A part of town known as “Library Square”

If you are traveling in or around NW Iowa, you need to take time to go check out the Carnegie Library in Estherville Iowa. I have a piece of my heart that will always belong to the Carnegie’s because – as a boy growing up in Cherokee – IA, the local Carnegie Library was a large part of my life. The history of these libraries is worth looking into and how it impacted literary history. (Check out the Sibley, Iowa Carnegie Library, and the Hawarden, Iowa Carnegie Library). My interest in the existence of Estherville’s library came from a personal conversation with a small-town local librarian who asked me one day, “Have you ever been to Estherville’s Carnegie Library?” That is a living testimony.

Coming into Estherville and exploring the library is a history onto itself, where the entire block that extends from Hwy 9 (also Central Ave. which runs east and west in front of the library) and wraps around to 6th and 7th streets. But the story here is that before the Emmet county courthouse was finished in 1957 – the entire 2 block area was one giant park! Looking at Library Square you get a sense that the library was the central pride and joy of the town and not just a building, but an entire park area! You can get a sense of how large the surrounding area around the library is with the pictures below.

Carnegie gives $10,000

The Estherville Democrat – gave this report in 1902 – after several years of back and forth fighting for tax dollars to support the library – after the town came forward and came up with the necessary funds to secure the grant – and pledged to continue supporting the library annually –

Whereas, Mr. Andrew Carnegie of New York City, in a communication to co-chair-man of the board of library trustees of the free public library of Estherville, Iowa, proposes to make a gift in the sum of ten thousand dollars to said city to be used in the construction of a library building In the city of Estherville Iowa, upon the condition and terms that said city shall furnish a suitable location and site for such library building and raise annually by taxation of the taxable property within said city, the sum of one thousand dollars to be expended in the proper maintenance and support of a free public library”

Carnegie’s Gift

Carnegie gave $10,000 for the building with the agreed continued support from the city of $1,000 to support upkeep and maintenance of the building. Upon coming close to the building and circling the block (which is now divided into two separate blocks with the new construction of the courthouse in 1957) one can see the unique construction of the building. Each Carnegie has its unique mark, and one of the distinctions of the Estherville Library is the inside and outside balconies.

Indoor Balcony and Spiral Staircase

The unique and beautiful balcony and spiral staircase of the Estherville Library grab your attention from the moment you enter the side south side room (which use to be the main entrance lobby). Today both rooms below and above are used as group study rooms. The library has some historical pieces if you walk around and on one wall (you can see the clock in the picture above) is an original grandfather clock from the library. Historical pictures and collective pieces, like the clock, can be found around every corner.

Outdoor Entrance Balcony

Most of the Carnegie’s today have lost some of their functionality. Some are too small now to hold the newer collections or updates with technology. The other main issue with the libraries is during the turn of the 20th century, having a library being handicap accessible was not at the level of importance with code standards as it is today. Because of these reasons, some libraries moved into new locations or became a place to gather or stay overnight in bed and breakfast-like accommodations (like the Sanborn, Iowa Carnegie Library). Some of the libraries changed into museums (like the Prairie Museum in Sheldon, Iowa), or apartment complexes (like the Sioux City, Iowa “Central” Carnegie Library) or if they had the foresight with the history of the building – they made improvements to the existing structure or added on new additions, which is precisely what Estherville accomplished.

New Construction

In 1995 – Estherville added on to the existing Carnegie building, and the genius to the construction of the facility is that while making it newer with modern windows and technology and expanding space, they kept to the old style. The only way I could tell the difference between the old and new – was getting close to the building and having a closer look to see the difference in brick and the slight shade of color difference. From afar, the library looks like the original building keeping the older look to preserve the history.

Carnegie History

There is a lot to the history of Carnegie Libraries – and you can follow along with the history of Carnegie Libraries in Iowa Project – with the University of Iowa Libraries. Estherville’s story is similar to a lot of the rural Carnegie’s where the grant was received because of the hard work of local citizens, massive letter writing, and follow up with Carnegie and the powers surrounding the foundation to secure the funds to provide a free public library for the community. You can find a Carnegie near you and if you are lucky enough to have one in your community – go check it out. If you are near Estherville, go explore this library and take a walk back in history!

9 thoughts

      1. I checked around after reading your article and found several Carnegie libraries in my area, some torn down but a few still around. The best ones seem to be at universities.

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    1. wow! I wish I could have old pictures of that! The Estherville library truly is a treasure. I’ve come to really love them after growing up in Cherokee and having a Carnegie as my boyhood library. Thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

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