Like the old courthouse, the Eisenbahn trail, and arguably, Toucan’s Custard, the West Bend Community Memorial Library is an essential aspect of our city. Nonetheless, most people are unaware of its long, complex history, and the years of hard work it took to create the library we know today.
Though the current library building is a relatively new development in our city’s history, the origins of the organization began in the late 1880’s. At that time, West Bend’s only ‘public library’ was held in the cramped back room of Wolfram’s Drug Store. The collection, which began with about 80 books, was managed by Mary Wolfram, the storekeeper’s wife. Though small, the library attracted local high schoolers, since their school did not have a library of its own. Despite its niche popularity, it was forced to close in 1899 due to lack of funds.
Figure 1 - Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society
After this unofficial public library was dismantled, community members petitioned for a new one to be made. At the forefront of these appeals was the West Bend Women’s Club. A direct response to the former library closing, this organization was created in November 1889 by Ms. Luti Stearns. The club gained immediate popularity, comprising twenty-six members within weeks of its creation. The women soon began raising money for a new library, hosting fundraising events and going door-to-door to ask for donations.
Figures 2 & 3 - Photos courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society
Within two years, the Women’s Club had raised almost $500, which at the time was enough money to buy furniture and books. Even more importantly, their petition for a new public library gained mass public support. This prompted the city to grant them a venue for their new library-the second floor of the former city hall, directly above the fire station. Though there was only one main room, the Women’s Club packed it full of reading chairs, study tables, and community display boards, as well as 730 books (pictured above.) On September 13th, 1901, the library was opened to the public, and the community was elated.
Figures 4 & 5 - Photos courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society
Soon, however, their excitement waned. As early as 1909, community members began to grumble about the unideal location of the new library, many writing the local newspaper to air their frustrations. They complained that the library was carelessly tossed into the already-full city hall, not seen as important enough to merit its own building. In attempt to appease the irritated townspeople, the city moved the library again in the 1920’s, this time to a former schoolhouse on 724 Elm Street (pictured above.)
It wasn’t until 1967 that the library was moved into a building of its own. This building was a smaller version of the one we have now, located on 630 Poplar Street. Since its construction, extensive renovations have been made, nearly tripling the size of the existing library. Nonetheless, one can still see remnants of the old building within the new one. For example, the east side of the first floor, where the ceilings are lower than the rest of the building, was part of the old library before the expansion.
Figure 6 - Photo courtesy of the West Bend Community Memorial Library
The aforementioned expansion began with a capital campaign in the 1990’s to increase the library’s size. In 1996, official plans for the new library were made, and three years later, construction began. The West Bend Community Memorial Library as we know it today was opened to the public in early 2000. Since then, smaller renovations have been made. For example, in 2014, the park in the back of the library was constructed; in 2016, new carpeting and furniture were added; and in 2018, the water feature was added to the library’s park. There are exciting plans for the future of the library as well, with a recreation center for the library basement in the works.
Naturally, the library we have today is very different from when it started. After all, the organization began with only 80 books in the back room of a drugstore. Today, it has over 175,000 books, as well as its own building, which spans 62,000 square feet. Moreover, it is connected through the Monarch Library System to other libraries nearby, allowing for patrons to have access to even more books, programs, and resources.
Nonetheless, much has remained the same throughout the 130+ years that the West Bend library has been in existence. It is still spearheaded by strong local women; it still hosts programs to encourage childhood literacy; and it still brings together community members of all ages. Its history thus far has been long and rich, and hopefully, its future will be too.
“About Us.” West Bend Library, West Bend Library, www.westbendlibrary.org/about/.
Bapties, Fred. “The Story of the Beginning and the Growth of the West Bend Library.” 14 Sept. 1951, West Bend, WI.
“Library Is 65 Years Old; Hope for New Home in '67.” West Bend Daily News, 15 Sept. 1966.
Salminen, Amy. Interview with head librarian about history of the West Bend library. 28 May 2019.
Sanbourne, John. “West Bend Community Memorial Library-History and General Information.” Marquette University, 1961, West Bend Community Memorial Library-History and General Information.
“This Week in History.” West Bend Daily News, 31 Jan. 1985.
“West Bend Public Library Photographs.” Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Society, 3 July 2009, www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM65463.
Willis, Jordan R. “West Bend Public Library Celebrated Its 50th Anniversary with Pageant.” West Bend Daily News, 27 Dec. 1951.