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Sunday, August 30, 2020

Kerrville's first public library, AND a book's homecoming

Here's a surprise: this enterprise was Kerrville's first public library.
Click on any image to enlarge.
The wandering book
This week a kind person in California sent a book back to its home: Kerrville.
The book is “The Last of the Knickerbockers,” by Herman K. VielĂ©, and it was published in 1901 by the Herbert S. Stone & Company of Chicago. The title page calls the book a ‘comedy romance,’ whatever that is. It’s 5 x 7 ¾ inches in size and has 354 pages.
Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of the author, or the book. I’d never heard of them, either. Herman K. VielĂ© was popular in his day, but that ‘day’ was over 100 years ago. He was both a novelist and poet. He died in 1908, only a few days shy of his 54th birthday.
Here’s why the book is important to Kerrville history: it has a bookplate indicating it was in the circulating collection of Kerrville’s very first public library.
Kerville Sunshine Library bookplate
Book No 527
That library was unique: it wasn’t part of local government, and it wasn’t built by a non-profit corporation. It was built by a married couple, George and Geraldena Walther, who ran the library as part of their business, and who advocated for a public library for our community for many decades. I wrote about them several years ago.
George William Walther was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1862; his mother was French and his father, German, and so young George grew up speaking those two languages in addition to English. As a youth George Walther was an apprentice to a silversmith in Boston, and continued in that career in Paris. In 1886 he returned to New England, and in 1888 he married Geraldena Sanstedt in Massachusetts. They had four children together, though two passed away in early childhood, and another, Gerald Walther, passed away as a young man in Kerrville. The surviving child, Norma, married W. C. Fawcett.
They arrived in Kerrville around 1900. Like many who found their way to Kerrville, George Walther came here for his health. While the news accounts don't specify the illness Walther suffered, it was most likely tuberculosis or something similar. The climate here was said to help with that disease, and many Kerrville families can trace their arrival here to an ancestor who was ill, seeking health.
Not long after arriving here, the Walthers purchased a small fruit store and confectionery from C. S. Hough. The couple worked in the business together, and it prospered. They added a restaurant and catering business. Things were looking good for them.
In 1902, George's father died, and with the inheritance George received, he invested in Kerrville real estate.
The Walther Building, 800 block of Water
The Walthers made Kerrville history in 1908. That's the year they opened the Kerrville Sunshine Library, as a part of the International Sunshine Society. It was the first public library in Kerrville, and it was housed in a "recreation hall" for young people, which included "box ball," which is game similar to "four square," dominoes and pool.
During its peak, the Kerrville Sunshine Library had 1800 volumes and 15 bookcases. Walther spent $50 per year on periodicals, including three humor weeklies from Europe: Punch, from England; Le Rire from France; and Fliegende Blatter from Germany. Those titles were meant, I'm sure, to appeal to young people.
For decades George Walther was a passionate advocate for a community library for our community. In 1927, at the urging of Walther, a committee of local leaders met to plan for a library. Unfortunately, with the arrival of the Great Depression, those plans never got off the ground.
"We want a real library," Walther told his community, in a 1927 talk, "a distinctive type of building of an attractive and substantial appearance; a large reading room with reference books for school children, as well as novels."
Forty years later, Howard and Mary Butt built such a library for our community. That gift may have had its beginnings when they were young people in Kerrville, visited the Walther's establishment, and read a book from his Sunshine Library.
George Walther died in 1931, before his dream of a community library could be accomplished. Geraldena Walther passed away in 1940.
The Kerrville Library Association was formed in 1941, and by 1954 a free library was formed, the Kerr County Public Library, housed in the ground floor of the Charles Schreiner home. In 1958 the Memorial Library opened on Water Street, and in 1967 the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library was dedicated.
And so a little book from Kerrville’s Sunshine Library found its way home, thanks to a kind person in California.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who spent many hours at the library as a child, since it was so close to my parents’ print shop.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times August 29, 2020.

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  1. Great story, and interesting people.

  2. Wow Joe! Thanks for this story. Learn something new everyday. Glad the book found its way home.


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