Library needs were felt early in the Bear Lake Valley and to a large extent they were met by one method or another. Just exactly when the first library developed is not definitely known. Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying that a library developed whenever a person had two or more books and was willing to share one.
If that definition is true, libraries followed the early pioneers into the valley and were in use from the time the first homes were built in the Bear Lake Valley in the years 1864. If one seeks a more formal situation, we must turn to the program begun by the Oregon Shortline shortly after it reached Montpelier in July, 1882.
The Shortline had a travelling library of sorts that was first established for the benefit of their rail crews. Gradually it expanded to allow others the use of the materials. Approximately 50 books were in that original Montpelier collection as well as numerous newspapers that filtered along the railroad. When utilized by the trainmen only, the books were located in the railroad depot but when it expanded to public use the collection was first housed in the Cottage Hotel located across the street on 11th street. By 1893, the system had been turned over, books and all, to the city.
Mrs. William “Buck” Wright, an Oregon Shortline engineer’s wife also operated the hotel and so became the first librarian in Montpelier. The system proved unsatisfactory for both the hotel and the patrons of the city, so in September 1893, Mrs. E.H. Pease headed an organization of community women to get a library movement underway. At first, the library was established in the Pease home. Later it was moved to the YMCA building located in the Burgoyne Hotel block.
At that point in its history, the library totalled scarcely less than 60 volumes and was all contained in one book case. However, the group had officially appointed Mrs. O.H. Groo as the city librarian, a position with a title, little pay and not much more prestige. Mrs. Groo soon changed that. She proved to be able, energetic and fearless in her quest to improve the city’s reading materials. She held the position for a 50 year span and deserves much credit for maintaining a library in Montpelier. Her first effort was a quest for suitable quarters. She found them in the WCTU office and reception room of the Oregon Shortline Club house. Although the room proved spacious, it was a mistake as far as the public was concerned and the library circulation dropped to nearly nothing in 1894.
Finally in 1895, it went back up town to the Presbyterian Church where it remained for the next three years. During this time it grew tremendously, largely because Mrs. Groo had influenced Attorney T.L. Glenn in the needs of the library. Glenn headed a campaign for enlargement and personally donated 50 volumes, which nearly doubled the size of the collection. He also collected $83.00 from the merchants of the community.
By 1904, the collection had risen to 204 books and a definite need was being voiced for a permanent location. Since none was immediately available, the collection was boxed up and until March 11, 1905, the community was without a library. Finally on that date, the Village Improvement Society was organized and their first project was the library. Most of the 41 members were women and they wanted a proper location and suitable building.
By November 12, 1906, the location was found on Washington Street in the newest building in town, the new First National Bank Building. It was on the second floor and encompassed the entire large 20 x 30 room. The gala opening was held Saturday afternoon, November 16, 1907. Montpelier has never been without a library since that time.
Many of the women who belonged to the Village Improvement Society were also members of one of the earliest literary clubs of the state, “Gems of the Mountains”. Although those many early volumes were stamped “V.I.S.” it was largely through the efforts of the literary club that the library flourished.
With satisfactory quarters at last, the library committee, headed by Martha Groo, canvassed the town, collecting all books anyone would donate. Bert Richards, a brother of Mrs. Groo, travelled about the community with a small buggy and one horse gathering the contributions. Meanwhile, other members of the committee began a musical production to raise funds for new books and the $20 per month rent being charged by the bank. The library collection climbed to 352 volumes and on November 23, an open house, tea and social was held in conjunction with a presentation of rules and regulations by which the library would be governed.
Books were allowed out for two weeks, a fine of 2 cents per day was charged on overdue books. On the afternoon of the open house, 346 people visited the library and 106 books were checked out. The library was open Tuesday and Saturday afternoons and on Thursday evenings from 1:30 to 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. For the first time since she became associated with the library in 1893, Mrs. O.H. Groo received a salary—$10 per month. Years later she was to admit that many times between 1907-1916 she was to forgo her salary because the funds were not available for it, but she persisted in her efforts and finally in 1916, when the new Montpelier City Hall was dedicated, a room was set aside as the library. At the same time, Mayor Robert Sneddon instigated a $20 per month salary for Mrs. Groo.
Often times in the history of the library fund raising projects were put on. Pink teas, book dances, lawn socials, tag sales, even minstrel shows were presented by people of the community in behalf of the library. Once a minstrel show netted $100. Another time, a vaudeville show, under the direction of Mrs. H.H. King, gained $90. Perhaps the most unusual situation occurred in 1908 when the Village Improvement Society organized a Ladies Tag Day and literally ran the town,
requiring a tag at a cost of ten cents each from every patron. Those who had no tags or would not buy tags were arrested and hauled off to the “Kangaroo Court”. Mrs. Groo, the librarian, became the mayor for the day. Mrs. Jason Redman was Chief of Police. Mrs. E.A. Pease became judge, clerk, and recorder, as well as head jailer because of her size. She was an exceptionally large woman with an unusually small husband. At the end of the day nearly $200 was collected, but for months after, merchants complained they lost more in business because people stayed away so they did not repeat a tag day. In its place the merchants voluntarily contributed to the library fund.
In October, 1942. Mrs. O. H. Groo retired as librarian leaving a well-stocked room of books totalling 6,298 books, serving just short of 50 years at building facilities in Montpelier. Following the retirement of Mrs. O.H. Groo, there was a short intermittent period of approximately six weeks when a permanent librarian was not named, but volunteer help — such as Mrs. H.H. King, Helen Gray, and Lydia Graff, worked to keep the library open. Finally on December 1, 1942, Lydia Graff began a reign of 17 years as the librarian for Montpelier. During those years numerous contributions from the Montpelier Mother’s Club, Relief Societies, and other organizations added to city budget expenditures.
Assisting Mrs. Graff during periods of absence was Edna Stephens, Helen Gray, Verda Pendrey, and Vivienne Dimick. In 1954, the Montpelier Mother’s Club, assisted by Miss Belvina Johnson, Montpelier High School librarian, spent several weeks cataloguing the collection by the Dewey Decimal System and establishing the proper card file on all library materials.
In 1956, Mrs. Graff began spending winters away from Montpelier, and Vivienne Dimick gradually assumed more responsibilities of the library. She became full-time librarian for the city library in 1959.
Meanwhile, big things were happening in the library world. In 1955, the Library Enabling Act was passed by Congress to aid in the creation of libraries and local library districts. Information concerning procedures of application were sent to A.M. Rich, high school American Government teacher, who was a personal friend of Senator Frank Church. From the beginning, applications for federal assistance were made. By 1958, the ground-work for a county-wide library system was established.
Clyde Whitman, headed a committee to establish a library district. The commissioners were petitioned and an election was held September, 1959. Background work was done by the preliminary committee, which was established by the County Commissioners. Members were Clyde Whitman, Montpelier, chairman. Ralph Roghaar, Paris, Mrs. Milton Nate, Dingle, Mrs. Joe Olson, Ovid, Mrs. Davis Wallentine, Nounan, and Pat Wilde, Montpelier. The election successfully passed 270-174 and a district encompassing all of Bear Lake County began. Into the district came the existing Montpelier City Library and the Paris City Library. In exchange, two branch libraries developed, one at Paris and one at Montpelier. All cataloguing, book ordering, and processing is done by the Montpelier Branch.
Immediately after the election, the first permanent board was created. Clyde Whitman was elected chairman and Ralph Roghaar, Mrs. Julia Walter, Mrs. Virtue Wallentine, and Pat Wilde were board members. During the first years, existing facilities continued to be used with both branches being housed in the respective city halls. A half mill levy of approximately $5,000 was used for operating funds. Immediate plans were made for a building program. Finally everything was in readiness in 1965 and application for a full two-mill levy (as then allowed by law) was made to the commissioners and received. With the money assured, the board applied for and received matching federal funding.
A lot was purchased in Montpelier, and the building bids were let to the Jewell Construction Company of Montpelier. Total construction costs for the new building were $69,000, with $27,000 local money and $42,000 federal funds. When completed in 1966, the library was debt free and has remained so.
In 1976, a library addition of 35 x 40 was completed by the Farrell Price Construction Company, which keeps the library facilities as among the best in Southeastern Idaho.
In 1981, the Bear Lake County Library was doubly honored when Mrs. Helen Whitman, Chairman of the board, received the Idaho Library Association Trustee of the Year Award, and Vivienne Dimick received the Idaho Library Association Librarian of the Year Award.
Since the inception of the Bear Lake County Free Library, usage has greatly increased and has shown a great improvement year after year. Under the able direction of Vivienne Dimick, the program has taken on many new concepts and additions to the basic collection. A children’s summer reading program, large-print collection, audio (talking books) collection, reference and research collection, magazine and newspapers collections, merit badge booklets for boy scouts, Idaho Code for all citizens, video collection, toy-lending library, picture and vertical file collections have all been added.
The library now has a total of 37,444 volumes. We now are moving into the computer age and are looking forward to a totally automated circulation system.
1991-1992 was an especially hard year for the library, as three board members of long standing passed away. Beth Sizemore, Julia Walter, and Bernice Pendrey.
In December of 1993, Vivienne Dimick chose to retire from her postion of Librarian. Mary Nate was then appointed to that position.
The library has seen numerous changes since the retirement of Mrs. Dimick. An automated circulation system was installed, followed by automated card catalogs with access to huge reference databases included. An annual Library Week sleepover was started in 1994, and has been a huge hit with the children. Much of the library’s collection has been re-arranged for easier access. The library has also made strides in making the building accessible for those with disabilities. New front doors were added, which are safer for those in wheelchairs, a wheelchair lift to the upper floor was also added, along with handicapped parking spaces. During the summer of 1995, the building exterior was given a fresh coat of paint and flower beds were added by the front door, courtesy of an Eagle Scout project. In September of 1995, the building was broken into and equipment was stolen. An arrest was made the next day with the suspect pleading guilty. The stolen equipment was returned, unharmed.
In the summer of 1997, Mrs. Grace M. Thiel passed away, leaving the library 1/3 of her estate. It had a value of $485,000.00. The library started a renovation project which included new paint and new carpeting, ceramic tile floor, remodel of the restroom for handicapped accessibililty, a new water fountain, and a new checkout desk along with real offices for the director and the bookkeeping department. The remainder of the money was carefully invested. At that time we had the privilege of renaming the Montpelier building the Whitman/Thiel Library in honor of the Whitman’s 40 years of service to the library and the Thiel’s generous contribution. We were pleased that we were able to do this while Helen Whitman was still alive to receive well-earned recognition. Not long after that Helen moved to Pocatello because of health problems and Dr. James W. Owsley was then named Chairman of the Board of Trustees. When Dr. Owsley moved to be with family, Jolyn Knutti was named as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Current board members are: Kevin Jacobson (Chairman), Jolyn Knutti, Yvonne Boehme, Candice Pratt and Mike Ochsenbein.
Mr. Jerry Myers of Myers/Anderson Architects was hired to design a new addition for the library to house the children’s collection. About the same time, the LDS Church informed us that they no longer wished to rent space from us for the Family History Center, so the decision was made to close our present meeting room and use the space downstairs for the children’s room. The bid was awarded to Harris Construction of Pocatello and ground was broken for the addition/remodel in November of 1999. The turn of the millenium found us in a big mud mess with a huge hole in front of the front doors. We closed the library for three weeks until enough progress had been made on the building addition as to allow patrons through the front doors. Finally in May of 2000, the project was completed. Grants were received in the amount of $50,000.00 for children’s books, videos, audios, etc. We now have a wonderful children’s area which is well used.