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McHistory: Life, literature and children

This story is part of WGLT's ongoing McHistory series. You can subscribe to the McHistory podcast for new episodes.

It's cliche but children are the future. Bloomington's Clara Louise Kessler passionately lived that.

She went by Louise. Kessler got her start as a kindergarten teacher on Bloomington's west side and went on to serve more than three decades as a children's librarian who tried to foster and fulfill the literary and creative needs of young people. Kessler also became a published lyricist for more than 50 children's songs.

“When one looks at the cultural life of the Twin Cities in the first half of the 20th century, Kessler figures prominently,” said Bill Kemp, librarian and archivist at the McLean County Museum of History.

Kessler, born in 1893 in Warren, Illinois, came to Bloomington-Normal at the age of 2 when her father, Samuel, relocated the family. Samuel was a druggist.

Louise Kessler served more than three decades enriching the lives of young people in Bloomington Normal as the head Children's Librarian at the Withers Public Library in Bloomington.
Louise Kessler served more than three decades enriching the lives of young people in Bloomington Normal as the head children's librarian at the Withers Public Library in Bloomington.

“This is at a time many pharmaceutical compounds were mixed on site in the drugstores. He was known to have a knack, and his skill and talents were needed in various drugstores over the years,” said Kemp.

The family had an affinity for music, said Kemp, as did many Twin City families in the early 1900s. They formed a family orchestra, also not unusual for the day.

“Samuel, the father, played the flute. Louise played the cello, her sister Frances, the piano. Brother Louis was first violin, and her mother Martha was second violin, and they would perform in various venues in the community,” said Kemp.

Interests in the arts percolated through young Louise. She would later write lyrics for more than 50 published songs. She graduated from Bloomington High School and then the Normal University, ISNU. Her first job in Bloomington as a young woman was as kindergarten teacher at the day nursery and settlement association.

There was a settlement house on the city's west side in the 1300 block of West Mulberry Street. The house remains. It was similar to Hull House in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams.

“The settlement house offered daycare for working-class women who had no place to care for their children," said Kemp. "But this settlement house also offered Americanization classes for adults, English language classes, craft, and other programs for older children. It had the kind of program offerings a lot of settlement houses did at the period.”

Promoting more than children's literature

Four years later, Kessler became the children’s librarian at Withers Public Library, known today as the Bloomington Public Library. At the time, it was in a building at the corner of East and Washington streets downtown. That building was torn down in the 1970s.

“Under Louise Kessler's leadership, the children's department became ‘Mecca’ for little folk. She saw her job promoting not only children's literature, but all the things that come with that — as values of American citizenship,” said Kemp. “She was interested in fostering in young people a sense of imagination and an exploration and some independence, and most importantly, perhaps, empathy.”

She promoted not only children's literature but children's theater. She wrote short plays. Children would act in them and help with the costumes. There would be show-and-tells, poetry contests, and doll and toy shows. She would have birdhouse-building contests.

“Some of this stuff we take for granted today. But it was a little more revolutionary back in the early 20th century,” said Kemp.

Beginning in the 1920s, Kessler also served as editor of the children's section of The Pantagraph. Before the internet, it was an important community-wide position, said Kemp. She had young authors contribute and she wrote short stories for the section herself.

“Wit and taste, beauty and joy, are as much a necessary part of the democratic heritage as economics and utilities and children’s books are part of that art in the right of free people,” said Kessler. “Children who are readers of books develop seeing eyes. The book may be new or old, have fine print or large clear type, but the children will look beyond the books garb straight into its heart.”

In September 1950, she wrote a letter to The Pantagraph calling for the establishment of a children's Creative Arts Building. The idea was to develop the minds and the imaginations of young people — "Bloomington’s residents of tomorrow." She thought play was becoming too organized and children of the day needed a center devoted to creative play.

“I believe that they and the generation just preceding have been cheated of certain aptitudes, which older generations of young people had in abundance. These traits declined when the era of directed play for children began. Children now are told how to play and what to do,” wrote Kessler. “At the same time, modern science with its mechanical and electrical toys, its radio, moving pictures and automobiles bring to children only passive entertainment. They sit and look, sit and listen, sit and ride.”

She argued that every child should have free moments during the day for thinking and reading time and for the imagination to grow. She said a creative arts building would help kids find "the beauty of spirit in good literature, the beauty of inspiration and Fine Arts, the beauty of fulfillment in personal accomplishment, the beauty of integrity that follows in original and finished piece of work all one's own."

She said there would be no teachers, but the materials used for creative expression and to experiment.

Kemp said perhaps Kessler’s greatest legacy, though, was editing a five-volume series on Bloomington history called Hometown in the Corn Belt: A Source History of Bloomington, Illinois 1900-1950.

The Bloomington Centennial took place in 1950 — 100 years of being an incorporated city. The five volumes contained more than 170 articles, 39 biographical sketches and essays, and 52 original poems, all written by 132 contributors, including Kessler. Only two sets of the work were printed. They are held by the Bloomington Library and the Museum of History. The work is available online, said Kemp.

“There are just all sorts of hidden treasures,” said Kemp. There's an essay for example, by Hazel Funk Holmes, on memories of her mother, Sophronia Funk and their home at 307 East Grove Street. You're not going to find that anywhere else. There are essays on Black churches and Black choirs in early Bloomington written by a young Caribel Washington, who has since passed away. There's a wonderful history of Livingston's department store, a locally-owned store that closed in the 1970s written by a Livingston, Fanny Livingston Oaks,” said Kemp.

Louise Kessler passed away in 1968, having spent her life nourishing the minds of children.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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