide new books, and even more important still would give a greater number of readers. If a little stock is put into the library, we shall look for the dividend and that will stimulate its reading. The library calls for help. If nothing more, at least become an annual member. A committee of ladies will be soliciting such memberships.”
Among the committee members were Ruth Anne Dodge, wife of Gen. Grenville Dodge, and her sister-in-law, Susanna Lockwood Dodge, wife of N.P. Dodge.
On April 24, 1882, the Free Public Library consisting of 2,000 to 3,000 books was opened. Do you think it interesting that the word “free” was used in conjunction with a public library?
The library grew rapidly, and in 1883 it was moved to the northwest corner of the new Merriam Block.
In spite of these efforts, the board realized that another means of financial support was needed. In 1875, an attempt was made to have a tax levied for the support of the library, but it failed. In 1882, the women members petitioned the City Council to place a library tax levy on the ballot.
After a spirited campaign, the question carried, and the Free Public Library of Council Bluffs became a permanent institution. On Feb. 8, 1882, the women turned over to the city of Council Bluffs all of the books and effects of the Council Bluffs Library Association.
On April 24, 1882, the Free Public Library — the first in Iowa — was opened in a rented space on the second floor at 12 Pearl St. at a cost of $200 per year. Marcia Davenport was the librarian from 1878 to 1894.