If one is looking to create a gift that truly keeps on giving, perhaps there is no better place to start than a public library.
Andrew Carnegie must have felt that way.
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” Carnegie is said to have voiced. “It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
After making his millions in the steel industry, Carnegie set out to give it all away before he died. He nearly succeeded, selling Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan for a reported $480 million, and then managing to give away some $350 million before his death in 1919.
“The man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” Carnegie is credited with saying.
His most lasting contribution is not as an industrialist — though he was certainly one of America’s greatest captains of industry — but as a philanthropist who awarded grants to help establish more than 2,500 libraries that still grace America from coast to coast.
Like its sisters across the nation, the Clear Lake Public Library stills proudly bears the reminder that it was a Carnegie grant that first made it possible. The Carnegie name stands as silent reminder over a grand window where the main door was originally located in the early 1900s.
But Carnegie was just one player in the long and rich history of the Clear Lake Public Library. In reality, it was local women who gave the community its first reading room in the late 1800s and innumerable community members over the decades who have helped it continue to grow and expand well beyond its early 20th century footprint.
Here in Clear Lake, it wasn’t a national philanthropist, but two local women with ties to the medical community who sought to bring the first library to Clear Lake.
“They wanted to keep the boys off the street,” notes H. Milton Duesenberg, a “student of local history” who helps oversee the history room at the library.
Ethel Charlton and Dr. Margaret Colby are credited as founders of the first Clear Lake Library. Charlton was married to Dr. J.B. Charlton, who practiced medicine with Dr. Colby, according to Anne Bagby, a member of the Clear Lake Historical Society.
“Dr. Colby was a medical doctor, and she had been over in the Algona area, had left her husband, went to medical school and never went back to the Algona area,” Bagby explains.
The women, joined by others in the community, wanted to give young men a place where they could develop their minds — a place that would help them grow to become contributing members of society.
Dr. Colby and Mrs. Charlton were joined by other women, members of a circle of The King’s Daughters — a nondenominational Christian organization dedicated to the development of the spiritual life and service to others — in the opening of the very first reading room library in 1889.
As noted in the Centennial History of the library, the group maintained that “much good work might be done among the boys and young men of Clear Lake by providing them with a pleasant and attractive room where they might enjoy themselves freely.”
The room was to be “furnished with wholesome reading material that would appeal to boyish tastes.”
The ladies suppositioned that “such a place would naturally come to be a refuge for many who spend too much time on the street.”
Now, if it seems that girls were being neglected in these early days, recall that in 1889, women weren’t “troubled” with such things as voting.
Fortunately, here in Clear Lake a second circle of King’s Daughters quickly found support for making a proposed reading room open to girls as well. This reading room would indeed be open to all.
The first library association meeting was held on Dec. 14, 1889, with “rental rates” for books set at five cents per week. However, boys were allowed to borrow their selections for free. Subscriptions were sold at the rate of 25 cents for three months or 50 cents for six months to library association members.
The association opened with a collection of about 200 books, 100 of them newly purchased and 100 more donated by area families.
For the next few years, the reading room would have a variety of locations. The first was in the back of the Clear Lake Bank. The ladies continued to support the growth of the library and its collections with fundraisers ranging from chicken suppers to teas in the home. Other early homes of the reading room would include the D.L. Sprague building and the YMCA.
It may have been a humble beginning, but it was a welcome addition to the growing community of Clear Lake.
As Duesenberg notes, the first actual library opened in 1903 as part of a combined municipal building downtown.
“The first building that was built as a library stood right where the back of the Clear Lake Bank and Trust is today,” he explains.
The versatile building included a fire station on the main floor and a library and city hall office on the upper story. While a vast improvement over its temporary homes, the library would actually have a rather short life here, as the Carnegie library movement was soon to sweep the nation and Clear Lake was not to be left out.
On March 31, 1916, word came to Clear Lake that the Carnegie Foundation would provide a grant of $8,500 on the condition that the local library association put up the $1,500 that it had already raised for a new building.
Seeking a central location, the Clear Lake Carnegie Library was to be built at the corner of Second Avenue North and North Fourth Street. At about the same time, a new Masonic Lodge was being built at the other end of the lot. In 1916, land for the new library was deeded to the city from the Masonic Temple for a sum of $2,000.
The new Carnegie Clear Lake Library, dedicated on June 17, 1918, would serve the community well for decades. The number of volumes would grow, the collection would change, and the library would continue to adapt with the community.
Joyce Kasper is a former employee of the library who still enjoys stopping by to check out the latest items in the library’s collection.
“I worked here for about seven years, off and on,” Kasper says. “I still like coming here a lot.”
Kasper praises the library as being a real community gathering place.
“The people are always friendly, and there’s such a great collection,” she says.
The last four decades have seen much of the library’s greatest growth, with Jean Casey as library director during 30 of those years, from 1984 through 2014.
Major renovations added much-needed space, the first completed in 1980 and the second in 2002. The transitions among the renovations is seamless and true to the architecture of the Carnegie library.
“People appreciated that we preserved the original building,” Casey says.
The first renovation occurred when the library expanded over a small section of land between it and the Masonic Temple. A larger renovation later followed when the Masonic Temple donated its building and property for another expansion.
Duesenberg credits the Masons with making sure history was part of the renovated facility.
“The reason there is a history room is that when the Masonic Lodge donated their lodge to the library, they stipulated that there would be a history room,” he explains.
While the interior of the lodge itself was gutted as part of the renovation, careful observers can still see its remnants popping up above the new section of the library.
“It you stand in the parking lot across the street you’ll see a darker color brick over the last section,” Duesenberg explains.
That darker brick high atop the building is the old Masonic Temple, a testament to craftsmanship for which the Masons are known.
In 2014, the library celebrated its quasquicentennial, marking 125 years since the inception of women seeking to create a reading room for the benefit of the community.
That original goal of “keeping the boys off the street” has long been forgotten, replaced with higher aspirations for serving the entire community. Today, the library serves as an educational resource, a place of social enjoyment. It is a window to the community’s past and has a toehold on its future.
And — what do you know — it’s still a nice place to get anyone “off the streets.” There is nothing more leisurely than taking refuge at the library on a snowy winter morning.
Tim and Kyla Gehm are frequent visitors to the Clear Lake Public Library, especially in the cold winter months.
“We like coming here often,” Tim says, as the couple searches the stacks for a new read.
“It’s a relaxing place,” Kyla adds. “It’s just a fun feeling coming here.”
Dr. Colby and Mrs. Charlton would surely be pleased.