Upon her death in August of 1909, Miss Maria Parloa, an active member of the Bethel community, bequeathed $2000 as well as books and other property to the town for the purpose of establishing a free public library. As a result, the Bethel Public Library was founded on November 8, 1909. An annual allotment of $200 was made by the town for expenses.
Originally, the library was located in rooms rented for $3.00 per month above a store on Center Street (now Greenwood Avenue). It was open just eight hours a week – two afternoon and two evening hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Miss Marie Macbeth was appointed the first librarian.
The new facility soon outgrew its quarters and in February of 1910 the Board of Directors voted to seek a larger space. Accordingly, four rooms were rented at 19 Fountain Place (now P.T. Barnum Square) for $6.00 per month.
In July of 1914, the house and land of the late Hannah Seelye were presented to the town of Bethel by her legatees. Located at 189 Greenwood Avenue, the property was donated for the express purpose of housing a library. It was also to remain a perpetual memorial to Seth and Abigail Seelye, the parents of Hannah and her siblings.
At that time, Laurenus Clark Seelye, brother of Hannah, provided funding to make the considerable improvements necessary to make the building acceptable for library use. After this, the building remained much the same for the next fifty years.
In the 1960’s, a population boom necessitated the addition of a $187,000 wing which was completed in 1967. It was also in this year that the Redding sculptress Anna Hyatt Huntington donated the statue of Abraham Lincoln on horseback which stands in front of the library. These two changes brought the library building to its present day status.
Since 1967, the Bethel population has increased by 77% from 10,200 to 18,067. Circulation of library materials–which now include books on CD, magazines, music CDs, and DVDs–has grown dramatically. The addition of computer access to the Internet and other useful databases also greatly increased the use of the library. This led the Board of Directors to seek funding for yet another addition to the Greenwood Avenue building. In December, 2000, the voters of Bethel approved in a referendum a bond issue to expand and restore the Library.
The new library opened its doors to the public in July 2005; however, the job was not done. Due to unforeseen delays and budget constraints, only the first floor of the new library was finished. The Library Board of Directors faced one of its greatest challenges, to raise the money needed to complete the library. The second floor needed to be finished and the spaces on the first floor and in the Seelye House redefined to include meeting rooms, a local history and genealogy room, a children’s program room, quiet study space, a technology lab, more public computers and more tables and comfortable chairs for reading and study.
On May 13, 2013, after being closed for nearly 6 weeks for remodeling, the Library re-opened to the public. After a bit more work, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on July 14.
Over the years, contributions of time, effort and funding have come from more sources than it is possible to name here. The Bethel Public Library has survived and continues to thrive due to the active participation of an involved and caring community.
“A History of Bethel, 1759-1976″Library: Century and a Half of Service” by Patrick Wild in The Bethel Home News, Sept. 22, 1993 a timeline in the Bethel Public Library vertical file.