ASSOCIATES (vol. 1, no. 1, July 1994) -

Table of Contents

	      The Zona Gale Breese Memorial Library
		      of Portage, Wisconsin
		     A Personal Remembrance
			  Katie Buller
		    Senior Library Assistant
		    SL&IS Laboratory Library
		 University of Wisconsin-Madison
The first time I ever entered a library was a long time ago.  I
mean the first time I entered a *real* library in its own
building, not the one with little bookshelves behind the
potbellied stove in Woodford Elementary where I attended first
grade -- a one-room structure with a bell and real privies in the
back yard.
Not even like the more expansive, but still comparatively tiny
bookshelves in Lewiston Township Elementary -- a brick structure
consisting of four large classrooms, a town hall, and ninety
noisy farm kids.  Lewiston's library books were hidden away on
bookshelves in the corners of each room.  When we finished
reading all the books in our own classroom, the better-behaved
kids were allowed to enter the hallowed space of the older kids'
classrooms to examine and read the books there.  That was a
privilege we readers cherished.  We read the horse stories of
Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry, and Anna Sewell, then, for a
change, we would switch to Louisa May Alcott, August Derleth and
many others, reading until our eyes bugged out and our parents
grew seriously worried for our optical health.
When I finally got to the *REAL* library -- the one in town -- it
seemed as if the gates of paradise had really opened up for me.
My hometown library was the Zona Gale Breese Memorial Library of
Portage, Wisconsin.
The history of the Zona Gale Breese Library and the history of
its hometown are, as with many towns and cities, connected.  The
city of Portage began its existence as a connecting point between
the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, which run within a mile of each
other at that location.  The mighty Wisconsin feeds into the
Mississippi River, eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico,
while the northbound Fox empties into Green Bay, then through the
Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway to join with the Atlantic
Ocean.  Both rivers were connected by a government-built canal
early in this century, in anticipation of becoming a midwest
shipping hub.  This did not materialize, however, and the canal
failed, becoming a channel for hardy canoeists and breeding
ground for hungry mosquitoes.
In far earlier times, the area was home to members of the
Winnebago Indian tribe, and just a few miles upriver was once
located a large village built by the Sauk and Mesquakie (Fox)
Indians, near modern-day Sauk City.  As a white settlement,
Portage is the third- oldest city in Wisconsin, behind Green Bay
and Prairie du Chien.  It was also the site of Fort Winnebago,
the middle fort in a chain of three forts built in the very early
nineteenth century to protect the waterway from possible Indian
attack and other unpleasantness.  A wooden eagle, carved by an
unknown soldier and once situated over the fort's main gate, was
given as a gift to the city library -- then housed in City Hall -
- and then moved to the new building when its conversion from
private home to library was completed in the mid-1940s.
The new library building was the former home of one of Portage's
most famous citizens, Zona Gale, a Pulitzer-prize winning writer
(for *Miss Lulu Bett*) of the early twentieth century.  In
addition to her writing, Ms. Gale was also a library activist, at
one time the chair of the Wisconsin Library Commission and also a
member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.  She lent
her voice to the cause of libraries and education throughout
her life and was an occasional contributor to periodicals, such
as _Library Journal_, _Michigan Librarian_, _Wisconsin Library
Bulletin_, _American Library Association Bulletin_, and _Illinois
The beauty of this small-town library was apparent to the casual
onlooker even before entering its front door.  For Portage, the
modified colonial house constructed of red brick was huge even in
1912, when it was first built by William L. Breese.  Mr. Breese,
head of the Portage Hosiery Company, built it for his first wife,
who eventually passed away, and when he married Ms. Gale in
1928, it was partially remodelled to suit his new bride.  A study
was added, as were some upstairs rooms, and a walled-in garden.
The study, easily the main attraction in the house, featured a
fireplace surrounded by carved, quarter-sawed oak paneling, a
large sofa, expansive bookcases, and a writing nook.  A curved
stairway led up to the bedrooms and baths (two baths were
required for the mutual comfort of both Mr. and Mrs. Breese, as
Mrs. Breese, like many of us women, tended to take a long time
when preparing to go somewhere!).
After his second wife's death, Mr. Breese contributed the house
to the city of Portage with the stipulation that it be called the
Zona Gale Breese Memorial Library.  The gift was accepted by the
city as the old library, then located in City Hall, was very
crowded.  Mr. Breese also contributed one-half of the remodelling
costs.  When the "new" library was completed, her beautiful study
was left intact but the upstairs rooms were converted into a
Childrens' Reading Room and meeting rooms.
Yet, despite the fragility of history, in 1964 the librarian
still allowed giggly 14-year-old-Beatlemaniac girls to take their
horse books and ghost stories into the study to curl up on the
sofa and read in historic surroundings.  But the ghosts were not
all in the books: the air was thick with Zona Gale's presence, so
much that one could almost touch it.  One could easily imagine
her still sitting before the fireplace writing articles for
publication, papers for the Wisconsin Library Commission, working
on her latest novel, listening to a distraught friend, or perhaps
just daydreaming.  The plush fabric of the sofa, the library
table's smooth coolness, the gentle breeze from a slightly-open
window, all were reminders of what once was, and what a gentle,
intelligent, caring woman once inhabited that room.
I live forty miles away from Portage now, in the capital city of
Madison, where there are libraries of one kind or another on
nearly every corner.  I work in one of those libraries, the
Laboratory Library of the University of Wisconsin - Madison
School of Library and Information Studies.  It is a small
library, but could perhaps be considered the heart of the
Wisconsin library community, with its collection centering around
library history and science.  However, it has been a long time
since I visited the Zona Gale Breese Memorial Library.  The news
from Portage is that the library will be moving out of the old
mansion soon and into a new facility more able to support new
library technology.  I have heard of plans for the old house --
perhaps converting it into a museum commemorating Ms. Gale and
her contributions to Wisconsin literary and library history.
Progress has caught up to the Zona Gale Breese Memorial Library.
In this case, it is most likely unavoidable.  The old house is
probably far too antiquated for technological updating and the
collection is undoubtedly overflowing its shelves.  So, moving
will be a good thing...I guess.  And, if the old place is
converted into a museum, the study will probably still be
available for quiet meditation.
But will there be any good books to read?  I cannot imagine, with
Zona Gale's history of library activism and her love of the craft
of writing, that there won't be.  But only time will tell, and
perhaps, if I can again visit the quiet confines of her study,
there will still be a place on the sofa for someone who nurtured
a love of books within the walls of the Zona Gale Breese Memorial
Rux, Paul Philip.  _Zona Gale: Wisconsin Library Pioneer,
     notes on sources and select bibliography_.  1984.
Lake, Ivan Clyde.  "Zona Gale's Home Becomes a Library".
     _Library Journal_.  Dec. 15, 1945.  pp. 1201-1202.
A few selections for further reading:
		       Books by Zona Gale:
_Friendship Village_.  New York: Macmillan.  1908.
_Portage, Wisconsin and Other Essays_.  New York:  Alfred A.
     Knopf.  1929.
_Neighborhood Stories_.  New York: Macmillan.  1914.
		     Books about Zona Gale:
Simonson, Harold P.  _Zona Gale_.  New York: Twayne
     Publishers. 1962.
Derleth, August.  _Still Small Voice: the Biography of Zona
     Gale_.  New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.  1940.