John Cotton Dana


A Brief Sketch...

b. August 19, 1856- d.  July 21, 1929

“It is important to dwell thus upon Mr. Dana’s ancestors because he was himself so aware of them, feeling that he was bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.” He kept extensive genealogy files.

“With a greater wisdom Mr. Dana recognized that a man is defined to some degree by his inheritance, and that the pattern of his responsibility is fixed by it. He did not boast of his ancestors. He tried to live up to them.”  He was directly descended from John Cotton, the Cambridge-educated Congregational theologian and leader of the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony.

His ancestral characteristics: “He had the strong individuality of the Cottons, the creative energy of the Danas, the civic loyalty of the Loomises, the quiet humor of the Swans and the integrity of the Cushings.”

Charles Dana came to Woodstock in 1802 to open a dry goods store. Charles married Mary Gay Swan in 1808. They had 8 children (the third, Charles was John’s father). His father was described as having a “rare literary faculty” and who “would make a more successful merchant if he did not sit up so late with his books.” Charles married Charitie Loomis in 1848.

John was one of six siblings: Charles, Harold, John Cotton, Joseph L., Edward, and Mary Loomis (she died quite young).

Parents were devout and they went to church every Sunday. Father “beloved and dignified”. His mother “to whom cleanliness was so near to godliness that sometimes the partition was too thin to notice.”

“Years afterward he recalled how once in his childhood he was just starting off on a boyish game when he heard the undeniable voice: ‘You haven’t finished the yard yet. Over by the store are several scraps of paper! You haven’t raked the grass near the steps- it’s full of dead leaves. You must rake the yard over, every bit of it!’”

“He grew up among good books but there was no place in his home for reading that ventured into fields untrodden by the polite accepted authors.”

“The Vermonter is as he is, and the only emotion in him that matches his independent pride is his fine scorn of those who think that because they live more easily they therefore live more wisely. He will match wits with anyone who has an egg or a horse or an idea to swap, but to all who come with any kind of missionary zeal to make him other than he is, he presents a resistant silence that approximates the tenacious glory of his granite hills.”

“Besides the wider horizons opened by books there were those revealed by his father’s store… he learned to call people by name and to anticipate their familiar purchases. He could tell a horse at a glance and guess its weight within a few pounds. The characteristic phrases of the twanging speech of all his neighbors were as much a part of his normal world as the haze over the hill.”

“In addition to these neighborly folks the store drew to itself consignments of goods from the ends of the earth… Every packing box was an emissary and a mystery coming from far places to quicken a boy’s imagination and stir his curiousity.”

“When they were emptied they became raw materials for amateur carpenters. Planing the long pine boards of which the boxes were made, John learned the pleasure of skill with a tool.”

Had chores as a boy (yard and barn) including handling a horse, feeding of a pig, fetching home the cows and milking them. There was a garden to plant, hoe and weed. Winter wood needed sawing and the shed filled.

The Dana boys would build rafts from the packing boxes. They swam in the river. The sheets of lead from the tea chests supplied sinkers for the fishing lines. They played marbles.

John looked up to Charley Perry (drove teams and loaded the wagons/sleds for the store). Another friend was Jim Hazard (colored man who split their wood, was an excellent bowman, and could spin a tale of California).

He had a little brown notebook containing the records of boyish clubs including the Otta-Queechee Base Ball Club.

One of his happiest pastimes as a boy was the making of arrows out of shingles. “These arrows would be shot by a loop at the end of a piece of elastic, which itself was tied to the end of a stick. I tell you it was grand sport."

The Acorn- first issue in May 1, 1872 and ran until November 1873. Amateur paper, entirely edited and printed by boys of about sixteen years, was published monthly. John C. Dana, William N. Campbell, Harold S. Dana, Edward G. Bailey printed the first year.

Left to Dartmouth College in the autumn of 1874. Studied for the bar back in Woodstock.

At the age of 25, he took off for the American West after having been diagnosed with tuberculosis.  John spent 8 “restless” years seeking his true purpose in life.

He was a land surveyor for a while in Colorado. He was part of a team who discovered the ruins of the Mesa River cliff dwellers in 1881.

He returned to the East Coast where he was admitted to the bar in New York in 1883, and then made his way back west to Minnesota (where he edited a newspaper as well as practicing law) and then to Colorado again to work in real estate for the railroad, surveying and preaching.

He met and married Adine Waggener in 1888.

In 1889, at the age of 33, John found his calling. He had complained to the trustees of the Denver Public Library about how closed and uninviting the library was, and they decided to give him the job of fixing it. He was hired as the library director.

Over the next nine years, Dana started his public library revolution. Acting on his belief that all books should be accessible to the public, he was one of the first librarians to open the book stacks to the public. He made it easier for all citizens to get library cards. And, convinced that children should be welcomed not excluded, he created the nation’s first children’s room in a library.

He became the president of the American Library Association in 1895-96.  In 1897, the Springfield, Massachusetts City Library hired him as Library Director. It was said that he brought to that city “the breezy ideas of the west, which he combined with the traditional practicality of New England. In 1902, he became the Director of The Newark Public Library until his death in 1929.  In 1909, he helped found the Special Libraries Association.

In 1903, he mounted an exhibition of American art in the Newark Public Library, and by 1905 he had created a science museum on one floor of the library.

Although he was a classicist, he staunchly insisted that not everyone ought to read the classics. He advised a father not to direct his son’s reading.

“With most boys this guiding will lead to some extent to the habit of being guided, which is, of course, not good for the boy.”

In Dana’s view, schooling contributed much less to the intellectual development of an individual than independent reading, guided by personal curiousity. Dana chided both schools and museums for telling people what they ought to appreciate.

“We are always in danger of being overtaught,” he wrote. “We are always in danger of submitting too much to authority.”

In addition to librarianship, Dana’s revolutionizing influence extends to museums. On his arrival, he converted the Library’s fourth floor to exhibit space. In seven years Mr. Dana staged over fifty exhibitions attracting a quarter million visitors.  To encourage recognition and enjoyment of beauty in commonplace things, he once exhibited well-designed pottery that he had procured from a five-and-ten-cent store, proudly announcing that not a single piece had cost more than twenty-five cents.

In 1923, Dana spearheaded a touring show on Chinese art, one of the first in the country.

Founded the Newark Museum Association in 1909. He abhorred the dismissive stance that many museums had adopted toward American art.  He acquired it enthusiastically and soon the collection outgrew the Library’s exhibit spaces. The Newark Museum opened its doors in 1926. Dana was intensely interested in American art, often providing a remarkable level of support to living artists. The Museum’s exhibit focusing on Max Weber was the first one staged by any U.S. museum of the work of a living American artist.

A social progressive, he hoped to liberate the public from fashion obsolescence, espousing an American aesthetic of machine-style objects produced from many country’s industrial prowess.

                “Beauty has no relation to age, rarity or price.”

He also decried social conventions that limited women’s freedom.

“Every woman should be trained for a job. Every woman who knows enough to do it should take advantage of every possible opportunity to promote the independence of women. No young woman should be expected to stay at home and take care of her parents with any greater degree of expentancy than is extended to the young men of the family.”

He fought a long hard fight within himself over the religious teachings of his youth, and not for years was he to feel free of spirit. In time he declared himself an agnostic.

It was his lifelong pleasure to handset type and work with wood at a carpenter’s bench.  He made tables and chairs. He designed and built model boxes for carrying objects from his institutions to the schools. He experimented with the construction of bookcases and made museum exhibit cases. Both in Newark and Woodstock he had a complete carpenter’s shop.

For two years he was a member of the Executive Committee of the Windsor County Fair and got so enthusiastically into the spirit of it that he boasted of it as “the best County Fair in New England.”

Every day, as he used to remark, he came to his library with pleasure and left it with regret.

Dana had pleasure in good conversation:

“ I decided years ago that while the most entrancing of all indulgences is reading, and while the most futile and in some respects most injurious of all forms of human intercourse is the lecture, the most improving and on the whole most enjoyable of all occupations is rational conversation between intelligent people.”

In 1929, John underwent surgery which resulted in a lingering infection. He collapsed the same year at Grand Central Station, NY and died at an area hospital. He was brought to Woodstock by Dr. Charles Dana and Marjorie Dana Barlow, his niece. A private funeral led by Rev. Harry C. Canfield was held at Bird Center, his house on Rose Hill. The Woodstock Inn String Orchestra played at the public funeral and at the River Street cemetery. His four surviving brothers were his pallbearers.

Six years after his death, over 1,000 citizens gathered at the Museum to observe “John Cotton Dana Day”

 Mr. Gerald Rafferty speaks of John Cotton Dana at the 1935 John Cotton Dana Day celebration:

“He hurled no ultimatum at the state, nor led a revolution out to cry an empty creed against the empty sky. Nor ever did he play upon the hate of poor for rich, of ignorant for great. And since his slow revolt was fine and high, for him no banner dipped along the sky. No cannons roar, and no millions venerate. His deed was no sudden blaring thing. It was a life work, patient, unacclaimed. And now before the searching mind of youth, the serried Scot thinkers of the ages fling their gold. This man- made knowledge free, unchained. He loosed the slow, invading tide of truth.”

His name lives on in the John Cotton Dana Public Relations Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. Rutgers-Newark named its new library for him, continuing the tradition because it started as Dana College. October 6 is John Cotton Dana Day.

A visitor to the Library some ten years after his death, hearing his name so often and realizing how his influence persisted, asked the question: “Doesn’t the ghost walk too much?”

On one of his journeys to Woodstock he had written these simple lines:

    I tire of this Eternal green-

    It drips from willows and

    It towers unashamed

    In Elm and Maple;

    It wearies

   Until at last beyond it and above it

   Blue hills beckon the eye

  And promise Rest.