CHATHAM – Marcellus Eldredge was born and raised in Chatham. At the age of 14, he moved to Portsmouth, N.H., where his father ran a shipping company. In 1858, at the age of 20, he became a clerk at a small Portsmouth brewery. Within a few years he was general manager, and his 1870, he and his father Heman bought the brewery and renamed it “H. Eldredge and Son.” What eventually became the Eldredge Brewing Company grew to be the second largest brewery in New England.
Marcellus immersed himself in life in Portsmouth, eventually serving as mayor and state senator; he was also an active philanthropist, according to “A Beacon For Chatham” by Josephine Ives. But he never forgot his hometown. He married a Chatham girl and spent a considerable amount of time at their large home on Watch Hill overlooking Chatham Harbor. He didn't forget Chatham when it came to his philanthropic activities. He was an investor in the Chatham Railroad Company, which brought the railroad to Chatham, and was a generous supporter of the First United Methodist Church.
But by far his greatest contribution to Chatham sits on Main Street right in the middle of downtown: the Eldredge Public Library.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of Marcellus Eldredge's greatest gift to the town. A number of activities are planned to mark the milestone, including a re-enactment of the library's dedication. Planning has been going on for some time, said Library Director Amy Andreasson, and will reach out to involve the entire community.
“He built this as a library for the community,” she said. The library has expanded and changed over its history “based on the needs and wants of the people of the community. I really think that has stayed true to what they set out to do.”
Events planned through June to mark the anniversary will be held virtually due to the pandemic, but Andreasson hopes that the July 11 re-enactment can happen in person. On that date in 1896 the library opened to the public; it was actually dedicated on July 4 of that year, but holding a celebration on that day would be too problematic given the crowds that usually attend the town's Independence Day celebration. The event is still in the planning stages, Andreasson said, “but will basically be a nod to the original library dedication in 1896.”
The library recently launched a website to celebrate and promote the anniversary. At eldredgelibrary125.org is a list of scheduled events, historical information, as well as links to purchase anniversary merchandise, proceeds from which benefit the library.
Upcoming events include talks on George Gershwin and Chatham's barrier beach, as well as Albion Marble, the Fall River architect chosen by Eldredge to design the library. A student of architect H.H. Richardson, Marble designed the building to reflect Richard's Romanesque Revival style, with interesting architectural elements, its red brick anchored by stout Quincy granite. The library cost $30,000 to build, all from Eldredge's pocket.
Andreasson said the library is also assembling a community reading list of 125 books for adults and children and is seeking suggestions from townspeople. A suggestion form is on the website and can also be picked up curbside; the deadline for recommendations is April 15.
According to Ives' book, the townspeople were originally reluctant to accept the library. There were concerns in the community that it was funded by “tainted money,” she wrote, “i.e. profits from the production and sale of an alcoholic beverage.”
“Not until it became known that the Methodist Church across the street had enthusiastically welcomed Marcellus Eldredge's contributions to their building renovation did the town hastily indicate acceptance” of the library, Ives wrote. Eldredge was reported not a little miffed by the contretemps, declaring (perhaps apocryphally), “If the town doesn't want the library, it can come down faster than it went up.” Until the 1990s, the library was owned by a private corporation.
A small library stood on the spot where the Eldredge was built (Marcellus paid $1,000 for the land, according to Ives) and its collection of 600 volumes formed the core of the original collection. Marcellus' brother Fisher also reportedly contributed his personal library. The Eldredge brothers left the library an endowment of $5,000. The first librarian was Mary Byram, a niece of Marcellus's, who paid her $10 per week salary out of his own pocket, according to Ives.
Circulation during the library's first year was 11,738. In 2019, the library had a total circulation of 116,850, including not just books, magazines and other printed material, but items not even dreamed of 125 years ago, including DVDs, CDs and ebooks.
Other aspects of the library have changed over the decades. In its original configuration, today's adult fiction section was a reading room, and there was a balcony along the second floor, which today houses the genealogy collection. A new wing was built in 1969, and in 1992 the library original building was restored, the 1969 addition removed and a new section built off the rear. The types of materials available at the library have also kept up with the times, adapting to new technologies – vinyl records, tapes and CDs; VHS video, CDs, downloadable movies – as has the availability of copy machines, computers and adaptive technology to ensure that all patrons can be served.
“We try to make the library equitable to all persons in the community,” Andreasson said. This year the library trustees voted to make the Eldredge a “fine-free” library, doing away with traditional overdue fines. She noted, however, that patrons are still responsible for replacing lost books.
The library is different things to different people; to some it is a gathering spot, a place to see friends, to study, to just sit and read. “We can offer more than just physical material,” said Andreasson. “We can offer that sense of place, that sense of community.”
That's been hard during this pandemic year, however. While library staff have continued to work, the physical building was closed for two and a half months, during which time ebook circulation climbed. It began curbside pickup June 1, as soon as it was practical. For many, the library and the virtual program it has sponsored over the past several months have been a lifeline.
The experience of the past year makes this a good time to celebrate the anniversary, Andreasson said.
“We really need something to focus on and get everyone excited about,” she said.
Leading up to the Eldredge Public Library's 125th anniversary in July, The Chronicle will be running a series of stories focusing on different aspects of the library, ranging from its history to the people who keep it running.