80 years ago: The woman who built the Norway library

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    A vintage postcard of the Norway Memorial Library.

    NORWAY — Sarah Maude Thompson Kaemmerling wanted to become a professional musician. Instead she built a library.

    The daughter of a local dentist who left Norway for Pennsylvania in the late 1800s to become engaged in a lucrative logging business with his brothers, Kaemmerling’s life was to be shaped by her father’s decision and the violent death of her only sibling.

    And her life, in turn, was to impact the future of Norway.

    Maude Kaemmerling, Norway Memorial Library is believed to have been taken around the time of her marriage to Rear Admiral Gustav Kaemmerling.

    Sarah Maude Thompson Kaemmerling, known more commonly as Maude, donated the town’s first holding vault and built a stately entrance on the eastern edge of the Pine Grove Cemetery, provided seed money for the local hospital, provided land for what was to become the town beach.

    And perhaps most importantly, she provided the funds to build and furnish a library.

    That action 80 years ago, will be celebrated tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 7, when the Friends of Norway Memorial Library host a free Holiday Open House from 5 – 7 p.m. at the library, located at 258 Main Street.

    The event, a chance for residents of all ages to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the library building, will include music by the High School String Quartet including a selection of sing-a-long Christmas Carols; followed by a remembrance of Maude Kaemmerling and an exhibit of library art and other activities.

    “By accounts I have heard or read, she (Maude Kaemmerling) was a private person who was interested in leaving a lasting legacy that would improve the lives of people in a place she cared about,” said Library Director Beth Kane. “I imagine that she saw the library housed as it was at the time above Longley’s Hardware store and realized that a library building on Main Street would be a lasting gift to the town.”

    Although the residents established the Norway Library Association and set up a library in the former Advertiser Democrat building at 1 Pikes Hill in 1885, interest was so great that in 1892 the town took over ownership and established a public library in two rooms on the top floor of the former Longley’s Hardware Store at 419 Main Street which now houses the Green Machine bike shop.

    In the mid 1930s, Kaemmerling approached town officials about funding a stand alone library building to memorialize her parents, Mary and Albert Thompson and her brother Frank E. Thompson.

    According to historical information provided on the library’s website, the neo-classic design of the library was drawn by Boston architect William B. Coffin. Philip D. Wight of Norway submitted a bid of $31,190 to construct the building that was said to resemble the design of an unnamed preparatory school in Vermont that Kaemmerling particularly liked.

    The town found a vacant piece of land on Main Street owned by Isabelle Whitcomb and she agreed to donate the parcel if the town would negate the back taxes she owed. The town voted to cancel Whitcomb’s taxes thus paving the way to accept Maude Kaemmerling’s offer to build and furnish a library.

    On December 18, 1938 the new library building, opened with a collection of about 9,000 books.

    Maude Kaemmerling, who donated the funds for the Norway Memorial Library is pictured with Maude Thompson Wakefield, her cousin and companion in later life.

    Kaemmerling asked that the library, with its distinctive Georgian cupola with pilasters and a dome, and a portico supported on Tuscan columns, be dedicated to the memory of her parents and her brother. A plaque bearing that information can be seen in the front entrance to the building.

    Albert Thompson was a local dentist in the late 19th century before moving to Philadelphia and then joining his brothers in a profitable lumber business in West Virginia. The brothers bought up land in West Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania and other states including Maine.

    The Thompson’s were said to be the leading producers of lumber in the Canaan Valley in West Virginia and surrounding areas during the boom times of the late 1800s.  The family business in extension benefited the area with employment and  expansion of other businesses.

    But in 1897 tragedy struck the family when Maude’s only sibling Frank, was mortally wounded in a gun fight aboard a train at the age of 35. Frank’s body was carried by a special train to Norway to be buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery.

    According to information about Maude Kaemmerling from the Tucker Foundation,  Kaemmerling was a promising musician who  graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston and later taught there.  She also traveled extensively in Europe studying music and voice but when her brother died, she gave it all up to come home and be with her parents.

    From her father she learned the business trade and managed his estate and holdings the remainder of her life, according to the Tucker Foundation information.

    She married Retired Admiral Gustav Kaemmerling , who according to his death notice in the July 30, 1934, Cincinnati Inquirer,  served on Admiral George Dewey’s flagship Olympia for his 1898 victory in Manila during the Spanish American War. The 1858 U.S. Naval Academy graduate also served as senior inspector for the Navy Department at a Camden, N.J. shipyard during the first World War.  He died in 1934 in his Philadelphia home at the age of 76.

    Maude Kaemmerling took care of both her parents and her husband through long, ultimately fatal, illnesses, according to a letter published by the Tucker Foundation from Maude’s cousin and later life companion Maude Thompson Wakefield.

    She continued to come to her summer home in Norway after the death of her husband spending time with Wakefield until she died at the age of 83 in March of 1957 in Philadelphia.

    Wakefield once wrote, “Cousin Maude was a cheerful woman, serious but with plenty of humor about her… . Her home life was simple but well ordered, she was at her breakfast table at 8 a.m. fully dressed and ready to conduct the day’s business.”

    She was described as a very modest person who chose to help people quietly. She believed in sharing and helping people.

    In her will, Mrs. Kaemmerling directed that the bulk of her estate should be distributed ultimately to institutions and associations “engaged exclusively in charitable, educational or scientific activities for the promotion of science, health, education, good citizenship and the well-doing and well-being of mankind,” according to an article written at the time of her death, in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    Today her benefactors are spread across the United States. They include, but are hardly limited to, a scholarship at Amherst College; a quarter of a million dollar bequest to a church in Philadelphia, the creation of the Canaan Valley State Park in West Virginia with the donation of 3,149 acres to the state on the condition the state make a matching property donation.

    And in Norway, the Memorial Library continues to expand. In 2001, a 4,200 square-foot addition was completed providing space for a reference room, multi-purpose room, expanded children’s room and other amenities.

    ldixon@sunmediagroup.net