Henry Rosenberg’s will included a bequest of more than $600,000 for a free public library for the use of the people of Galveston that “will aid their intellectual and moral development, and be a source of pleasure to them and their children through many generations.”
The Rosenberg Library opened on June 22, 1904, and Frank Chauncey Patten stood at the helm as its first librarian. Through recently donated and newly discovered materials on Frank Patten, more is being uncovered about the man entrusted with the moral and intellectual development of the residents of Galveston.
Frank Patten began his journey as a librarian in 1882 at Ripon College in Wisconsin as a student assistant librarian followed by a position as library assistant at Columbia College in New York. It was here that Patten met the college’s chief librarian, Melvil Dewey.
Dewey opened the world’s first library school in 1887 at Columbia College and served as its director, but he is perhaps better known for his Dewey Decimal System that libraries have used for years to catalog books.
In these burgeoning years of library education, Patten and Dewey quickly formed an acquaintance that developed into a professional friendship that lasted throughout Patten’s career.
Patten enrolled in and became one of the first graduates of Melvil Dewey’s School of Library Economy and immediately began looking for employment. In addition to correspondence between Patten and Dewey, one of Patten’s employment applications was recently unearthed in the attic of Rosenberg Library.
Under Type of Work Preferred, Patten wrote: “Head of library where there is opportunity to work out plans for personal helpfulness to the common people, and especially the young,” and listed Melvil Dewey as one of his references.
In 1903, the Trustees of the Rosenberg Library Association appointed Frank Patten head librarian of Rosenberg Library, a position he held from its establishment in 1903 until his death in 1934.
Frank Chauncey Patten quickly became widely known in Galveston as he passionately collected research materials for future historians. He was especially interested in collecting documents and other material relating to the early history of Texas and particularly Galveston.
Research material compiled in 1965 by Melbourne Jordan for a master’s thesis on Patten were recently donated and shed some light on some of Patten’s collecting endeavors.
One anecdote relates how Patten and John M. Winterbotham, a trustee during Patten’s tenure, went to various people and places in the area gathering up old memorabilia, records, letters, journals, newspapers, etc. and managed to assemble a large stock of valuable historical manuscripts.
Valuable collections that Patten and Winterbotham gathered were the papers of Samuel May Williams, the Gail Borden records and the Galveston Land Company records.
Also included in the donation is correspondence from previous Rosenberg librarians who recalled stories they had heard about Patten as well as references to “apocryphal stories” told by former residents of Galveston.
One former resident recalled how Patten was seen wandering through the alleys late in the afternoon gathering up discarded cartons from stores to be used in the library as pamphlet boxes, “stiffening boards” for newspapers or manuscript containers.
These reminiscences, “apocryphal” or not, illustrate Frank Patten’s devotion to the Rosenberg Library. Under his 30 years of management, the library grew and expanded steadily.
Other interesting highlights found in the materials include a piece of stationary from the Seaside Hotel that was on the northwest corner of Tremont Street and Avenue Q. The manager had written to Patten in 1910 thanking him for settling his bill.
The stationary is particularly interesting because it has an illustration of the hotel that was destroyed by fire in December 1917. The library has very few images of this historic structure in its collections.
Also of interest, in a letter dated July 24, 1909, Patten’s brother wrote to him just days after the July 21 hurricane: “I see by the papers that the seawall saved Galveston from the storm but I would like to hear from you and learn some of the particulars.”
The 1909 Storm was the first major test of the seawall and as The Daily News, July 21, 1909, noted, “the Seawall paid for itself today.”
Current genealogists would be pleased to learn that Frank Patten was interested enough in his own family history to have it compiled and published. The copy that Patten purchased is in the library.
These documents will be added to the Frank C. Patten Collection located in the Galveston and Texas History Center at the Rosenberg Library and is open for research 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.