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  • Megann Horstead

New Lenox Public Library’s history reveals hidden village tales

Having a library is a valuable commodity that history shows can be eroded easily by a lack of accessibility and challenges imposed by internal and external forces elsewhere.

However, it also can be strengthened by enlisting the help of volunteers and demonstrating a responsiveness to the community’s changing needs, similar to how the New Lenox Public Library evolved.

The New Lenox Public Library, joined by the New Lenox Area Historical Society, hosted a presentation on the library’s 80-year history and invited its board president Dr. Ed Tatro to speak. He also serves as an educator, a historian and a member of the New Lenox Area Historical Society.

The program was not only intended to provide an informative review but also give guests a walking tour of the current library.

“Library is a place where we keep our resources, our history, our books—nowadays, our technology, so that we can learn from our history, which is what our historical society is all about,” Tatro said.

That’s where the discussion began during a New Lenox Area Historical Society presentation and field trip to the New Lenox Public Library.

The library’s history dates back to 1936, at which time the New Lenox Woman’s Club, formerly known as the New Lenox Home Improvement Association, established the village’s first library in a small room of the New Lenox Grade School on Haven Avenue.

Ramona Fink served as the library’s first director at the time, New Lenox Area Historical Society records show. She received $1 dollar a week for her services.

The building was open to patrons on a limited basis at this time, New Lenox Area Historical Records show. After Fink resigned a short time later, volunteers ran the library and no one was paid again until 1940, at which time Laura Morris was hired as the librarian.

Tatro said it took many donations and volunteers to keep the building running.

Years later in 1946, the Village of New Lenox was incorporated as an entity. Around that time, the library district became its own taxing body.

The first meeting of the newly elected library board took place in December 1946. Laura Morris was director.

Tatro referenced library board meeting minutes from February 1950 that revealed discussion of purchasing a lot on Church Street for $1,500 and a month later, officials looking into buying another adjoining lot. Former library board member Ron Whitaker chimed in.

“There were two pieces of property on Church [Street], each was 50 feet wide,” he recalled. “The one to north was owned by the library, the one to the south was owned by the Village. When this building was built, it was inadvertently encroaching on the Village’s property [by 10 feet].

When it was discovered the people who owned the library’s building tried to buy 10 feet from the Village, their request was denied.

“It was a big impasse that was finally resolved by, I believe, that the idea came from the president of the library board at that time who was Fred Scheel,” Whitaker said. “His solution was for the Village and the library to exchange lots, exchange the properties so that now the Village would own the one to the north, and the library would own the one to the south with the encroachment on it. The library made a deal with the owners of this building to buy the building with the idea, of course from the beginning, was that would be a library building.”

Whitaker said that served as a good solution to what surfaced as a problem.

“There was a lot of animosity going on by that time,” he recalled.

Tatro gave credit to the board for conducting research in their effort to find a new home for the library.

“They had worked with the University of Illinois and a couple of other agencies to look at building a building, because that was what they hoped to do,” he said. “But, of course, they ended up with this building [on Church Street]. That was the first independent library here in New Lenox that was… owned and run by the library.”

In 1957, discussion of remodeling took place between library board members.

By 1962, Ronald Crisman joined the board replacing library board president Scheel who had died. Around that time, Morris resigned.

Crisman suggested new programs to get people more acquainted with the library, and they included story hour for children and an art exhibit, New Lenox Area Historical Society records show. In September, the New Lenox Library joined the Illinois Library Association.

Circulation records for June through November showed there were 40 new card members and more than 100 grade-school visitors from grades 2 through 4 who visited the library, New Lenox Area Historical Society records show. The library’s hours of operation expanded in 1967 from 15 to 27 hours per week.