Pabst Mansion

What Three Dozen Books Can Tell Us

February 6, 2018

By John Eastberg

What would three dozen of my books say about me and my interests? Likewise, what would three dozen of your books say about you? This thought came to me last week when the Pabst Mansion took delivery of books that had once been the property of Ida Uihlein Pabst and several of her children.

A portion of her library found its way to the Renaissance Book Store in downtown Milwaukee. In 2011, Renaissance permanently closed the doors to their Plankinton Avenue location and due to the condition of the building, it was later condemned. Enter Kathryn Thoman, sales and marketing manager of the Kenosha-based deconstruction firm Recyclean. Along with the demolition of the building, Thoman and her crew had to sort through the hundreds of thousands of books still housed in the building before they could even deal with the structure.

Kathryn Thoman with the Ida Pabst book collection at the Pabst Mansion

Amongst all of the detritus of the former bookstore were three dozen books that had remained together and had once sat in the library of the home of Ida and Fred Pabst. The collection tells us of Ida’s love of French history and literature—it was her lifelong aspirational language, one that she continued to hone for many of her nine decades. Others are the school books and primers that belonged to several of her seven children. Still others were gifts from family and friends, including a sentimental book of philosophy given by Ida to her husband on their 30th wedding anniversary in 1926.

The fragility of history has always been an interesting theme for me, particularly how often things do not make it through the passing of time. That was certainly almost the case with Ida’s books. Kathryn Thoman, having found them, kept them safely together in a box she planned to pass along to the Pabst Mansion for its permanent collection. That box, which had been set carefully aside, was thrown into a dumpster with thousands of books and papers deemed too far gone to save. When she went back to retrieve the box, she was told that it had been thrown out. Kathryn’s deep sense of keeping this thread of history alive motivated her to go in and spend the time retrieving the books, insuring that they would indeed make it to their appointed destination.

Last Thursday, Kathryn brought the books to the Pabst Mansion and we went through the collection together. There was Ida’s familiar handwriting on the flyleaves of many of the books noting the name to whom the book belonged, the date and the location. Some included notes that she made, others belonging to the children included the familiar doodles that children do when they are in school—each book telling a short story of the person that had once held it.

The signature of Ida Pabst written in one of the donated books

The gift from Kathryn and her crew at Recyclean was kindly covered by the Milwaukee press and the story of the saving of Ida’s books had definitely touched a cord, as we have received numerous notes of congratulations from the Pabst Mansion’s friends and supporters. With so many things, an act of kindness begets another act of kindness. Shortly after the news broke of the gift of Ida’s books, we received an e-mail from Bill Breihan. Bill had purchased a copy of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew at the Renaissance Book Store about ten years ago and it too, had Ida’s blind stamp on the inside page. Bill saw the story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and wanted his book to join its old friends. This is how our collections have been built, by those wanting to get involved and helping us to preserve the Pabst and its legacy.  We are so grateful to those supporters in the past, in our present and for those that are yet to come!