Bill libraries in Groton, Ledyard united by family history

Why do Bill Memorial Library in Groton and Bill Library in Ledyard share a name? How are they related?

That was the question voters in the latest CuriousCT round selected for The Day to answer. Bill Library and Bill Memorial Library have been around since 1893 and 1890, respectively. Often confused even by locals, the libraries trace their roots to two members of the same well-known family.

The Bill family resided on what is now Church Hill Road in Ledyard, formerly a part of Groton. Henry Bill established the original plans for Bill Library in 1867 — the building wasn't completed until 1893 — after seeing a need for a public library where he grew up. Frederic Bill, his younger brother, established Bill Memorial as a dedication to his two deceased sisters, Harriet and Eliza.

The patriarch of the family, Gurdon Bill, raised each of his eight children to be successful, charitable and active in community politics. According to former Connecticut State Library reference librarian Carol Ganz, Gurdon Bill forced his children to work at nearby farms to encourage individual responsibility.

Many still recognize the Bill family name because of Gurdon Bill. He ran a "way station" in Ledyard, which was a common rest stop for travelers, Ganz said. In the upper level of his home, he ran a Masonic lodge meeting hall. One of his sons, Ledyard, was so named because of Gurdon Bill's participation in the incorporation of the town of Ledyard in the 1830s, according to a pamphlet courtesy of Bill Library.

Many of Gurdon Bill's sons donated books and artifacts in their family's name as a result of their upbringing. Ledyard Bill founded a third library, in Paxton, Mass., in 1877. Other sons became state legislators or managed railroads in New England.

Henry Bill was one of Gurdon's most successful sons. A wealthy publisher living in Norwich, he had an extensive career as a schoolteacher in Preston, Plainfield and Groton, served as vice president of Chelsea Savings Bank for over 30 years, was founder of Laurel Hill Park and eventual founder of Bill Library in Ledyard in 1867.

After the Civil War, Henry Bill paid for the education of former slaves. He donated the Bill family home to the Ledyard Congregational Church as a parsonage for its ecclesiastical society and for use by the Bill Library trustees, Ganz said.

Henry Bill later built a house on Broadway in Norwich known as the Mount Crescent House. Norwich Free Academy bought it in 1930 for use as an academic building, but the house again became a private residence in 1987 and now is a bed and breakfast.

Like Henry, brother Frederic Bill was a successful publisher and schoolteacher in Groton who also owned Tracy & Bill, a linen business in New York City, according to the Bill Memorial Library website, billmemorial.org. Frederic proposed the library in 1888 and dedicated it on June 18, 1890, as shown on a plaque in the building's entrance.

Aside from promoting reading, Frederic Bill also wanted the library to serve as a museum. It is home to donated artifacts from his travels to Europe, including taxidermy butterflies and birds, volcanic rocks, Roman mosaics and Middle Eastern shoes from the 1800s.

Both brothers donated from their own book collections and stored the volumes in the Ledyard Congregational Church. Henry Bill died in 1891, before Bill Library was erected, but his brothers Ledyard, Gurdon Jr. and Frederic continued the completion of the building, according to the pamphlet.

Although the original volumes donated from the Bill brothers have been integrated into a larger collection, the Bill libraries honor the Bill family philanthropy by continuing to serve the community. Today both Bill libraries have over 80,000 volumes combined, according to their websites.

Each library has been renovated to accommodate new technology since the 1800s. In 1994, a new children's wing and accessibility entrance was added to Bill Memorial, according to its site. Bill Library was expanded in 1971 and 1982 to hold more volumes and computers. Bill Library is a member of Libraries Online, or LION, which provides access to other libraries.

"Today we're a full-service library with materials for all ages," said Wendy Connal, director of Bill Memorial and the one who submitted the CuriousCT question. She added that many attendees use the libraries for summer reading and other programs.

Still, residents of Ledyard and Groton continue to confuse the two.

"Many think we're a chain, but we're really not," Connal said.

n.intern@theday.com

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