Levi Countryman mustered out of the Army when the Civil War ended 150 years ago, returning to his wife, Alta, and their Dakota County farm between Nininger and Hastings.

When a daughter was born on Thanksgiving Day a year later, Levi leaned on his Latin scholarship at naming time. A book-smart homesteader, he’d taught school in Indiana and graduated in 1861 from Hamline University, then based in Red Wing.

So the little girl bundled in a blanket took the name Gratia Alta Countryman — pronounced GRAY-sha, Latin for “high thanks.”

For anyone who’s ever checked out a book in or around Minneapolis, “high thanks” proved to be a fitting name.

In 1904, Gratia Countryman became the nation’s first female head librarian at a big-city library. By the time she retired 32 years later from the Minneapolis Public Library, she’d revolutionized and expanded the book borrowing business. With a populist zeal, she transformed the library from a stuffy research center for the elite into a place where common folks could escape their troubles in quiet sanctuaries full of books.

“If a library is to perform its functions of elevating the people, it will need to adopt methods other than buying a fine collection of books and housing them in an attractive building and then waiting in a dignified way for people to come,” she wrote in 1905.

“This is not the century when Abraham Lincolns walk 12 miles for a book,” she said. “The scholarly and studious will come as surely as the needle turns to the north, but the others will wait until the library comes to them.”

She created reading rooms and deposit stations around the city, opening 13 branch libraries but also putting books at front counters of drugstores, in prisons, hospitals and factories.

The Cream of Wheat plant and Twin City Telephone Co., staffed mainly by women, received new books for workers with little time to visit libraries. Firehouses were given books for firefighters to digest between runs.

Countryman is credited with opening the country’s first children’s reading room at the downtown Minneapolis library. She also reached out to the immigrants pouring into the city. By 1914, books in 20 different languages filled the shelves and branches offered counseling for newcomers seeking citizenship.

In a ramshackle section of downtown known as Bridge Square, Countryman brought books and a new reading room for the homeless drifters flopping in cheap motels and boardinghouses.

“They have no homes,” she said. “They have not even the privilege of a chair in many of the lodging houses; where shall they go in the daytime?”

A champion for social justice, Countryman was also a victim of gender pay inequity. When she became the city’s third head librarian, she was paid $2,000. The man she replaced earned $3,000. The board also decided against filling her old assistant librarian job — so her workload doubled for one-third less pay.

The official Bookmobile wouldn’t begin service until 1939 after she retired, but back in 1922 Countryman was trucking books out to farm houses across Hennepin County. She climbed in the first so-called book wagon and drove the truck with 200 books to Excelsior. It was believed to be the first literary outreach of its kind in the state, and Countryman was just getting started.

She selected 115 spots in Hennepin County “where they have small community shelves” and offered to fill farmhouse dwellers’ custom orders on subsequent trips “if they will tell us what they want.”

Painting her tenure with numbers illustrates the transformation Countryman engineered. When she took over in 1904, there were 13,000 borrowers. When she retired at age 70, Minneapolis libraries boasted 186,000 patrons.

Thirteen of the 14 pre-1960 library branches opened on her watch. The book collection swelled by 500,000 volumes. The budget quadrupled. The staff swelled from 43 people to 250. And the number of reading rooms and deposit sites at workplaces, hospitals, prisons and drugstores climbed from 14 to 350.

“It was Gratia Countryman, with her strong commitment to making the public library a vital part of the community, who expanded library services until they touched nearly all aspects of life in the city,” said Nancy Freeman Rohde, a library science professor and one of Countryman’s biographers.

Away from the library, her life included some heartache and surprise joy. As a University of Minnesota student in the late-1880s, she met and fell in love with Horace Winchell — a renowned geologist. When he married another woman, she was crestfallen and would never marry.

When Winchell died in 1923, Countryman wrote to a friend, “When he was another woman’s husband, I tried not to think of him. Now that he is dead, he is mine.”

At 50, she adopted an 8-year-old named Wellington Wilson whose mother dropped him at the library while she worked the streets as a prostitute.

At a custody hearing, he told a judge he wanted to join Countryman’s household at 4721 Girard Av. S. For years, she lived with her best friend, Marie Todd, a children’s librarian.

“You should see my small boy now,” she wrote in 1919. “He is growing very fast, and is very established in my home. Miss Todd and I would not know what to do without him.”

During summertime, the two librarians and the adopted son would head to Lake Mille Lacs and a cabin that she christened Wetoco, short for Wellington, Todd and Countryman. Wellington, in turn, named his daughter — and Gratia’s granddaughter — Alta, after the librarian he credited with saving his life. They would join her at the lake place nearly every summer before Countryman died in 1953 at 87.


Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com