Thursday, December 19, 2019

Robber Baron Gives Laramie’s Library a Home

Carnegie Building in Laramie, home of the Albany County Public Library for 75 years. American Heritage Center, U. Wyoming; date unknown (but note the style of the women's clothing).
[This is my December contribution to the Laramie Boomerang’s “Living History” column. It's not about botany or geology, but something equally important: public libraries. Laramie's first library building was a gift from the man who did so much to establish public libraries in the US—Andrew Carnegie, robber baron turned philanthropist. It served as a library for 75 years, and there still are many residents who remember it fondly. Is there a Carnegie Library in your life?]

On January 22, 1906, some 150 Laramie citizens left winter outside and climbed a flight of heavy oak stairs to the second floor of the new building at the corner of Fourth and Grand. In the warm well-lit lecture room, they listened as civic leaders spoke proudly, eloquently and at length about the Albany County Public Library, now housed in its own building—a gift of one of the wealthiest men in the world, Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie was born in 1835 in Scotland, son of a successful weaver. But when mechanization made his father’s skills obsolete, the family fell into abject poverty. In 1848 they immigrated to Pittsburgh, where Andrew and his father both found jobs in a cotton factory. In just twenty years, Andrew rose from “bobbin boy” at $1.20/week to steel magnate worth $400,000. He went on to become one of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age—men who made millions by monopolizing rapidly-growing industries.

In 1901, he sold his business for $480 million to banker JP Morgan, who declared Carnegie to be “the richest man in the world.” Carnegie then turned to what he considered a duty of the wealthy—philanthropy on a grand scale. By the time of his death in 1919, he had donated 90% of his fortune.
“Andrew Carnegie in Colors” from Life magazine, April 13, 1905. A month later Life wrote: “no American has ever before given away money for philanthropic purposes on the scale that Mr. Carnegie is doing.” Hathitrust.
Carnegie had no interest in charity, instead supporting projects that helped people help themselves. At the top of his list of worthy causes were universities and libraries—specifically free public libraries, perhaps due to his own experience. As a poor kid in Pittsburg, he couldn’t use the city library because, like so many, it charged membership and lending fees.

During his lifetime, Carnegie contributed to 2500 public libraries in the U.S. and abroad. Most were in smaller communities where they had more impact. He donated specifically for buildings, but only if the library were free to the public, and the community guaranteed annual support and a site free of debt.
In 1902, U.W. Professor Aven Nelson and Albany Co. National Bank Cashier Eli Crumrine discovered they had the same terrific idea—ask Andrew Carnegie to pay for a building for Laramie’s library. For 30+ years it had moved among various private and commercial locations, none of them satisfactory. Carnegie recently had given $50,000 to Cheyenne for a library building, surely he would do the same for Laramie!

They prepared a five-page letter, dated May 2, 1902: “Honored Sir: Your well known desire to help your fellow men by planting libraries here and there throughout the world has reached to the outmost parts of the earth …” [after lengthy accolades they got to the point] “… we earnestly appeal to you for the creation in this city of a $50,000 library building.”

They provided evidence justifying their request. “Laramie is now a city of more than 8,000 people” with all indications of permanency: excellent water and sewerage systems, and a modern fire department. “It is the education center of the state,” site of Wyoming’s only university. As “the center of influence for a large rural population” it benefits twice as many people as in the city itself. The City already has a free public library; in fact, Laramie’s “collection of books is second to none in the state” but is kept in “cramped, unsuitable and uninviting quarters.”

The letter ended with a plea: “Hoping that you may find time to look into the merits of our petition and that we shall soon have the pleasure of receiving from you a communication looking toward the ultimate fulfillment of our earnest desires” [italics added]. But they were overly optimistic.

Months went by. In October they wrote James Bertram, head of Carnegie’s library program. “We are very anxious to know whether the matter has yet been called to the attention of Mr. Carnegie. Thanking you for an early reply …” Still they waited.

The decision arrived January 2, 1903. Bertram’s letter was short. If the community would “maintain a Free Public Library at a cost of not less than Two Thousand Dollars a year and provide a suitable site, Mr. Carnegie will be glad to furnish Twenty Thousand Dollars to erect a Free Public Library for Laramie.”

More than a little disappointed, Nelson and Crumrine fired off another letter: “Deeply grateful for the worthy beneficence you accord to our city, we yet venture to beg … you to do still more generously by us.” They dropped their request from $50,000 to $40,000, but not before mentioning Carnegie’s more generous gift to Cheyenne.

Bertram wrote back explaining that new rules required communities to provide annual funding at a rate of 10% of the gift. Laramie had promised $2000 annually, therefore they would receive $20,000 for the building. This still was a generous offer (about $600,000 today), and one they couldn’t refuse.

On February 26, 1903, citizens filled the County Courthouse, eager to learn if there would be a Carnegie Library in Laramie. A resolution to accept Carnegie’s offer of $20,000 was presented. The County would need to raise $2000 annually for support, requiring a tax increase of about 50¢ on each $1000. This didn’t dampen the obvious enthusiasm in the room.

W.H. Holliday, representing Laramie businessmen, endorsed the resolution, as did University President Smiley, who hoped the library and possibly a game room would “counteract the bad influences of some other places upon the students.” Mrs. [Mary] Bellamy stated that the Woman’s Club favored accepting Carnegie’s offer, and added that girls “read two thirds more than boys and the library would be of more benefit to them.”

A vote was called. After the resolution passed almost unanimously, the County Commissioners appointed a Library Building Commission composed of Crumrine, Nelson, and W.H. Holliday. It was agreed that the City would purchase a site to donate to the County, preferably near the courthouse so that if interest in the library waned, Carnegie’s building could be used as a jail.

The City purchased a lot at Fourth and Grand from “Grandma Black” who owned a rooming house there. At $2500, it was a bargain. After the property was duly transferred to the County, Aven Nelson drew and circulated a sketch of the desired building. New York architect Henry D. Whitfield’s plan was chosen. He said it could be built for less than $20,000, even at New York prices, which were 25% higher than in Laramie. Thus assured, the Building Commission put the project out for bid.

On August 11, 1903, a Boomerang headline announced the bad news: “Lowest Bids Amount to Far More Than Sum Donated.” In fact, total cost would exceed Carnegie’s gift by $10,000! The Building Commissioners contacted Whitfield, who sent a revised plan. Bids were again solicited.

Two months later, the Boomerang had good news: “Something definite has been accomplished at last, in regard to the building of the Carnegie library—the contract has been let.” The three bids were remarkably close, ranging from $18,250 to $18,770 total. Also remarkably, the lowest bid was submitted by W.H. Holliday, President of the Building Commission. He got the contract.

Construction was completed two years later at a cost of $20,077 (Crumrine paid the $77 overage). Furnishings were not included, so a “Library Fair” was held featuring a play, baby show, supper with an “overwhelming menu” for 25¢, and a formal ball following a grand march led by “King” Edward Ivinson. Well-attended, the event raised $825.20.
On January 24, 1906, the front page of the Boomerang was devoted to the Carnegie Library dedication ceremony two days earlier. “The spacious auditorium was crowded to its limit with the representatives of the intelligent citizens of Laramie. The addresses of the different able speakers were received with great pleasure, not only for their oratorical value, but for the multitude of good common sense statements …”

The ceremony began with a “musical treat” by Graeppe’s orchestra, followed by “a very eloquent and heartfelt prayer” by Reverend R.A. Lansdell. The main address—History of the Carnegie Library Building—was delivered by Aven Nelson. Several prominent citizens then spoke more briefly.

The popular song “Daddy” was artistically rendered by the well-known (in Laramie) singer Mrs. Trumbull, ably accompanied by Miss Laura Lee. The Boomerang reported that “her beautiful contralto voice was never before heard to a greater advantage … clear and sweet and what made it more pleasing was her perfect enunciation.” But she refused the call for an encore.

Bishop Keane then spoke, stressing that citizens “should never give a poor book or indifferent book to the library.” That way the quality of the holdings would be maintained. But the bishop was not without wit. “All good works were done on the heights,” he said, “and Laramie is high.”

After an original poem read by Judge Groesbeck and a few remarks from the audience, W.H. Holliday presented the library keys to County Commissioner Nellis Corthell, who, after accepting them, said the library did not need keys. So Mr. Holliday received them back.

Most Carnegie libraries were successful, and often outgrew their buildings. Some were expanded, but many were torn down or repurposed. The Albany County Public Library moved to its current location at 310 S. 8th St. in 1981. Fortunately the Carnegie Building was not demolished, nor did it become a jail as some had contemplated in 1903. It now houses City offices. But the spirit of the old library still resides in the entryway, in the form of an exhibit about Carnegie and his contribution to our community. The original “bronze medallion of our benefactor” looks down from a wall near the reception desk.

Andrew Carnegie; source.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Tree-following: Thinking Ahead

I’m finishing this year’s tree-following by making plans for next year. Which tree should I follow? The Number One Candidate right now is a tree I spotted in October during my monthly visit to 2019's hawthorns. It grows near the west end of the Art Building.
It had such colorful leaves! Of course those leaves are gone now, so on my recent visit I took along the October photo. That way I would know which tree to introduce myself to.

It was cold, windy and getting dark at 4:30. I left my trusty field assistant behind after assuring her she would prefer the warmer cab of the truck.
En route to the west end of the building, I visited briefly with the pair of hawthorns I followed this year. They still had haws, but quite shriveled. I sampled one; it had the texture of fruit leather and just a hint of flavor.
With the photo I easily relocated the tree of interest. While I struggled to take a clever photo of print and tree in the wind, several people walked by and smiled. Of course they smiled—being artists, they wouldn't think that what I was doing was the least bit odd.
Assured I had the right tree, I approached it. “Hello, I’m Hollis. What’s your name?” It mimed a response, with branches, leaves and fruit. But I didn’t fully understand.

The branching was opposite (hard to see in wind, sorry):
Leaves had mostly serrated margins and pinnate veins—at least that's what I thought (mystery ahead). The second photo is a zoom from the October shot, click on it for a slightly better view:
There were many clusters of pedicels but only a few with fruit ... which happen to be keys or samaras, doubled like those of maples!
Are you surprised too? These are strange leaves for maples, especially the pinnate venation. Maybe I need to expand my concept of the Aceraceae. Learning awaits.

The other reason for choosing this tree is that it grows next to the Art Building which offers a bright warm whimsical refuge on cold, windy and/or snowy days, or when the mosquitos are bad. Currently there are several new exhibits, including one under construction. But I headed straight to the This and That Galleries because this month both have exhibits featuring plants!
In This I found “Plains Placement”—an exhibition of prints by Ben Nathan. They were made from copper plates etched with leaf designs. Colors were overlaid, and sometimes effects added with a piece of grass with black ink. These works are all in response to a "prompt"—experience in the West.

I was surprised when I walked into That. Flower photos, illustrations and even scientific literature (!) hung on the walls. On a small table lay an explanation by Rebecca Austin and Erin Bentley—artist and scientist. One “needs only look at the field notebooks … to see that when people seek to understand the natural world, they often turn to artistic endeavors … we would like to show that these fields are inherently, if not always obviously, connected.”
For this beautiful illustration of Actaea rubra, they chose Alice Bacon’s 1903 paper Experiment with the Fruit of Red Baneberry “because it was funny.” So of course I had to read more. Turns out Alice performed the experiment on herself! Fortunately she survived, and duly reported her findings.
“Then suddenly the mind became confused and there was a total disability to recollect anything distinctly or arrange ideas with any coherency. On an attempt to talk, wrong names were given to objects, and although at the same time the mind knew mistakes were made in speech, the words seemed to utter themselves independently.”
She experienced pain in many parts of the body. Perhaps scariest of all “the heart fluttered most unpleasantly.” After three hours she was fully recovered but “The experiment was carried no further, as the effects in heart and brain were danger signals not to be ignored.” (I didn't find the funny part.)

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