Forbush Memorial Library: From the 17th Century to the 21st Century
The lands that are now Westminster were designated as compensation to the veterans and their heirs of King Phillip’s War of
1675-76. The initial division of land into sixty acre farmsteads was made in 1728. Although there was some settlement as early as 1733, sufficient population to warrant incorporation did not come until 1759. Parcels of land were awarded throughout the territory but the earliest settlement clustered around Academy Hill where the first meetinghouse was built in 1739. Even at this early date there was organized a “social library,” a fee-paying membership which purchased books for loaning to one another and kept at one member’s house. But by 1835 the group had dissolved and the collection sold. Doubtless the small population was too widely distributed and travel too difficult to support a central library.
A major stimulus to the creation of the village center of Westminster came with the incorporation of the Fifth Massachusetts Turnpike in 1799, a toll road which ran from Leominster along Westminster’s present Main Street and on through south Gardner as far as Northfield. Since no tolls were collected within Westminster, the improved road attracted businesses to Main Street of which the Westminster Hotel, which stood opposite Adams Street from 1799 to 1903, was among the first. When the turnpike was rerouted around Academy Hill, virtually all new construction of homes and businesses relocated to Main Street. The prosperity of the 1830s and 40s is reflected in the many homes and businesses that are still extant. Near Main Street the Town Hall was built in 1839, the First Parish Church (Congregational) moved from the Hill and rebuilt at its present site in 1837, the Universalists built their church nearly opposite in 1833 and the Baptists moved to Main Street in 1863, along with many new shops and homes. But this growth was accompanied by the abandonment of more distant farms: the town-wide population reached 1,696 in 1830, peaked at 1,979 in 1855 then slowly sank to a low of 1,348 in 1905.
By 1840 the boom was nearly over. Both Gardner and Fitchburg were growing more rapidly and in 1843, a railroad was chartered in Fitchburg to run toward the Connecticut River valley. Over vigorous protests from Westminster investors, the line ran well north of the village, owing to its high altitude, “where it would be of comparatively little value…as a factor in the growth and prosperity of the town”. (Heywood, History of Westminster p. 231) The railroad opened in 1848 with a station at the north end of Batherick Road and its northerly course enabled the growth of Whitmanville as a small industrial enclave. However, most local industries in need of access to rail for supplies and product shipment moved to Fitchburg or Gardner. Westminster village settled into quietude that would last for generations.
The Young Peoples Literary Society was founded in 1853, as another dues-paying membership club and discussion group which merged with the Farmers Club library shortly after. As the Westminster Library Association, it petitioned the Town for annual municipal support, but was repeatedly refused until 1865, when it received its first annual appropriation of $50.00. It was not until 1878, however, that a committee (later the Board of Trustees) was elected to manage its activities. After being housed in various private residences and stores, the collection found a permanent home in the newly-expanded Town Hall. By raising the structure and adding another story beneath in 1886, a new space was created which included a library room where the library would remain until 1902.
The turn of the century saw three significant developments in Westminster: first, the beginning of the large migration of Finnish families who purchased and farmed many of the abandoned rural homesteads; they were soon joined by Italian and French Canadian migrants as well. Second, the establishment of the Gardner, Westminster and Fitchburg Street Railway which ran along Main Street concentrating retail activity there, which stimulated the conversion of residences into shops and stores, which is still in evidence. Third was the construction of a new library.
The Forbush Memorial Library Building was funded by a $10,000 bequest from Charles A. Forbush in memory of his cousin Joseph W. Forbush, with an additional $6,000 raised from 80 other citizens. The Forbush fortune came from chair-making and other industrial activities located in Whitmanville-by the railroad. The architects were Frost, Briggs and Chamberlain of Worcester. The building of public libraries was occurring in towns and cities all over America during this period. Over 2,000 were assisted by grants from Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation; he was the founder of the United States Steel Corporation. In this active building period, a standard 4-5,000 square foot floor plan design emerged which is well represented by the Forbush: a central hall, a reading room on one side with fireplace and opposite, a reference room. At the back of the hall was the receiving desk over which the librarian handed the patron whatever book was requested. All books were shelved behind the librarian. There was no browsing of the stacks, no meeting space and no facilities for children. But as an institution which represented the highest aspirations of a town towards learning and improved literacy for the newly-arrived immigrant population, it was a point of enormous civic pride.
But the design of the Forbush included more: there was a museum on the second floor for the display historical artifacts, items of local interest and natural history specimens. The townspeople donated generously, but as was said at the dedication, “there is still room for more!” Among the donations were numerous early 19th -century portraits and landscapes, many of exceptional quality. Larger gifts, such as looms and early farm implements, were stored in the basement. But the library was open only two afternoons per week.
As the population gradually began to grow – it would not exceed 2,000 until 1945 – library services were increased. Eventually the stacks were opened for browsing, inter-library loaning was begun in the 1950s, and children’s programs introduced. In 1976, the Town appropriated funds for the conversion of the basement into a children’s room, which was a great success and that opened up more main floor space for book shelving.
But with growth came overcrowding. When the state initiated a library construction assistance program in 1987, Westminster was ready. In 1988, a plan for expansion was designed by the Preservation Partnership then of New Bedford, MA, but defeated in a town-wide vote. In 1993 a thorough Building Program Statement was prepared and in 1994 the Preservation Partnership revised their original expansion plans. In the following year an extensive state aid application prepared by library director Alfreda Altobelli was funded, a town appropriation secured for construction and an 11,000-square foot expansion dedicated in 1997.
By 2006, problems with the addition were becoming apparent: a portion of the newer roof was resting on the original roof and causing structural problems and water penetration through the walls, roof and windows resulting in internal mold growth. A comprehensive repair proposal was being prepared for town meeting approval, when, in January of 2008, a frozen attic pipe broke and flooded the interior of the library. With funds voted at the 2008 annual town meeting plus insurance reimbursements, major repairs were completed while the library was relocated to the former Simplex facility for a year, returning to Main Street in April of 2009. Major credit for negotiating the financing, supervising the renovations and managing the library in this difficult time goes to past director Margaret Howe-Soper and trustee chair/building committee chair Dana Altobelli who was given the ‘Outstanding Trustee Award’ by the Massachusetts Library Trustees Association for his work.
Today Forbush Memorial Library occupies a 16000-square foot fully accessible facility, is open 42 hours/week and serves a local population of 7,277 with a collection of 51,000 items. In 2011, 35,245 people visited the library and 72,000 items were loaned.