By DAVID GREEN
As the story goes, Phyllis Gillen of Stair Public Library was invited to the Edward Stair home in Detroit in the early 1950s for the purpose of bringing to Morenci a selection from the vast personal library of the late Mr. Stair.
Stair, several years retired as owner and editor of the Detroit Free Press, died in 1951 and left $10,000 of his $12 million estate to the library that bears his name. In addition, the library was to take possession of some of his books.
Stair’s books now line three walls of a basement room at Stair Public Library. There are hundreds of volumes from a wide array of disciplines.
Did Miss Gillen have a truck to use? Did she make several trips to Detroit and back? Was she given any guidance?
It’s not known how Phyllis made her choices. Did she have the time for careful consideration? Was it a hurried process to help clear out the house?
It seems obvious that she would have chosen “The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson” and “Hawthorne’s Works,” but what prompted her to bring home thick volumes of the “Journal of the Common Council of the City of Detroit”?
Library director Colleen Leddy, like her predecessor Elizabeth Stella, knows that something should be done with the books, but it’s always a matter of finding the time to tackle the project.
The library board chose a starting point: Bring in someone knowledgeable to peruse the volumes and offer an opinion on the value of the collection. Perhaps there are some gems among the collection that was largely acquired between the years 1900 and 1930.
Leddy invited Rod MacDonald of Ann Arbor to take a look. He was told the story of Miss Gillen going to make her selections, and after spending some time with the volumes, concluded that perhaps the collection says as much about her as it does about Stair’s tastes.
There are travel books and railroad books. There’s a geology section, a banking section and a collection of books about the newspaper industry. Stair collected reference books and poetry, books about running a theatre, and others about politics and government. The collection includes books about wars, airplanes, business, adventure and on and on.
Stair apparently had a wide range of interests, and Miss Gillen did, too.
After his death, Stair was eulogized as one of Detroit’s foremost citizens, but he wasn’t a man to forget his roots.
Stair was born in Morenci in 1859. He was involved in the newspaper industry from an early age, but in 1888 he sold his interest in the “Livingston Republican” in Howell and entered the field of theatre management.
He turned back to newspapers around the turn of the century, but never gave up his interest in the theatre. He made a deal with the village fathers of Morenci to pay half the construction cost of an auditorium which opened in 1908.
In 1942, Stair paid half the cost of a school gymnasium ($25,000). That same year he read Minnie Green’s editorial in the Morenci Observer about the need for a library building. City council accepted Stair’s offer to buy a building ($2,500) and when the facility was opened in 1943, it was named Stair Public Library in the donor’s honor. Stair also gave $1,000 for the purchase of books.
In the library’s “accession book” listing new holdings, the first entry appearing under “Stair Fund” was written Dec. 28, 1942: “The Cokesbury Shower Book,” a guide to entertaining. The library also purchased “Astronomy for Everybody” and “How to Write a Letter for all Occasions.”
Stair Fund books continued to be registered into 1951, the year that Ed Stair died.
A small publication called “History of Stair Public Library” lists a slightly different account of what’s in the library basement. Although the Morenci Observer report on Ed Stair’s will mentions only a gift of $10,000, the history book mentions that Stair’s personal library was to come to Morenci. Perhaps Miss Gillen had no choices to make. Maybe Stair’s entire collection was transported back to Stair’s home town.
On April 28, 1952, the first entry appears for “Stair Gift” when a volume of James Whittier’s poetry and prose was catalogued. In July, the Roxbury Classics followed, and after two more months, a collection of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels were processed. Nothing more was listed until March 1953 when William Gross’s “The Conquest of California” was added.
“Most of the authors here are of minimal interest to people now,” MacDonald told Leddy. “There are going to be a few that are still interesting, and there may be a gem.”
The library board will have to decide whether there is any value to retaining portions of the collection in Morenci. Perhaps a shelf of the more interesting volumes could be displayed as a memento of Stair, Leddy said.
MacDonald dug in, making a note of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1910. It was only the 11th edition of the series and he knows that some of the older ones are drawing interest.
From Gautier to Turgenoff and Goethe to Longfellow, Stair had most of the classics covered.
MacDonald picked up a slim volume from 1923 called “The Making of a Modern Bank.” He knew it wouldn’t be one of the valuable gems, but it was very interesting.
“It’s something you don’t see,” he said, “and it’s in very nice condition.”
A narrow audience would find it interesting—and of value.
A book about the newspaper industry includes a note inside the cover from Frank Gannett, founder of the Gannett chain.
A bound report on the Republican National Convention from 1932 caught MacDonald’s eye.
He found several more books with inscriptions by the author and wondered how many more there are. The Stair collection is large, but apparently Ed didn’t have to buy a lot of the books. Gifts from authors went onto his shelves.
“Cosmos, the Soul and God.”
“Marriage as a Trade.”
“To All the World Except Germany.”
“On the Safeguarding of Life in Theatres.”
“We Married an Englishman.”
“Out of the Wreck I Rise.”
“Turkish Life in Town and Country.”
“Earthquakes” from 1907.
“The Woman Movement” from 1912.
“The Red Network: a Who’s Who and Radicalism for Patriots” from 1934.
That was an interesting book since it names names, MacDonald said.
“The Old Club” lists Detroit’s high society connections.
“Dau’s Blue Book” for Detroit lists “the most prominent householders published for the convenience of our lady patrons.”
The “Dogs of Great Britain and America” is a handsome leather-bound book that remains in great condition for an 1891 publication.
“Conquering the Tropics” sounds like it could be a traveling adventure, but instead it outlines the successes of the United Fruit Company in establishing outposts in the Third World.
“The Gasoline Age” includes a note to Stair from automotive pioneer R.E. Olds.
If someone could take a children’s book, push hard on the top until it loses its square edges, they would have the trapezoid-shaped “The Slant Book.”
Stair had an extensive collection of books by Edgar Guest, and many of them include personal notes. Stair was a strong supporter of the Michigan writer.
MacDonald made it through just a third of the collection in a little over two hours and he made several notes for further research.
“I’m seeing a lot of things that I haven’t seen before,” he said, but he repeated the warning that he gave earlier: Interest doesn’t necessarily lead to value.