“My admission seems to amuse Deacon Eldred.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 30, 1874

During the eight years that Lavinia Goodell lived in Janesville, Wisconsin, in addition to first studying and then practicing law, she was a member of the Congregational Church, actively promoted temperance, and worked to establish a free reading room in the city. Through her participation in these activities she met many prominent Janesville citizens with common interests. One of them was F. S. Eldred.

Frederick Starr Eldred was born in New York State in 1821. He came to Wisconsin in 1842 and moved to Janesville in 1856. In his early years in the city he engaged in the lumber business, after which he went into the grocery trade.

March 9, 1872 Janesville Gazette

Eldred was one of the organizers of the Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company. He served as an alderman and was one of the incorporators of the First National bank and its first vice-president. He was an active supporter of the temperance cause. In 1873, Eldred’s wife joined Lavinia Goodell and other local women in marching to city hall to protest the granting of additional liquor licenses.

For more than thirty years Eldred was a deacon in the Congregational Church, and Lavinia always referred to him as “Deacon Eldred.” Lavinia told her sister that when she encountered Eldred at a church picnic soon after being admitted to practice law, his reaction was not quite what she had hoped. “My admission seems to amuse Dea. Eldred. He can’t look at me without laughing. I fear I shall never induce him to regard it in any other light than that of a good joke.” Nonetheless, they maintained a very cordial relationship. The Eldreds lived near the Goodells in Janesville’s Fourth Ward, and Eldred’s grocery store was located on West Milwaukee Street, near Lavinia’s law office. When the Goodells cut back on their subscriptions, Lavinia borrowed the Christian Union paper from Eldred. Lavinia’s diary entries frequently mentioned “calling on” or speaking to Eldred, and she named him as an alternate trustee in her will.

Eldred outlived Lavinia by twenty-one years, dying in February of 1901, just short of his eightieth birthday. The Janesville Gazette reported that at the funeral, “In compliance with a request of Mr. Eldred … the ordinary music was omitted and Mr. Denison (the Congregational minister) in its place repeated selections from Browning and Whittier. His remarks were on the dignity and beauty of old age as illuminated by the light of Christianity, concluding with Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar.”

Literacy and access to a public library were very important to Lavinia Goodell. When her sister was living on a farm south of Janesville in the late 1860s, Lavinia was aghast that the city had no public library. She wrote, “I am filled with horror at the idea of you not having any reading.” In 1875, she and other women in the local temperance union (including, perhaps, Eldred’s wife), opened a free reading room on West Milwaukee Street. Libraries were obviously also dear to Eldred’s heart because a week after his death the Janesville Gazette reported that in his will Eldred had left a bequest of $10,000 to build a public library as a memorial to his daughter, Ada Eldred-Sayre. The Gazette reported, “The gift was wholly unexpected … and shows that F.S. Eldred had the best interests of the city at heart and was anxious to leave behind him a lasting monument to the memory of himself and daughter.”

Eldred’s will had been executed in 1898, and he had contemplated that the money be used to build a “detached building, substantially fire-proof.” By the time of Eldred’s death, the City of Janesville had applied to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to obtain funds to build a library. According to the February 27, 1901 Gazette:

Shortly before [Eldred’s] death his attention was called to the fact that an effort was being made to induce Andrew Carnegie to donate something to this city with which to build a library building. He was much pleased with the idea but asked that in case the city received such an appropriation that his bequest should be used in connection with the other, but that a certain portion of the structure be built with his bequest and dedicated to the memory of his daughter.

Carnegie provided $30,000 toward the construction. By June 1901 plans for the new building on South Main Street were revealed. The Gazette said it was “to be first building of classic architecture in the city.” Cullen Brothers was awarded the $35,000 contract for the project. The new library opened in 1903. Carnegie’s name was carved above the main entrance, with the words “Eldred Memorial” on one side and the inscription “Free to the people” on the other side.

At his request, Eldred’s bequest was used for the library’s children’s room, in honor of his daughter Ada. The building was used as a library until 1968 and since then has been used as a senior center. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Although Lavinia Goodell did not live to see the library built, there is no doubt that she would have applauded her old friend for his generosity in helping it come to fruition. There is also no doubt that she would be delighted with the current, modern Hedberg Public Library.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries;  Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (March 10, 1867; June 30, 1874;) Janesville Gazette (February 19, 1901; February 21, 1901; February 27, 1901; March 9, 1901; June 6, 1901; March 20, 1902; June 15 1903); Will of Frederick Starr Eldred (available on ancestry.com). Photo of Carnegie Library from Wisconsin Library Heritage Center. Thank you to the Hedberg Public Library for their assistance in researching this post.

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