Mark Twain’s Gift to Redding – the library that bears his Name

In the autumn of 1908, most of the folks who called Redding their home had a short commute to work – from their house to their barn. Redding was a farming community, plain and simple. The few people who maintained a store in the various neighborhoods throughout the rural community either resided above it, next to it, or across the road. Educators mostly lived within a short walking distance of the schoolhouses they taught in. The automobile was still a relatively new invention, and more novel than useful for most of the residents in Redding.

There were no electric lines. Very few people had telephones, although the Southern New England Telephone Company was beginning to install more poles and run more lines.

Except for the railroad line across the western side of town, the Redding of 1908 wasn’t much different from the Redding of 1808.

Perhaps the biggest change was that the town was suddenly becoming a mecca for writers, artists, and wealthy business entrepreneurs who found the bucolic charms of the country too difficult to resist during those months of the summer when city dwelling was too hot, too noisy, and too dirty to tolerate. Poverty Hollow, the Ridge, Sunset Hill, and the Umpawaug area were all seeing a new crop of wealthy part-time residents buying up old farms and building large and luxurious estates that were capable of entertaining good-sized groups of city dwellers for extended periods of time.

While many of those folks were well known in their day, perhaps the person whose persona and talent has endured the longest is that of Samuel Clemens, aka, Mark Twain.

Twain’s good friend, fellow author and Twain biographer, Alfred Bigelow Paine, already owned a farm on Diamond Hill when he convinced Twain that Redding was the perfect place to build his summer retreat. After a buying spree in the summer of 1907, they acquired enough land overlooking the Saugatuck Valley to the south to begin construction. Twain’s only requests were that the house have a prominently placed billiards room and that the building not cost more than $30,000 to complete.

1908. Stormfield’s elegant Italianate villa.

The billiards room was placed directly to the right as one walked into the front hallway of the completed Italianate styled villa, but the final cost exceeded $60,000. Luckily, Twain fell in love with the place the second he laid eyes on it in the late spring of 1908, so other than complain about the cost overruns, he thoroughly enjoyed his new home.

Stormfield’s guest book identifies all the visitors to the estate, many of whom were permanent residents of Redding and its surrounding towns. It’s likely that the lack of a public library in town came up in one or more of many the conversations over lunch or dinner at Twain’s new country home. Whatever the impetus was, it quickly became clear that Redding’s newest resident felt that the town deserved a proper library where people could acquire a good book or read a current periodical.

Only a few months after moving into his new home, by the early fall of 1908 Twain was determined to bring his vision to fruition. In typical Mark Twain fashion, a humorous method of raising funds for a permanent library building began by Twain charging admission to his personal gatherings, imposing a $1 “library tax” on all male visitors as well as a luggage tax on his many overnight guests. In addition, he cajoled many of his wealthy and influential friends and colleagues to contribute to the cause, not the least among them were Issac Guggenheim and Andrew Carnegie, the latter establishing a permanent endowment for the library.

Partial text from Twain’s witty “request” for payment of his library tax, dated October 7, 1908, at Stormfield:

To My Guests

Greetings and Salutation and Prosperity!
And Therewith, Length of Days. Listen:

My fellow farmers of this vicinity have gathered together some hundreds of books and instituted a public library and given it my name. Large contributions of books have been sent to it by Robert Collier, of Collier’s Weekly, by Colonel Harvey, of Harper & Brothers, and by Doubleday, Page & Company- all these without coercion; indeed upon the merest hint. The other great publishers will do the like as soon as they hear about this enterprise. The Harper Periodicals, Collier’s Weekly, World’s Work, Country Life in America, and other magazines are sent gratis to the library- this also without coercion, merely a hint. The hint will in due time be extended to other magazines. And so, we have a library…

A small, unused chapel on the corner of Umpawaug Rd. and Diamond Hill that had become part of Twain’s real estate holdings, was opened as a temporary library to house the many books Mark Twain had donated to the endeavor from his personal collection. On October 28, 1908, Twain formally dedicated the new library, naming himself as its first president. In his welcoming monologue, he reminded his audience of the botched burglary that had taken place at Stormfield the previous month. Had those burglars spent more time perusing literature in libraries, he suggested that “they wouldn’t have gone to jail. For all we know they may next be elected to Congress.”

Twain’s Library Tax receipt. This one was presented to Helen Keller upon her January 1909 three-day visit to Stormfield.

This temporary library would have a librarian on duty Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons for use by all the citizens of Redding.

On September 21, 1909, Twain hosted a “Musicale” at Stormfield to benefit the new library building fund. His daughter Clara, her future husband, Russian pianist, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, and well-known American opera singer, David Bispham, entertained 525 guests. Tickets were sold for one dollar. The event was undoubtedly the most sophisticated affair that the farming community of Redding had ever witnessed. It is likely that more tickets were sold to people wishing to get a first-hand look at the villa at Stormfield than those who wished to hear the entertainment provided. There were probably more than a few cows in Redding that were milked a little late on that Tuesday afternoon.

Ticket for admission to the library fund raiser held at Stormfield in 1909.

From The Voyage Home, (April 1910 near the end of Twain’s final winter in Bermuda – and just a few weeks before his death) Chapter 292 of Albert Bigelow Paine’s, Mark Twain: A Biography:

“On the afternoon of my arrival we drove out, as formerly, and he discussed some of the old subjects in quite the old way. He had been re-reading Macaulay, he said, and spoke at considerable length of the hypocrisy and intrigue of the English court under James II. He spoke, too, of the Redding library. I had sold for him that portion of the land where Jean’s farmhouse had stood, and it was in his mind to use the money for some sort of a memorial to Jean. I had written, suggesting that perhaps he would like to put up a small library building, as the Adams lot faced the corner where Jean had passed every day when she rode to the station for the mail. He had been thinking this over, he said, and wished the idea carried out. He asked me to write at once to his lawyer, Mr. Lark, and have a paper prepared appointing trustees for a memorial library fund.”

To Charles T. Lark, in New York:

HAMILTON, BERMUDA. April 6, 1910.

DEAR MR. LARK,

I have told Paine that I want the money derived from the sale of the farm, which I had given, but not conveyed, to my daughter Jean, to be used to erect a building for the Mark Twain Library of Redding, the building to be called the Jean L. Clemens Memorial Building.

I wish to place the money $6,000.00 in the hands of three trustees,– Paine and two others: H. A. Lounsbury and William E. Hazen, all of Redding, these trustees to form a building Committee to decide on the size and plan of the building needed and to arrange for and supervise the work in such a manner that the fund shall amply provide for the building complete, with necessary furnishings, leaving, if possible, a balance remaining, sufficient for such repairs and additional furnishings as may be required for two years from the time of completion.

Will you please draw a document covering these requirements and have it ready by the time I reach New York (April 14th).

Very sincerely, S. L. CLEMENS.

The land for the new library building was donated by Theodore Adams. Twain wanted the new library building to be dedicated to the memory of his daughter Jean who had died at Stormfield on Christmas Eve of 1909 after suffering an epileptic seizure and drowning in her bath. The Jean Clemens Memorial Building that housed the Mark Twain Library officially opened at its present location on February 18, 1911.

Earliest known photo of the library c.1915. Stormfield can be seen atop the hill at the left.

The new library consisted of one large reading room with a massive stone fireplace at one end along with a piano for entertainment. Large reading desks were in the center and all the books were in bookcases that lined the outer walls between the windows. There was no second floor in the original building, and the lighting was supplied by kerosene lamps suspended from the ceiling.

Interior of the original library c.1915. All the books were stored on shelves that lined the walls. This room has been restored to look quite similar today. The original fireplace with Twain’s portrait hanging above the mantle remains.

As the years progressed, the collection of books steadily grew. To accommodate them all, additional bookcases were added, lined up front to rear in the large reading room. In the late 1940’s the attic was enlarged with the addition of the front dormer, giving the building additional square footage without increasing its footprint. But that still wasn’t enough. By the late 1960’s, the main level was so crowded that even the fireplace was obscured by bookcases standing in front of it.

The MTL as it appeared in the 1950’s.

The Mark Twain Library (MTL) had never been financially supported with public money. The Town of Redding provided a small annual stipend of $100 in the 1940’s that grew to $150 in the 1950’s. The Redding Elementary School had no library of its own, and the MTL ran a weekly caravan of books brought from the library up to the school by volunteers. The Board of Education provided a small amount of additional funding on an annual basis to partially pay for the services the library was rendering to Redding’s elementary age students.

Additional monies were supplied by generous donations from some of Redding’s wealthier residents and the library association held various events throughout the year to supplement its needs. There were silver tea parties, card parties, and two dances every year that raised money for the library’s annual operating expenses.

The annual book fair that area residents now look forward to every year in early September began as a small one-day affair on the narrow front lawn of the library long before the building was moved back from the intersection where it still sits. If the library association took in $500, it was considered a great success. The big change came in 1967 when the book fair was moved to the large parking lot in front of the Country Emporium on Long Ridge Road and expanded into a multi-day event. After just a couple of seasons at the new venue, cars would line up for miles, many with out-of-state license plates. By the early 1970’s the event was earning the library in excess of $5,000 each year. The 1971 event saw over 2,000 people converge upon the Emporium during the first day alone.

By 1970, Redding’s population had grown to 5,590 people, nearly a four-fold increase from the 1,400 who resided there when Mark Twain came to town in 1908. The library’s circulation had expanded to 27,365, up from 10,222 just ten years earlier in 1960. The reader use had grown to a 5 to 1 ratio in relation to the population that was showing no signs of slowing growth. The library needed to see a massive expansion if it was to keep pace with the population and continue to serve as a community center as it had for its first sixty years.

The building committee was headed by Virginia Glick, a Stepney Road resident professionally known as Virginia Kirkus, the 1933 founder of Kirkus Reviews, a pre-publication service that she started in her apartment in New York City and that survives today as a leader in the industry. In 1940, she wrote a book entitled “A House for the Weekends,” describing her adventures restoring her 1845 side-hall colonial in Redding.

The original library needed to be moved back from the intersection of Diamond Hill Road and Route 53 before the town would approve it expansion in 1971.

Henry T. Moeckel Associates in Naugatuck was commissioned to design the addition. An experienced architectural firm in library expansions, they designed what would become one of the most controversial additions to a historical structure in Redding’s history – a round concrete structure that sat to the rear of the 1911 building and overlooked the Saugatuck River.

One Redding resident complained that it “looks like a pillbox on the River Marne.” Another quipped, “It looks like a sewage treatment plant to me.” Still another was quoted as saying. “It’s not in keeping with colonial New England architecture.” This writer has always described it as looking like “A giant wheel of cheddar cheese.”

Library fund raising chairman Harold Schwede was quoted in an April 2, 1972, Bridgeport Post article as saying, “I guess you could say we are building a round library in a square town.”

The fact of the matter is the interior of the new addition was stunning and incredibly practical at the same time. The use of wood and rocks gave the interior a warmth that belied the stark appearance of the cold, concrete exterior. The round shape better lent itself to displaying more books in the same amount of square footage. The library fund raising committee managed to amass $145,000 from solicitations within the community, while the town and the state each contributed an additional $50,000. A later addition to the south side would hide the 1972 façade and make the building appear more in keeping with the colonial nature of the town.

The warmth of the interior of the round addition belies the starkness of the exterior as it appeared when it was first completed in 1972. Recent photograph during the annual art show.

The Mark Twain Library continues to be a vital part of the Redding community today. Its annual programs have become well known and are always well attended. The Frog Frolic in early May; the Book Fair Labor Day Weekend; the Puddn’head Prize and Festival in September; and the Art Show in early December are all successful fund raisers. It’s tradition of presenting both adult and children’s programs throughout the year continue to bring the town’s residents together.

If there is one thing this writer is certain of, it’s how pleased Mark Twain would be if he could see the long-lasting results that have benefitted his “fellow farmers” of Redding through his donation of the library that bears his name.

A special thanks goes out to my Redding Town Co-Historian, Brent Colley, for his Twain research, some of which is shared in this article.

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