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Woman-less library would’ve been a hit — with no one

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 11:40 a.m. CDT

It’s been a few years ago now, but I once got the most unusual letter from a reader of Common Sense from far, far away. And that letter is largely why I leave an open invitation for you to respond after each column.

The lady’s name was Margaret Ann Scheirman-Buckley. And she had quite the story to tell after she began pouring through old newspapers her neighbor had given her. The newspapers, used as insulation in a house that was being remodeled, were from the Minneapolis area.

Most were copies of long-defunct publications from the 1930s, which piqued her interest.

“As my husband and I were enjoying going through page after page, noting quaint advertisements and writing style, I suddenly noticed this funny news item from Le Mars,” she said. “It was entitled ‘Iowa Man Leaves $100,000 for Womanless Library.’”

The story was a short wire release with a dateline from Le Mars, telling the tale of the late Townsend M. Zink, a widely known attorney whose probate disposed of an estate valued at $100,000 — a fortune comparable to about $1.5 million today.

I was working as a reporter for the Daily Sentinel in Le Mars, where the story originated, at the time of Margaret’s discovery. So, I got the happy assignment of researching this fascinating, albeit unbelievable, story.

Zink was the ultimate He-Man-Woman-Hater’s Club member. To his wife, he left nothing, and to his daughter, he left just $5, according to accounts from the newspaper files.

The remainder of the money was to be placed into a trust and held for 75 years, when the trust fund would be liquidated to finance a “womanless library.”

No woman would be admitted, books by women authors would be forbidden from joining its collection and “no evidence of feminity will be seen or heard.”

Over the door, a sign would read “No Women Admitted.”

Zink’s will outlined that no woman would be allowed to take part in the construction of the library building. Moreover, magazine articles would be censored to remove all mention of women, and the building itself would be devoid of any influence that could be construed as feminity.

Despite his intolerance toward women, Zink displayed a great degree of tolerance in other areas — far more tolerant than most of the country at the time.

“All male person 15 or more, regardless of creed, color, race, politics or opinion, shall have free access to the library,” the will stated. It also stated that the library must be free of property taxes.

Few people knew about Zink’s hatred for women until his probate became public. And, it was after that unveiling that the story really got interesting. As occasionally happens in these cases, both wife and daughter squabbled over the will, contesting it on the grounds of insanity.

Le Mars was suddenly thrust into the international limelight. The world’s biggest and most influential newspapers, including those in Australia, Asia, Europe and Russia, plastered their front pages with stories about Zink and his womanless library.

Reuters telegraphed Le Mars for a copy of the late attorney’s photo to go with its wire story. The Le Mars Globe-Post, one of three papers that competed with the Daily Sentinel back in the day, put the added notoriety for its community in this perspective:

“The publicity already given to Le Mars would have cost millions of dollars at regular advertising rates. And space on the front page cannot be bought at any price. Long before the library can be built tourists will drive far out of their way to see the town where lived a womanhater.”

Dr. George Donahue, superintendent of the State Mental Hospital in Cherokee during the 1920s, often relied on Zink’s legal services. Over the years, he was able to diagnose the mental illness that afflicted the attorney in his later years.

You didn’t need much more evidence than that to prove to a court Zink was insane. There were other issues that played into the judge’s decision to break the will, though.

First, the estate that was estimated to create a $3 million endowment for the womanless library was quickly going bankrupt. The Great Depression had finally reached the Midwest and was shrinking the value of Zink’s assets.

His $75,000 estate was being turned into little more than $25,000 in short order. And once the dust settled, there was less than $10,000 of the original estate remaining.

Zink’s daughter remained a Le Mars resident for many years before moving to Texas. His widow was still left with nothing. If she chose to continue living in their home, she would have to pay $40 a month in rent to the estate.

If you ever had to wonder how far hatred can drive one off the deep end, you need not look past this story.

If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

Bob Eschliman is editor of the Daily News. He may be reached at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at beschliman@newtondailynews.com. Common Sense appears each Monday and Wednesday.

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