A collection of books written and handled by one of Portage’s most famous historical figures has returned to the MacFarlane Road house in which she lived roughly a century ago.
Author Zona Gale (1874-1938) became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921. She also wrote a series of stories set in the fictional “Friendship Village,” based on Portage and its residents, which encompassed the theme that there should be no separation between rich and poor, said Portage native Paul Rux.
“It’s a beautiful symbol of Friendship Village, of how we need to care for each other — not in a sentimental sort of way but in kind of a form of friendship,” Rux said.
Now 75, Rux never had the chance to meet Gale. But because he lived by the ideals of which she wrote, he became the keeper of 13 books that Gale personally gifted to a woman who worked as a maid across the street from where Rux grew up.
Gale was married to William Breese, who was the richest man in Portage, Rux said. As part of the upper class, she and her husband would visit the home of Dan and Rose Grady, another upper-class family that lived on West Pleasant Street. Despite Gale’s elite connections — which Rux noted included progressive icon and former Wisconsin Gov. Robert M. La Follette — she’d spend time visiting with the Gradys’ maid, Elizabeth Seeman, giving Seeman copies of her books, three of which Gale inscribed with personalized messages.
“Zona wanted to make sure that the maid enjoyed what the rich people enjoyed,” Rux said. “It’s a symbol of her — well, what we used to call progressive politics.”
Years after Gale’s death, Rux would help out at the Gradys with odd jobs like shoveling snow and picking up groceries, because they didn’t have children. He became an assistant of sorts for Seeman.
She looked to Rux, then about 12 years old, when she moved out after Dan Grady died in the 1950s. She needed a place to leave her 13 Gale books.
“I think she sensed in me that I would care for those examples of the past,” Rux said, noting that she knew of his interest in history. “They’re not relics and they’re not tokens, but they are symbols.”
Seeman brought the books, once handed to her by Gale herself, to Rux.
“I think it’s divine order that here’s this little boy in school and Elizabeth’s looking at him and she says, ‘He’ll take care of Friendship Village,’” he said.
And he did. Rux has kept those books for more than 60 years, never loaning them out for fear of losing them. They have sat on a special shelf in his Mount Horeb home where he could see them whenever he wasn’t reading them.
He said he earned two degrees in history and became a university professor. For his master’s thesis, he wrote about Zona Gale and the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, of which she was a member. In her work, Rux found a truth: that he had “the best possible way of life back in Friendship Village,” in small-town Wisconsin.
Now in an elder care home in Verona, Rux said he wants to ensure the book collection is preserved and available to the public as a reminder about who Gale was and what she represented.
He chose the Portage Historical Society. Its museum on MacFarlane Road was once Gale’s house.
“She lived there, so it’s wall-to-wall Zona Gale, and if you’re going to put it anywhere, you should put it (there),” Rux said, adding that he’d like to see the books displayed under glass in her study, though the historical society will make the decision on where to put it.
Portage Historical Society President Vicki Vogts said the public will be able to see the books Saturday at the museum during the annual event celebrating Friendship Village.
“That’s huge,” Vogts said of Rux’s donation. “We have several of her books, but to have a signed copy, that’s very valuable, so it’s exciting for us.”