The following is the story of how the Fraser Public Library got started as told by a founding board member, Dorothy Ruth Mattoon Farmer. Dorothy passed away in January 2020, but before leaving, she shared this story with her daughter. Please enjoy!
It all began in about 1964 when Dr. Otis McKinley DDS invited me to meet him in his Mayor’s office at the Fraser Municipal Building. He said he had been thinking that the community should have a library, and wanted to appoint me to be a member of the founding Board. Mayor McKinley knew my husband Don and me because we had parked a series of airplanes at his airport. Also, our daughter Cherrie was friends and classmates with Mayor McKinley’s daughter Gayle, and Kathy with his daughter Janine.
I always loved the library as a kid. My mother Laura Mae Johnson Mattoon, a second grade teacher, was asked by the Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools to take additional classes and become a special education teacher. She agreed if they would allow her to enroll me at Wilkins Elementary School where she would be teaching. While she attended night classes, I entertained myself by reading at the Detroit Main Public Library downtown. Mom became the first special education teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, and I learned to love the library! So I was thrilled by Mayor McKinley‘s request to help found a library in Fraser and immediately agreed to help.
The other appointees I remember on the Founding Board of the Fraser Public Library were Tom Jankowski, Anne Stack, Ralph Whipple, Werner Wulf, Tom Morgan and Bill Van Zanen. We were given a budget of $10,000 to do the whole thing.
First we went looking for a building. Rents were so high, and nothing suited us. Then we discovered the historic old two-story brick school building that belonged to St. John’s Lutheran church. Built in the 1800’s, it had been abandoned and boarded up for some time but had not been torn down because of the high cost of demolition – estimated at $1,800. After some discussion, St. John’s agreed to lease their former school building to the city of Fraser for use as a library for the grand sum of $1.00/year for 10 years. This bargain saved the church the costs of demolition, and promised to preserve an important part of church and city history by giving the school a new purpose. So now we had a library building, and still had $9,999.00 to spend!
Anne Stack and I set out to research together the things that make up a good library. We visited different ones all around the state – a total of 26 libraries, fancy and plain! Each one taught us different things. I remember in particular little puppies running around the Grosse Pointe library. Is that allowed, we asked? Yes! So we adopted a rule for our Fraser Library that if a child came in with a puppy it would be OK. In Grosse Pointe they also advised us that if we ever got a donation of any amount, even just a dollar, it should be acknowledged with a sincere hand-written note of thanks. We determined to always do this at our Fraser Library.
In Midland’s Library we saw that the children’s area had no chairs, just rugs. The kids just loved sitting and laying on the rugs reading their books! So we had rugs in Fraser, which also saved us having to spend a lot of money for chairs!
While walking upstairs at the County Library in Mt Clemens, we overheard one of the librarians who worked in the children’s department say “here come those terrible children!” Appalled, this led us to instruct our first librarian Mrs. Carolyn Deis and her assistant Mrs. Helen Goerlich to never to talk about children that way! We wanted our library to be a friendly place for all! Also while in the County Library, we counted the number of people going in and out of the bathroom. It wasn’t very many, so we decided to install only one bathroom to save money. Then we learned that by law we were required to have separate men’s and women’s bathrooms.
The school had a potbelly stove on each floor for heat , so we had to remove those and put in a furnace. The fire escape chute on the outside of the second floor was removed. The basement was full of rats, so we had to get rid of them. We called Edison, and they sent someone out to analyze what was needed to provide adequate lighting. We went to Telegraph Road and found a company that specialized in the renovation of old buildings. They came in and painted everything white on both floors.
I made the first curtains for the 3 north windows. Because the building had been built before electricity, it was designed with 20 windows on the south side to provide good lighting for the students. We left these windows undecorated.
We wanted an informal reading area on the first floor. My husband Don’s parents donated a small couch, wing back chair, table and lamp. The furniture was re-upholstered with naugahyde for durability. Don laid out the bathrooms and wallpapered them. He chose and installed the bathroom fixtures. I went to the Vogue Theater where I had worked as a teen to find out where they had gotten their carpet for the stairs, because it wore so well. We then got the same company to lay carpet on our stairs to make it quiet.
We contacted a company to build a sign for out front and he offered to make it for $125. It looked antique, had gold leaf and was really beautiful.
We also decided to have an inspirational saying painted over the front door and gold leafed. I asked my daughter Cherrie to research an appropriate saying. She found “Happy is the Man that Findeth Wisdom and the Man that Getteth Understanding .” Proverbs 3: 13-18. Where better to “getteth understanding” than in a library, and what better way to honor the new library building’s past as a church school than to use a quote from the Bible?
The first 8000 books were loaned to us for 5 years by Governor George Romney. We approached him after having heard his wife Lenore speak at a Junior League talk at Kirk in the Hills. Five years later this loan turned into a donation because our library had been such a good steward of the books. People donated money for walnut bookshelves, and brass plates honoring those donations were placed on them. When my husband’s grandfather Charles Farmer passed, Don and I donated a walnut bookcase in his memory. We had a campaign to raise money for “lamps of learning” – gas lamps that would be installed on each side of the front doors to add charm to the entrance. Our shelves and books were all in place before the library opened, but we had only a card table for a check-out desk.
We decided to have a stupendous opening day that spring, so as many people as possible would be introduced to the library and begin to use it. We hung an American flag outside the second story window in the front of the building on opening day and every morning after – whenever we were open. I called Mr. Seymour Okun, Conductor of the Fraser High School band, and asked if the band would play a short concert. He was pleased to arrange this, and in return I arranged for Dixie cups of ice cream for the band members afterward. They were so happy! The President of our Library Board spoke to a small crowd of interested citizens.
Once fully renovated, our historic library building was so striking that artists used to set up their easels to draw and paint it. We were very proud of our library. Visitors from Australia who had heard about our library found their way to my house one day wanting to see it. The library was closed because it was Sunday, but I had a key. I took them over and toured them around. They were very favorably impressed, and said they would incorporate some of the features of our library into theirs!
Rolland “Rollie” Hanson was our first and only library page. He would collect the books that had been used and re-file them on the shelves where they belonged. He also shoveled the snow when it snowed. He went on to become a librarian!
Once our library doors were open, we set about finding ways to bring new people in. The hall on the second floor became a gallery. My husband Don created and installed picture rail and hung the first display. We heard that Ford Motor Company had art available on loan and told them of our gallery concept. They readily agreed to participate. Exhibits changed monthly. One exhibit was drawings of concept cars. Another was of power boats. I wrote a column for the weekly Fraser News at that time, and used this forum to promote our changing art installations. One Christmas I asked Ford for a framed picture of a Christmas tree, and they sent one. It was so beautiful that the owner of the Fraser News made it the cover that week – in color! We hung the works of our high school art students. Proud parents and friends wanted to come to the library to see their kids’ art displayed.
The first meetings of the Fraser Fine Arts Association (FFAA), founded by Don’s mother Verna Farmer, were held on the second floor around the Board table. Later, when the number of members outgrew the space, meetings were moved to the high school cafeteria. The FFAA also hung their paintings in our second floor gallery.
We wanted our library to change lives. One day I asked the High School Principal Stanley Schook if there were any children falling through the cracks. “As a matter of fact, yes.” He identified a child who was skipping school because he hated it. I called the child and identified myself as being with the new library. I asked him what he would like to read about, and he said hotrods. So I said I would find a magazine on hotrods for him. He was very excited! I passed the child’s name on to our librarian Mrs. Deis, and asked her to call him when the magazine arrived. “And while he’s there,” I said, “give him a library card and an adventure story he can’t put down.” She gave him Treasure Island. He felt so welcome that he began coming to the library for other books and to do his homework. Months later his dad, who owned the bowling alley, came to the library. With tears in his eyes, he told me “You’ve turned my son around. He’s now a reader!” and handed me a check for $1000! It was the largest donation we ever received! We used this donation to order a walnut check-out desk the very next day!
Years later a different Fraser Mayor and Council decided to close our library doors and move the books to a larger space in the store front of the Schott block on 14 Mile Road near Utica where the old lumber yard had been. Someone sawed the library sign right to the ground and took it away on Halloween. Fraserites were not happy about this. The storefront felt very anonymous and cost a lot to rent each month. I was one of many people who testified at a packed City Council meeting on behalf of returning the library to the historic Lutheran school building. Someone in the audience said I shouldn’t be allowed to speak because I had since moved away to Union Lake. But I had been on the founding Board, and the Mayor confirmed that I could speak. After hearing everyone’s remarks, the City Council decided to hold a referendum on the subject. As I recall, the vote was 10 to one to move the library back where it was originally! So an addition was designed for and built onto the old school building, and the library ultimately moved back into its expanded historic space. Sadly, none of the original Board members were invited to the grand re-opening. But we all went anyway!
A few years ago Dr. Otis McKinley died. His wife Phyllis wrote to tell me that he had many times said the one thing he had done as Mayor of which he was most proud was to establish the library in Fraser. I too regard my role in creating our library as one of my most important accomplishments. It was a lot of work, but I was thrilled to be a part of it.
Dorothy Ruth Mattoon Farmer
As told to her daughter Cheryl (Cherrie) Farmer