Lying along the left bank of the St Croix River, just across from Minnesota, the population of the small city of Hudson has nearly doubled in the past two decades — now population 14,000 — from its beginnings as a tiny settlement in the mid-19th century. I suspect much of this recent growth is spillover from the Twin Cities, which straddle the Mississippi, about 20 miles due west. It’s now even considered part of the Minneapolis-St Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area for demographics and census data.
For decades aspects of the lumber industry supported its citizens, from logging, to mills, to transport. Most of its present-day commerce is tourism, supporting both domestic and commercial travel as a stop-over along Interstate-94, and as a Twin Cities “bedroom community.”
Hudson was originally called Willow River, when it was first settled in 1840. In 1852, after a previous re-naming, the city’s first mayor Alfred D. Gray successfully petitioned to change the name to “Hudson”, as the bluffs along the river reminded him of the Hudson River in his native New York.
With the city’s long history of remoteness and small population, rare indeed is the modern individual who can name a single notable person from Hudson, let alone a famous one. There is one name that more than a few recognize, but the tally is not abundant. He could be famous; he should be famous. Perhaps, some day, he will be famous. His name is Todd Bol.
Born near St Paul, Bol mostly grew up in Stillwater, Minnesota, graduating high school there. Stillwater is also very small, just a handful of miles upstream from Hudson, but on the river’s right bank.
After high school Bol then earned two bachelor’s degrees consecutively, in sociology and psychology, at a state university some 25 miles southeast of Stillwater, across the St Croix, in Riverside.
After university, his professional career originally followed that of his mother— a longtime teacher and bibliophile. He taught school in some small, even far-flung, hamlets in eastern Minnesota. Todd Bol also seized upon his mother’s passion for books and reading.
Eventually Bol left teaching and became a serial entrepreneur. He founded or help found companies, then moving on to others. He got involved in health care and nursing. One Bol company trained nurses in advanced care, and another, a foundation, provided scholarships for advanced nursing candidates.
Free now to change his domestic setting, Bol settled in relaxed Hudson, across the St Croix. He had left Minnesota, this time for good, as things turned out.
The 2008-9 financial crisis took a toll on Bol, now in his 50s. He found himself unemployed and with no nearby prospects befitting a person of his creativity and energy. Moping around, his wife suggested he take up some hobbies, starting with Do-it-Yourself home improvement projects. “And you can start by replacing the old garage door.”
Mission accomplished; Bol’s attention turned to the pile of old wood that used to be the door. Much was recoverable, still usable, and in fine condition. Bol could not bring himself to throw it all out.
What to do with that scrap wood?
His entrepreneurial mind struck upon a way to connect himself to his mother, and to honor her, via this old wood. He conceived and constructed a miniature one-room red schoolhouse, complete with belfry, a few feet wide and tall — built from that scrap wood. And about a foot in depth, front to back. It had glass in its front doors so that one could peer through to see its contents. He mounted it to a post, which he then planted securely in the earth — in his front yard — accessible from the street.
What could be seen through those glass- paned doors?
Books! Todd Bol filled the miniature schoolhouse with books. It was the first Little Free Library (sometimes called Little Neighborhood Library), or LFL.
Within a few years the idea spread wildly. Cute little miniature buildings with books popped up in neighborhoods, parks, resorts, squares. Want a book? Take a book. Got a book? Leave a book.
The idea caught on and, well you probably know the rest of the story, if not the details. Here are a few. Rewinding a bit, soon after that first LFL, Bol met Rick Brooks, who worked at the state’s flagship University as an outreach program manager. Excited by the Bol’s idea, they teamed up to promote community development via LPLs. It became their passion; a project inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s library endowment [synopsis here], which funded construction of nearly 1,700 libraries in small to mid-sized towns across the country. [some say 2,500].
They soon blew past that number. There are now well over 100,000 LFLs in the world. Well, at least that many registered with the Little Free Library Organization, a non-profit that sprang up to support LPL growth and “builders.” There might be more. They have an app to help desperate bookless readers locate LPLs (but seems most effective in the US), as long as the LPL builder/owner registers with the organization.
[Yes, Jonas, there’s even one in Erding, Germany — where they are called “Mini-Bibs” (German for library is Bibliothek). https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/latest-links/little-free-libraries-popular-germany/ ]
LFLs are in all 50 states, 108 (and counting) countries. There is one at the south pole, and another in Siberia. Bol’s realized dream spans the globe, east to west and south to north.
LFLs were an advantageous societal feature during the Covid lockdowns, as libraries across the country closed indefinitely. Local residents put non-perishable food in many LFLs; others, hurt by the hard times, took the nourishment.
Hard to believe then, but not surprising (this is America, after all) that LFLs became contentious in many locales. The world is full of Gladys Kravitz-types — nosy busybodies, nannies, and nitpickers. Every neighborhood seems to have at least one. After all: LFLs violated all kinds of local codes, ordinances and HOA bylaws. Then sprang up those who would ban books, from the Left and the Right. Some even feared the effects of competition with brick-and-mortar libraries.  (Sigh.)
This was one reason for the existence of LittleFreeLibrary.org: provide advice on how to deal with busybodies and HOAs, and legal advice on how to fight city hall … and win.
Sadly, Bol was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018. He passed quickly, age 62 [Twin Cities Star Tribune Obit], leaving the world with a great gift, a legacy, and an awesome tribute to his mom.
Joe Girard © 2022
Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
 A partial list of books banned in America, in various school districts, library districts and municipalities.
- Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Fifty Shades
- Harry Potter (esp. Sorcerer’s Stone)
- Fahrenheit 451 (how ironic is that?)
- Brave New World
- Lord of the Flies
- Animal Farm
10 thoughts on “Part 1: It Happened First In”
I read this essay on the anniversary of the moon landing. Humans do create marvelous marvelous things, big and little, that inspire all ages for who knows how many years
Thanks Marcy. I thought of you while writing this, but I’m not blaming you for any typos — just for some inspiration. And — I forgot about the Apollo 11 anniversary. Thanks. I’m sure there were some heroes from small-town America who contributed to that amazing success.
Hi Joe. I’ve seen many of these Little Libraries and just get a warm feeling every time I see one – interesting to learn how they got started. I also learned new terms “right and left bank” … had to look those up … and got a reminder that communication even on simple things is often not simple. Thanks for the insight!
I loved your essay and love the LFL’s found all over. There is one in Dust’s neighborhood in Tampa Florida that I use when visiting there!
Thankfully, several of those banned books are still required reading in at least the AP English classes in the high schools here in Florida. We’ve got a couple of LFLs near us. Great idea and great community service! Thank you for this article!
Hi and thanks Sandra. I don’t recognize your name or email. Thanks for commenting. Yes, thankfully many if these books are still read, even in high school.
Hi Joe. Enjoyed the essays on Flag Day and the Little Free Libraries, which I guess could be considered a sort of replacement for the old Bookmobiles that we had back in Milwaukee. Those were fun, parked at the end of our street down by Algonquin Park. We’ve been to Waubeka for a big community picnic, free food, big parade and stuff, but I think it was for Fire Prevention Week. Pretty cool little community that takes pride in itself and Flag Day. A photographer I worked with in Sheboygan hails from Waubeka. Good to be known for something!
Hi, Bob – and Joe! I’ve also seen these little lending libraries, reminiscent of our bookmobile days when I was in grade school. Those were exciting days, waiting your turn to climb the steps into a magical world on wheels. Thank you, Joe, for an interesting article about the start of the current little libraries and the man who thought a little thing with big ramifications!
Hi, thanks Diane, and thanks for reading. Be well.
Mr. Girard….I used to service Waubeka 20 years ago when I worked for a wine and liquor company as a salesman. Was a quiet little town. Couple bars and a lot oof grass and open fields. I know u just wanted to talk about Wisconsin again- since miss us so ooooh much! LOL!
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