Carnegie Libraries! 

I started blogging about literary adventures a year or so ago and fell in love with Carnegie Libraries. The story is a fascinating one in U.S. Library history, and how Andrew Carnegie and his foundation came into being around the turn of the 19th century, giving many libraries an opportunity to exist and have a physical location and building. You can follow along the Carnegie Library journey at Carnegie Libraries in Iowa Project

Cherokee, Iowa

Cherokee, Iowa sits in the northwest corner of Iowa at the crossroads between Highway 3 and Highway 59, and the story of the library begins over a century ago when a meeting was held at the Cherokee Congregational Church on September 22, 1886, to discuss and organize a local library. That meeting turned into what was known as “The Cherokee ladies Library Association”.

The Cherokee Ladies Library Association

The primary function of the group was to gather and gain a library of works, not limited to but including –

  • Works of Literature
  • Literary and Musical Entertainment
  • A Reading Room
  • Membership – (Lifetime membership at $5).

The first officers of the association

  • Mrs. C.K. Butler – President
  • Mrs.  Wakefield – Vice President
  • Mrs. T.S. Ingorsol – Secretary
  • Mrs. Hall – Treasurer

with a board of directors –

J.H. Buringame, C.H. Kellog, A.H. Smith, J.C. Hall, and N.T. Burroughs

Cherokee Library & the Y.M.C.A

In the years following the library contracted with the Y.M.C.A. to have space in their building for the use of their books. However, after the Y.M.C.A. disbanded it left the library without a home.


Cherokee Free Public Library

For the next 12 years (1886-1898) the library struggled until there came a push from the city council to initiate a tax-levy (which passed by a small majority vote) and the “Free Public Library” was opened Dec 31, 1898. During this time 544 membership cards were issued and some 800-plus people used the reading room space. This led to the need for a permanent structure for the library.


“Dear Mr. Carnegie…”

In 1903, the city of Cherokee wrote to Mr. Carnegie asking for $10,000 and in June of 1904 a site was secured, and a few months later a contract was given to Hansen & Lambken of New Hampton and architect Frank E. Wetherell. The library was build and an additional $2,000 was given by Carnegie for furniture and fixtures. The library officially opened May 1905 with Miss Jesse Swem as the first librarian.

The picture above shows the originals doors, windows, and staircase railing woodwork.

Carnegie Library Architecture

Carnegie Libraries have a different, unique feature to its architecture and in Cherokee’s case, the library has a curved back wall (known as a bow-string). If you look closely at the pictures, you can see how they bent the wall with the bricks. It’s an interesting and beautiful dynamic in the library.


Here is another look at the bow-string west wall from an interior view.


The bookshelf above used to be in the children’s library downstairs and is thought to be an original custom-built shelf for the library to match the curved back wall.

The Fireplace on the left never worked in the library and was used only for its visual stimulation. It was a classic piece to the adult section of the library upstairs and on the main floor. The picture on the right shows an old skylight on the old main floor.

Top Left: an old coal shoot that coal could be shoveled into the basement and fed into a heating stove or furnace to heat the library. It was later cemented shut. Top Right: the time plaque and recognition of the Cherokee Carnegie Library as a national historical site.

The Cherokee Carnegie Library

The Cherokee Carnegie Library holds a special place in my heart, as my boyhood public library. I remember riding my bicycle to the library and hanging out, reading, and studying. The library is worth a stop if you are a library or architecture enthusiast. Even if you’re not, the history alone should compel you to make a stop in Cherokee. You can visit the Cherokee Library and the beautiful setting of small-town Iowa at

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