Burnham Library

Bridgewater, CT 06752

Burnham Library

History

This is a story with an unusual cast of characters: some civic-minded townspeople, a wealthy ship captain, a respected man of letters, a hermit, and a bulldozer operator. And the State of California.

The first name in the story is that of Captain Nathaniel Randall, who between l8l0 and l840 maintained a circulating library in his house, using his own large collection of books. A smaller collection was kept and lent out by Augusta Lyon, who established a district library in the building that housed the original Bridgewater post office.

The Bridgewater Library Association was established in l904, but it wasn’t until l909, when a room for library purposes was established at the recently built town hall, that the first public library in Bridgewater was born. Mabelle Sanford, a member of a prominent Bridgewater family, was a driving force behind this effort. She sent out subscriptions to many people who were associated with the town. Among them was Captain William Dixon Burnham.

Captain Burnham, who was born in Litchfield in l847, had lived in Bridgewater and in Sharon as a boy and all his life he retained fond memories of these towns. When he was fourteen years old, he went to sea and ultimately became a shipmaster. Burnham made many voyages around the world and, after the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in l898, was instrumental in establishing the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company. As the fortunes of this company prospered, so did those of Burnham, who was the general manager.

But Captain Burnham wasn’t just a successful businessman. He was also a well-read man, fond of English fiction and poetry. These pursuits, coupled with his affection for Bridgewater, led him to make a will leaving the bulk of his estate, after the death of his wife, to the Town of Bridgewater. The money was to be used for purposes of an educational nature — specifically, for a school and a library.

To carry out the provisions of the will, a building committee was established, which included David C. Sanford, Charles G. Sanford, and Burton E. Canfield. Land was purchased, Harden De V. Pratt, a Boston architect, drew the plans, and the construction of the new library was awarded to H.H. Taylor & Son of New Milford. Construction began in l925, using Mine Hill granite from nearby Roxbury. The Greek Revival style building was capped with a green slate roof.

The new library’s dedication took place on August 26, l926, with a lunch served from the town hall, the unveiling of a plaque honoring Captain Burnham, and a keynote address by The Honorable Hiram Bingham, U.S. Senator from Connecticut. He declared, “I know of no greater pleasure than to browse among books.”

For several decades, the new library had ample room on its two floors for its growing book collection, but by the early l960’s more space was needed. The impetus for a fundraising program for a new library wing came with the death in l963 of the man of letters mentioned in this history’s first paragraph. This was Van Wyck Brooks, a biographer and a critic. He was an esteemed resident of Bridgewater, and a library wing seemed a most fitting tribute to him. The Van Wyck Brooks Memorial Fund Committee was established for this purpose.

Unfortunately — despite publicity in such places as The Saturday Review and The New York Times, and despite the sponsorship of such luminaries as Pearl Buck, Archibald MacLeish, and Samuel Eliot Morrison — the fundraising effort was not a success. After eight years, and the expense of publicity, there was just about enough money to commission a bust of Mr. Brooks and to install some of his memorabilia — his desk, his books, etc. (These items can be found in what is now the library’s Biography section.) The small amount left over was set aside for the purchase of books and Van Wyck Brooks bookplates. The Committee disbanded in l972, and that seemed to be that.
Then, in l973, there came a long-distance telephone call to the library that changed everything. It turned out that the Van Wyck Brooks Memorial Fund was the recipient of a bequest. Details were slow to emerge and even as they did, the news they brought was as puzzling as it was gratifying. The testator, Charles E. Piggott, was a hermit and a miser who had lived in a slum in Los Angeles. He was a misanthrope and he was considered by those who knew him to be a pauper. He had no connection to Bridgewater. He had never even been east of the Rocky Mountains. Yet he was leaving the Fund some $300,000. It was indeed a mystery.

His will was found only by accident, when the bulldozer operator who was razing his shack (a municipal nuisance) happened to notice something shiny. It was a bottle, and in it was Mr. Piggott’s holographic will. Naturally, the State of California gave the Burnham Library a hard time, arguing that the Van Wyck Brooks Memorial Fund was not entitled to receive distribution of the Estate. With the help of able counsel the Burnham Library prevailed. Court fees and legal expenses cost a considerable amount, but the library was finally able to receive $2l0,000.

Construction of the Van Wyck Brooks Memorial Wing began in l979, thanks in large part to the tireless and determined efforts of Elmer F. Garrett, a leading citizen of the town. And the addition, dedicated in l980, served to double the size of the library, providing space for stacks upstairs and for an additional room downstairs in the children’s library.
And why did Mr. Piggott leave his money to a library in a town that he had never visited and where he knew no one? The connection, fittingly enough, is a literary one, and it was pieced together by Burton Bernstein, a longtime Bridgewater resident. His article on the Piggott Bequest appeared in the December 18, 1978, issue of The New Yorker. (The article is available at the library.) It emerged that Piggott, who left school at the age of sixteen, was a voracious reader on any number of subjects. He loved public libraries (they were free, after all), and it is very likely that at a library he came across Van Wyck Brooks’ The Flowering of New England, in which one Henry David Thoreau is so lovingly described. Piggott saw himself as a kind of latter-day Thoreau, especially when he read: “The mass of men led lives of quiet desperation… Did they not know that the wisest had always lived, with respect to comforts and luxuries, a life more simple and meagre than the poor?… Poverty had given him all this wealth.”

Mr. Piggott had also surely come across some of the publicity for the Van Wyck Brooks Memorial Fund, recognized the name, and thought, Yes, that’s where I want to leave my money. (This money was made, by the way, through many years of his own careful research and investment in good stocks.)

If there is one common thread among the individuals who are part of this uncommon library history, it is the love of books and learning. The Burnham Library today is a far cry from its origins in the town hall. It has added computers and Internet service, DVDs and CDs. Still, it remains true to its original mission, which is to foster the educational, personal, and cultural interests of the community. The library also serves as the resource center for the students of the Burnham School and as a meeting place for various Town organizations. It stands today as a vital, integral part of the Bridgewater community. As such, it would certainly win Captain Burnham’s approval, and perhaps Mr. Piggott’s, too.

Jane Bernstein