Library expansion work begins in Lakewood

Community dream begins lengthy process with groundbreaking ceremony featuring dignitaries
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The Town of Lakewood and neighboring communities broke ground Sept. 13 on a $1.5 million expansion of a beloved public library that has an abundance of patrons but not of space.

More than 100 people from northern Oconto County joined town officials, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Assistant Superintendent Darrell Williams and representatives at the county, state and federal levels as they tossed dirt to make a longstanding community dream a reality.

Tom Thielke, co-chairman for the expansion project, talked about the history of the land where the current Lakes Country Public Library sits and the adjacent land off state Highway 32. He noted that the area used to be farm fields before progress came to the northern area, which included the library first being built in the 1980s after elementary schools in Lakewood and Townsend closed and left the area without a place for books.

However, even after an expansion was done in the 1990s, it was clear the library was still too small, and more needed to be done, according to Thielke.

“It’s a big day,” he said about the groundbreaking, noting that the summer reading program had 88 children that participated.

Among the funds already pledged are a $500,000 grant U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin was able to get the library through federal earmarks, as well as $300,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds that Oconto County has approved.

Kathleen Marsh, co-chairwoman for the project and the driving force behind the fundraising, noted that much of the money for the expansion has been raised in the last 18 months. That surprised her, she said, as she figured she’d need five years to raise the funds.

“Many people told us this day would never come, that we could never raise enough money for this project,” Marsh said. “Here we are, $1.37 million later, and well on our way to our goal. It took more than a village. It took more than a community. It took more than Oconto County to do this.”

Marsh noted that she’s received a lot of comments from people who love the library, including “I don’t know what I would do without the library,” and “I would have lost my mind or killed my husband during the pandemic if it wasn’t for the library.”

That resulted in many people expressing their gratitude with their wallets, Marsh said. She noted one man donated as he resides nearby at Lakewood Assisted Living. She said there was also a woman who donated $5,000 on her own.

“She took her savings at the age of 21, making $7.25 an hour, and gave it to us so we could put soundproofing and other amenities into our telemedicine room and the adjoining one for kids who grew up with sensory disabilities. It touched my heart,” Marsh said. “There are so many people I could thank, and ‘thank you’ doesn’t do it anymore. I wish they would find a new word for this.”

Williams, who oversees libraries as part of his work with the DPI, noted that the groundbreaking was a much more positive thing than when he’d last been in Oconto County. He was with the state’s emergency management and had to deal with some flooding issues around Oconto, so he expressed gladness that his latest visit involved expanding a library and not contending with people’s misery.

Williams noted the 10 minutes spent recognizing all the people who have been involved with the library groundbreaking, from the town board members who have supported efforts to the county board members who signed off on the ARPA funds.

“I know it takes a lot, but it’s well worth it,” Williams said. “We want to make sure that we don’t forget anybody, because everybody who has had a hand, come in, or made any kind of effort to this project, we want to make sure you’re recognized.”

Williams noted that the place where he grew up — Abbeville, Mississippi — was a tiny community of over 300 people with no library. Anyone who wanted to go to the library in nearby Oxford had to ride their bicycle or, in lieu of wheels, hitchhike.

“It was at that library that I was exposed to all of the opportunities that was there,” Williams said. “This is what I tell people all the time — the library is the most important place in any school and in any community. It is the only place where you can go everywhere without going anywhere. While you may not read every book that is in the library, there should be a book for everyone in the library.”

Libraries are not possible without community support, Williams noted as he acknowledged Katie Essermann, the library’s director, and others involved in planning for the expansion.

“All of that effort, all of that energy, whether it be in front of the camera or behind the scenes, it all plays a big piece in the puzzle of why we’re here today,” Williams said. “Libraries are truly the heartbeat of this community, and I will tell you that they are the vessels for which kids get a chance to be exposed to the world.”

The library expansion is expected to be completed in summer 2024. Marsh noted the library is remaining open during the construction work.