Following the Book Trail

By Esther Middlewood  Kentwood Library

The Richard L. Root Kentwood Branch Library stands prominently at 4950 Breton Road, next door to the Kentwood City Center. Its stunning architectural design and the outstanding sculpture in the foyer attracts visitors from not only Kentwood, but also surrounding areas. Completed in 2010, the library contains multiple amenities, including (but not limited to) a large community room for programs and events, an expanded computer area, conference rooms, study rooms, and the Cora Bowen Stauffer Kentwood Heritage Room. Usage of the library facilities has increased with the expanded space and available technology. Curiosity, however, asks “Where did it all begin?”


In the early 1830’s a number of families came from New York to settle in the part of the county known as Paris Township. They carried with them the family Bible and perhaps one or two other books. Settlements such as Bowen Station, Home Acres, and East Paris Road slowly developed while the rest of the township remained essentially rural with large farm properties until after World War II. Following the war, Grand Rapids residents and industry began moving southeast beyond the city limits into Paris Township. With no library, Paris Township residents borrowed books from the Kent County Library’s bookmobiles. In an oral history, a former student from one of Paris Township’s one-room schoolhouses described the services of the bookmobiles and told her interviewer that adults could borrow as many books as they wanted, but children were limited to four books each. The Kent County Library named the bookmobiles Hither, Thither, and Yon. In the early 1950’s the county bookmobile began stopping at Home acres, one of its most popular stops.


In February 1955, an official request for a permanent Paris branch was forwarded to Kent County Library officials by Fred Darling, the Paris Township clerk. By November at that year, the Paris Library opened in a new building on 44th Street near Jefferson Avenue. The Paris Library flourished under Mrs. Edel Torngren who helped the numerous patrons who crowded into the library during its first full year of operation. It quickly became the most heavily used branch of the county library system. When Mrs. Torngren died unexpectedly in 1962 the branch was renamed in her honor. Although the library has since moved several times, the small brick building remains and serves the community as a veterinary clinic.

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By 1967, the library’s collection of books had grown and it could no longer be housed in the small building on 44th street. In the same year, Paris Township became the City of Kentwood and elected officials occupied themselves setting up a new city government and all its many services—including a library. In mid-1968 the City Commission started exploring an expansion of the existing library. In 1969, the library relocated on 52nd Street in a rented building which had been St. Mary Magdalen Church. Initially, Commissioners budgeted $30,000 for the expansion project.


When a renovation estimate from the architect was more than double what they had planned to spend, Commissioners discussed selling the library site and relocating to a new site.


In 1975 Kentwood finally built a new library thanks to an earlier donation of four acres of land to the city for a library site by Mrs. Cora Bowen Stauffer. She stipulated that the new library must be built on the site within five years or the land would revert back to her. Finally, in September 1975, the new $715,000 Kentwood Branch Library opened on a site which a hundred years previously had been the Bowen family’s cornfield. By 1990 time, traffic, and a leaky roof had begun to take a toll on the library, so city officials allocated money from the general fund for redecorating. In 1991, a ten-year-old Kentwood resident, Jillaine Burmeister, won an Earth Day contest sponsored by the Amway Corporation. Her prize was a 12-foot tall flowering crab tree which she planted at the library. “The library will be here forever, and people will always come here,” she explained.


Jillaine’s statement, however, faded into history when the library once again outgrew the available space and the building developed structural problems. Kentwood officials began to consider a new site—one more centrally located in the developing city. The new Kentwood Branch Library, opened in August 2010 speaks for itself. The library was renamed the Richard L. Root Kentwood Branch Library in 2012 in honor of the former mayor’s dedication to the community and to the completion of the library project.