Meet Mr. Bixby – legendary Vergennes philanthropist

This past Sunday afternoon some lucky history buffs got to meet a 188-year-old Vergennes icon. Adorning his classic brown suit and tie and capped off with his fez, Mr. William Grove Bixby gave a tour of his namesake, the Bixby Memorial Library.
Not buying it?
OK, neither are we.
Of course the original Bixby is dead. In fact he died way back in February of 1907. But his legacy is very much still alive in the Little City.
“We had a good group of about 40 people,” said Bixby Library Executive Director Jane Spencer. “Mr. Bixby (played by Jeff Fritz) was dressed in his suit… Jeff was entertaining, he’s got a lot of personality. It was really fun and educational.”
“Mr. Bixby was very much a philanthropist,” explained Fritz, who is also a city alderman and the president of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
Fritz first played Bixby a few years ago during the Bixby Ball event, when guests enjoyed dinner and dancing under the dome.
“There were about 14 people there and I thought, ‘I’m going to dress up like Mr. Bixby,’” he said. “I found a suit to mimic the picture of him hanging in the library — complete with a fez.”
Fritz got into it and began doing more and more research.
“Bixby was a very shy man, but he was a very generous man. He gave regularly to the city library before the Bixby was built. From what we know, he apparently was helpful to the poor, but not a churchgoer (and this always has been a big church-going community). He was part of a group of late Victorian gentlemen who were maybe a little more enlightened than their fellows.”
Born in Vergennes in 1829, Bixby lived in Vermont’s smallest city for the majority of his life (except for a five-year stint in Colorado). As a young man he was in business with his father, who owned a hardware store in the Sherman Block, and he later owned several manufacturing businesses along Otter Creek.  His residence was in Vergennes — though he wintered in warmer climates — and he built an impressive collection of books.
“Bixby was successful in his own right, but not necessarily a wealthy man,” explained Fritz, who lives with his partner in one of the old Victorian houses on Main Street in Vergennes.
He did have a yacht and often made trips from Vergennes to Lake Champlain. He later purchased three islands in Thorpe’s Cove. But true to form, Bixby didn’t even display customary flags on his boat — too showy.
In the city of Vergennes, Bixby can also take credit for Prospect Cemetery.
“He was the original organizer of the cemetery,” Fritz said. “He pushed for an independent cemetery (apart from political influence) and bought new land around the existing cemetery.”
Bixby came into his fortune when his sister Eleanor died. She had been married to a man who owned several hotels in Chicago. With no direct heirs, Bixby inherited the large estate.
“He didn’t tell anybody what his intentions were,” Fritz said. “He handwrote his will and left $50,000 to his family and servants; another chunk to Tuskegee Institute (a private, historically black university located in Tuskegee, Ala.); $18,000 to the cemetery in addition to the land he purchased and the rest ($300,000) was for a new library.”
The Bixby Library was modest, like Bixby. To keep his character a part of the building process, Bixby had appointed a board of trustees from friends and people of note in Vergennes.
They picked the site (where a hotel used to stand) and placed the cornerstone on Sept. 21, 1911. Over 1,000 people came out to witness the event.
The architects and builders came from New York City and used Indiana limestone pillars, yellow tapestry brick and native stone to construct the building. The style is Greek and Roman — hence the pillars. The entrance opens with double oak doors and the entire interior is built around the beautiful stained-glass dome.
The dome is an impressive eight feet in diameter hanging 40 feet above a tiled floor. It’s made up of 33 identical triangular pieces in purple, yellow and green.
“There were many things that they did to keep it simple that were quite intentional,” Fritz explained. “Many people comment on floor under the dome, at first it looks like a subway bathroom floor, but it’s designed to reflect and absorb the light of the dome. When the bright sun shines in, wow, that floor dances.”
The building was complete a year later on Aug. 1, 1912. The 3,530 volumes plus public documents, reports and magazines of the City Library, along with Bixby’s own collection of 500 books, were moved into the newly opened Bixby Library. A dedication ceremony was held on Oct. 1, 1912, where then president of Middlebury College John M. Thomas was known to say:
“The free public library is one of our great modern democratic institutions. It is supported by all for the uplift of all … This library should be a working tool for this community, entering into every part of its life, industrial, educational, civic and religious.”
The library opened a month later. By the 10th anniversary, reports calculate the library’s circulation had reached 30,000, and by its 20th and grown to almost 40,000.
These days, “Bixby has expanded services so we’re not just about books any more,” Spencer said, noting the new building expansions and renovations planned. “It’s about people and programs.”
This kind of growth was intended from day one.
“Thomas said in his 1912 dedication of the library that it should be ‘the place where every man, woman and child would prefer to be most, next to his own home.’ And that the library should ‘be mindful of change; an institution unwilling to change will not succeed.’”
“I am very excited about the future of the library,” said Fritz when asked if the planned additions to the library might take away some of this rich history. “And I can say without reservation that Mr. Bixby would be too. He was a modern man.”
Editor’s Note: Sunday’s event was co-sponsored by the Ferrisburgh Historical Society. The library and historical society will partner again for a March performance of classical music at the Ferrisburgh Town Hall.

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