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.
In Fort Dodge, the library movement started well before
Carnegie’s own efforts, albeit on a more modest basis. In actuality,
2015 marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of the earliest efforts to bring a library to what was then a fledgling frontier town.
In 1855, 35 local residents created the Fort Dodge Literary Society, considered the forerunner of the library in this community. The society made a limited number of books available for members to borrow. Even so, they were happy to have this small resource at their disposal, although not all could enjoy it, as it was a subscription service, and few could afford such a luxury.
By the 1860s, interest in the Literary Society was declining. Not only could few afford it, but also when people were building a town from scratch on the prairie, they likely had little time for leisure reading. Still, some in the community wanted nothing more than to expand the reading horizons of their fellow citizens.
Perhaps no one had a greater ambition for this goal than Witter H. Johnston, often referred to in historical documents as W.H. Johnston, and sometimes “Captain” Johnston. Not only was Johnston crucial to the creation of Fort Dodge’s first library, but he also played a role statewide and was a founder and president of the Iowa Library Association.
As local support grew again for library services, the Fort Dodge Library Association was created in 1874. Again, it was a subscription service, comprised of 63 men and 27 women.
The list of subscribors reads like a Who’s Who in Fort Dodge history, including such noteables as John F. Duncombe, Webb Vincent and Mrs. Webb Vincent, Mrs. Charles Smeltzer and Mrs. G.S. Ringland.
Johnston, a subscriber and deputy clerk of the federal court, offered part of his office for the young library. The Association purchased nothing more than a bookcase and a book in which to record book lendings. The number of volumes available slowly grew and, in the Association’s second year, the entire book budget was spent on the purchase of the then-popular “Appleton’s Cyclopedia.”
Perhaps the greatest difference between this early library in Johnston’s office and the library that Fort Dodge now enjoys is not the number of books or even the technology of the day, but how it was used. The library was not so much a place to come and sit and read but a place to borrow a book and take it home.
It was a solitary place, whereas today’s library is a social hub. Imagine a library with no place to sit and read for an hour on a rainy afternoon.
Johnston, for one, clearly understood how a library could be so much more. In 1884, a city-wide election authorized the city council to establish a free public library in the community. In 1888, Johnston penned the following in his library report:
“I may be a little partial and overzealous, but I cannot see how anyone who takes any interest in the moral and intellectual improvements of our city can fail to take an interest in or manifest his hearty cooperation with, and sympathy for, an institution so surely calculated to minister to the pleasure, benefit and improvement to all.”
Making it happen would take a few more years. In 1899, Mrs. Martha G. Haskell offered a gift of $10,000 for a library building fund, but that offer was not to be. Instead, community leaders decided to pursue a Carnegie grant that would provide even more funding. Haskell agreed to the idea and instead made her contribution to a scholarship fund at Grinnell College.
The eventual Carnegie grant of $30,000 was combined with local monies to fund the construction of the Carnegie library that served the community for a nearly century on the corner of Sixth Street and First Avenue North.
Built in the style of so many Carnegie libraries across the country, its front façade paid tribute to both Carnegie and the people of Fort Dodge with its large “C” engraved at the top of the entrance and the words “A Gift from Andrew Carnegie and Citizens of Fort Dodge” below it.
Rita Schmidt, acting director of the Fort Dodge Public Library today, spent many years working in that building.
“I do miss some of the architectural details that are common in a Carnegie building,” she says. “The woodwork, and those kinds of things, were really beautiful. And I do occasionally miss that you could open the windows.”
The building was also known for its art. Two of the most memorable portraits honored people who had great roles in the library’s early years.
Miss Maria Welles was the subject of one of the portraits. Welles is listed as one of the original subscribers to the library in 1874 and served as its first secretary. By 1903, with the opening of the Carnegie building, she had become a member of the Board of Trustees.
Welles and Mrs. C.C. Carpenter were the only women on the board, at a time when women did not yet have the right to vote in national elections. She would continue to serve for many years and was later elected vice president of the board.
Welles passed away in March 1924 but was not to be forgotten. The Wahkonsa Club, a literary organization of the day, purchased the portrait to honor Welles as one of its own founding members and presented it as a gift to the Fort Dodge Public Library. For decades, Welles’ graceful image was displayed in the reading room of the Carnegie building.
The other portrait, as could be expected, featured W.H. Johnston, who many consider to be the father of the library movement in Fort Dodge.
The life-size portrait of Johnston was commisioned by the library board of trustees following Johnston’s death in 1911. Library officials held an official unveiling of the portrait by Wilbur Reaser on Nov. 12, 1912. Along with Welles’ image, it was displayed in the Carnegie reading room.
Schmidt worked in the shadows of these very large portraits for many years and reassures those who remember the paintings well that they are safely stored away.
“We still have the pictures, but they are so large that they require the walls to be reinforced to hang them,” she explains.
While Schmidt has many fond memories of her years working in the Carnegie building, it can hardly compare to the service and improvements made with the opening of the new library on the City Square in 2001.
“We almost tripled our space,” she explains. “Everything is now on one floor,” whereas the old building was a challenge to many in the community, and some areas were completely inaccessible to anyone with a disability.
And while the old building had windows that opened, today’s library benefits from a heating and cooling system that is not only more efficient but also maintains a comfortable temperature year-round. And the vast of expanse windows still manage to bring the outdoors in.
“We have so much natural light coming in to the building,” Schmidt says.
True to its history of community support, the Friends of the Library echoes the work of the early literary societies.
“We are so grateful for the Friends of the Library,” says Schmidt. “They pay for all of our programming. Children’s programming, teen programs, adult programming — those are all paid for by the Friends.”
The Friends group also provides funding for various software and computer management programs that allow the library to better serve the public.
That small group of community leaders who came together 160 years ago could scarcely imagine that the library of today would connect Fort Dodge to the world as it does with super-fast Wi-Fi and data base access unheard of even when the “new building” opened in 2001.
What the future will bring is limited only by imagination and energy of people willing to make it happen.