Saturday, January 25, 2014

Wrapping Up Three Weeks On the Road

Quite often a search for a Carnegie library leads to a discovery that almost upstages the library.  So it was on day one of our travels at our first Carnegie in Brownsville, Tennessee with the Mindfield Sculpture Complex, a staggeringly intricate maze of towering metal structures down the street from the Carnegie, now the town's Chamber of Commerce.   It happened again towards the end of our trip in Fulton, Missouri, a few miles east of Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri in the center of the state.  We made a slight detour up to Columbia to visit a couple of colleagues of Janina's from Chicago who had moved there two years ago to work for the university.

Fulton is a college town too. Despite a population of just 13,000, it is home to a pair of institutions of higher learning (Westminster College and William Woods University), and also the National Winston Churchill Museum.  When we noticed the Churchill Museum on the map, our immediate reaction was to wonder what it was doing in Fulton.  We speculated it might be that Fulton was the home of his mother.  She was American, but she was actually born in Brooklyn. 

Instead, Fulton established a Churchill Museum to commemorate his visit to the town in 1946 with President Truman, when he gave a speech proclaiming the erection of an Iron Curtain across Europe.  The term had been used before, but this speech brought the term into prominence and is known as "The  Iron Curtain Speech."  The museum resides in a huge cathedral, almost as majestic as a Carnegie, formerly of London, the Church of St. Mary Aldermanbury, dating to 1181.  It had been destroyed by the great fire of London in 1666, rebuilt by Christopher Wren and destroyed by bombing in 1940.  The rubble was amazingly transported from England and rebuilt in Fulton in 1966, a feat worthy of a Herzog film.

It is accompanied by two statues of Churchill, the one on the left above and another beyond at the far corner of the cathedral.

Several panels of the Berlin Wall also reside in the Cathedral's plaza.

It was all an extraordinary discovery, though not our first Churchill encounter of the trip.  We also came upon a couple of his paintings in the Dallas Museum of Art, part of the Wendy and Emery Reeves Collection from their French villa.  It even included a box of Churchill's painting supplies.

Our three weeks on the road, driving nearly 4,000 miles, included multiple pairings of such unexpected oddities.  There was also the private jets of two people of prominence--LBJ and Elvis.  We saw two stray calico cats that Janina was tempted to adopt.  We patronized two Trader Joe's (Baton Rouge and Dallas) and two Landmark Theatres (Dallas and St. Louis for ""Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Great Beauty").  We paid homage to the graves of Richard Halliburton and William Faulkner.

Quite a few other things came in greater multiples.  We found ourselves in three cities with assassination sites (King in Memphis, Long in Baton Rouge, JFK in Dallas).  We passed through four state capitals--Baton Rouge, Austin, Jefferson City and Springfield.  Four noteworthy bike shops dotted our travels as did four state university campuses--Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri. We tromped through art museums in four cities--New Orleans, Fort Worth, Dallas, and St. Louis, two of whom had recently opened up new wings.  

We were accompanied through the new wing  of the St. Louis Art Museum with CJ, one of three of Janina's college professor friends we visited during our travels.  When Janina noticed two twenty-year olds sitting on a bench studying a painting, she asked if they were artists, one of her areas of expertise.  They said they were theater students. That perked up CJ, as he is an actor and knows the St. Louis theater scene.  That led to a delightful fifteen minute conversation/lecture with Janina and CJ unable to resist their roles as educators.  

Noteworthy sculptures was another theme of our travels.  The St. Louis Art Museum offered an extraordinary Andy Goldsworthy of twenty-five tightly packed limestone arches each ten feet high in a courtyard between the new wing and the old entitled "Stone Sea."   A New Orleans sculpture garden included a giant safety pin by Claes Oldenburg.  The downtown St. Louis City Museum contained a mass of contorted sculpture extravaganzas inside and out, including slides for children of all ages, that left Janina gasping in wonderment.

Not a day passed that we didn't have at least one encounter with a fascinating character who we couldn't stop talking about as we drove along.  There was so much to discuss and digest, we rarely turned on the radio.  We met so many kindly librarians, Janina regretted she hadn't shot portraits of all of them at their desks or in front of their stacks.  It would have made a fine gallery, worthy of any museum.  

When we stopped at a pecan orchard in Oklahoma just across the border from Texas to buy a couple pounds of pecans, the wife of the husband-wife owners so appreciated our interest she gave us a half-hour tour of their operation.  Pecans are the American nut, grown no where else in the world.  Two-thirds of their 150,000 pound harvest had been bought by the Chinese.  Their 17,000 tree orchard is so beautiful, weddings are regularly conducted there.

Though this was by no means a Carnegie-quest, we managed to stop off at twenty-one of them, at least one in seven of the eight states we passed through, all but Kentucky.  It was the first time I had visited a Carnegie in Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma, bringing my total to 23 of the 48 states with a Carnegie.  That puts me near the half-way mark, but I'm well below the half-way mark of Carnegies in the US, having gotten to only 218 of the 1,689 so far.

Janina has become infected by my Carnegie quest and admitted that it almost seemed as if each Carnegie we came upon was more magnificent than the last.  Each distinguishes itself in some stately manner, proudly emanating a quiet dignity that immediately gives one a jolt of uplift the moment one spots it.  Each stands eminently above all the other nearby buildings.

Last Sunday Janina and I were able to string four of them together as we made our exit from Texas, angling northeast across the state to Caddo Lake State Park, home to the state's only natural lake.  It being a Sunday, none of the libraries were open.  Our first was in Bryan, just north of College Station and Texas A&M.  We had no address for the library, just the confidence it would be near the town center, as most are.  It is far more satisfying to be seeking the recognizable features of a Carnegie than to be seeking an address.  After bisecting the center of Bryan on its main east-west artery and not spotting it, we headed south on its other axis and there it sprung up in four-pillared grandeur with "Carnegie Public Library" ornamenting its facade. 

We sat on a bench in front and tapped into its WIFI for our first Internet check of the day.  After soaking up its eminence for several minutes we went across the street to a hotel cafe for Janina to fill her mini-thermos with coffee.  Then it was on to Franklin.  The town was on the fringe of the highway.  We didn't even realize we had reached Franklin when Janina's eye caught the features of a building that had the aura of a Carnegie.  Indeed it was.  As with Bryan's, it had not been added on to and its facade prominently identified it as a "Carnegie Library." It was uncharacteristically several blocks from the town center, truly standing apart and above all the other buildings in the town.

Tyler was a sizable city, but we were still able to hone in on its Carnegie without having to ask anyone.  The library is now a Historical Society.  It had been added on to, but the city still outgrew it.

We needed help finding the fourth Carnegie of the day in Marshall, as we didn't realize it had been built as an academic library on the campus of Wiley College, one of the few black colleges west of the Mississippi.  We found the new library in Marshall and used its WIFI to locate the Carnegie.  It's not likely anyone would have known, as it is now an administrative building unadorned with any Carnegie inscription.

We began the next day with a bike ride along Caddo Lake, where we had camped beside one of its beguiling bayou-like arms.  It was less than twenty miles to our seventh and final of the thirteen remaining Carnegies in Texas in the small town of Jefferson.  It had undergone a stunning $500,000 restoration a few years ago.  It was Martin Luther King Day, but the devoted librarian kept the library open.

Its upstairs meeting room was in pristine condition and served as a great asset to the community.  As is so often the case, we were delighted that the Carnegie had drawn us to this small gem of a town.  It was lunch-time so were were able to acquaint ourselves with a first-rate cafe that had a meat loaf lunch special with yams and mashed potatoes and coconut cream pie.  It was another dose of small town America at its finest.

Our time on the pecan farm later in the day delayed our arrival in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and its Carnegie until dark.  It had a huge addition to its side that didn't match the old, but one could still appreciate its fine features.  We could well return to appreciate it in the light of day as we feel beckoned by the town's Cherokee Museum.  We might have overnighted there if we weren't pressed to be in Columbia the next afternoon. 

We did take a quick detour from Interstate 44, one of the few Interstate stretches of the trip, to give the Joplin Carnegie a look.  It was closed and fenced in, awaiting a new tenant after most recently housing the International Institute of Technology.  It is a sterling building that needs a worthy tenant.

The Carnegie in Fulton had an addition that tried to blend in with the original.  The librarian we spoke with mentioned that until the late '50s, the town's black residents had to enter the library through a back door.  The daughter of one of those blacks now works as one of its librarians. 

My final bike ride of the trip was a 36-mile circuit of St. Louis the next day in sub-freezing temperatures to the four of its seven Carnegies that had evaded me on previous visits to the city.  Its main library built in 1912 is a veritable palace and one that I am eager to visit again.  I didn't have enough time to fully absorb its many exemplary features.  The outside of the building is ringed with an all-star line-up of writers--Goethe, Moliere, Hugo, Racine, Shakespeare, and on and on. Each of its four exterior walls is also inscribed with a quote extolling the virtues of books and reading and libraries.  

Chiseled over the three welcoming arches is a quote from Frederick Crundan: "Recorded thought is our chief heritage from the past, the most lasting legacy we can leave to the future. Books are the most enduring monument of man's achievements. Only through books can civilization become cumulative."

Carnegie is quoted on another side of the building: "I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves.  They never pauperize a taste, for reading drives out our lower tastes."  Longfellow is also quoted praising "the sweet serenity of books."

As has happened several times on this trip, I was warned about venturing into a certain neighborhood.  I might have heeded such advice after dark, but I had no qualms about riding a stretch through blocks and blocks of mostly boarded up buildings on the north side of the city between the Cabanne branch and the closed down Divoll branch.

The Carondelet branch way to the south had a similar portico to the Cabanne branch, unlike any other Carnegies I have come upon.  None of the libraries allowed WIFI use without a library card, so I couldn't keep Janina and our hosts appraised of my progress and return-time for our museum outing, arriving back to their house just as they were finishing lunch.  There was plenty left for me, though I had been well-fortified by Nancy's fruit-laden oatmeal, some of which I ate at my various stops.

Our drive back to Chicago the next day took us past the Cahokia Mounds.  We had stumbled upon three other sets of mounds along the way.  The Emerald Mound towards the end of the Natchez Trace Parkway is second in size to the Monk's Mound in Cahokia.  There were also mounds just across the border from Cairo, Illinois in Kentucky. We also climbed a mound by the state Capitol Building in Baton Rouge.  Upon it were two canons.  

Though it was just single digit temperatures I climbed the 150 plus steps to the top of the highest of the many Cahokia Mounds and had a fine view of The Arch and downtown St. Louis and the surrounding snow-covered farmland and Interstate 55 just below me.  It had been decades since either Janina and I had been to this World Heritage site, one of only 21 in the US. It was accompanied by a most impressive visitor center with an excellent movie and many superb exhibits explaining the Native American mound culture.  Those of Cahokia accommodated over 20,000 people at its height.

The final stop of our three week road trip, other than for gas, was in Lincoln, just north of Springfield, to see its Carnegie.  It was a fitting finale, crowned with a rare dome and a circulation desk to die for.

Its exterior proved Janina's premise that every Carnegie we came upon was more magnificent than the one before.  The library had expanded across the alley behind it into an old Wieboldt's store.  It had celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003 and looked good for at least another 100.  A plaque in front of the library stated,"The library's history typifies the combination of national wealth, grass roots initiative and cultural ideals which generated the free library movement and its goal of a free and educated American society."  We saw those qualifies reflected in a multitude of ways throughout our foray through small-town and big-town USA.  Our trip could have hardly been better, other than maybe spending more time on the bikes.


dworker said...

What a fun trip. I had no idea that pecans were US only, or the Churchill museum. Ahhh, travel, of all sorts, is a joy. Keep rolling.

Bill Burns said...

Being a Missourian by birth (Kansan by choice) I was aware of Fulton's Churchill exhibit, but also was not aware pecans were only grown in America. Pecans are wonderful things indeed. Next time you come south, you should check out Kansas City, and visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. We have a set of Claes Oldenburg sculptures (a pair of giant badminton birdies, one one the south lawn, amongst the Henry Miller sculpture garden, the other on the north side of the museum, making the building the 'net'). The Nelson also recently opened a new wing which is an architectural art work I it's own right. You'll also find a vibrant, active and growing cycling culture on both sides of the state line.

I'm not sure how many Carnegie library buildings we have in or around the area., but it'd be great to learn with you guys. I love how your travel blogs illustrate the value of simply looking around. Reminds me of a great Dead lyric: "Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart; you just gotta poke around."

Keep on truckin'!

george christensen said...

Bill: I read through all of Henry Miller in my early twenties. His "My Bike and Other Friends" is one of the best titled books ever. I did see those badminton birdies one year on my way out to Telluride, but I had no idea that the museum's sculpture garden was named for Henry Miller. That truly entices me to visit. Thanks for the comments.

Bill Burns said...

My apologies, George & readers...I was mistaken. It is the Henry Spencer Moore collection of sculpture that is displayed at the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park at the Nelson-Atkins. More info here: