At last, after years of visiting Carnegie Libraries I can now say without any hesitation that I have a favorite, at least based on which gave my heart the largest leap of delight at that moment of first laying eyes upon it. There hasn't been a one of the more than four hundred that I have visited so far that hasn't given me an instant surge of satisfaction, often expressed with a spontaneous utterance of "Wow," at that initial glimpse of its distinctive features. Each of these seminal buildings, many of which are on the National Registry of Historic Buildings, stand prominently in their community, and are as much of a joy to come upon as any national treasure, such as they are.
They all exude an unmistakable air of proud, yet restrained, dignity. One can't help but be moved, not only by their elegant, distinguishing features, but by the aura that accompanies them accumulated over the decades from having a special place in the hearts of generations of citizens from its community. It has always been impossible for me to say which of the many I have paid homage to has stood out from all the others and given me the greatest thrill of discovery, at least until yesterday afternoon when I spotted the Carnegie in the small town of Merom, Indiana and saw my name on its message board, sending my heart to a greater height than any other Carnegie has managed.
I didn't have to wonder how it could have anticipated me, as Emily, the head librarian at the Vincennes Carnegie thirty-three miles south (built in the collegiate gothic style according to a plaque posted in front of it),
told me she would let her childhood friend Kim, Merom's librarian, know that a Carnegie fanatic was on his way. I wasn't prepared, however, for the greeting that awaited me. Kim and I had talked at length with unrestrained devotion about Carnegies in her office. Merom was her favorite, as it was her childhood library, and her mother was its librarian. Merom is noteworthy for being the smallest town with a Carnegie. When it was built in 1917 it had a population of less than five hundred people and is presently about half of that. Its small town idyll was reflected by the unlocked bike plopped down on the sidewalk in front of the library by some kid eager to rush into his library.
As with the majority of the towns that have drawn me because of their Carnegie, I felt lucky to have made the acquaintance of this out-of-the-way town. It sits on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River, which forms the state line between Illinois and Indiana. There was a lovely park giving a view of the lazily meandering river. Merom once had a small Christian college based in a castle of a building that is now a conference center. For decades the town has had a summer program attracting assorted luminaries. It is a rare town with a surviving general store/cafe, a nearly extinct species killed off by the ever encroaching Dollar Stores and Casey General Stores, as much of a menace to Americana as Walmart. The town would have died long ago if a power plant hadn't been established nearby in the 1970s. It is surrounded by farmland and not on the route to anywhere, though well worth the effort of seeking out. I will happily return.
I felt the same about the not much larger town of Owensville, another classic, that I had visited the day before. Its Carnegie had a block all to itself, nobly perched in the middle of a grassy park in the town center.
Seven miles down the road, Fort Branch was another small town that hadn't grown much over the years and could boast a one-room Carnegie much as it was when it was built in 1917.
The Carnegie in Poseyville, seventeen miles away, broke the string of Carnegies that hadn't been added on to. Its lovely yellow brick facade was a bright contrast to the red brick of most of the others in this region.
I had begun my latest Carnegie foray across Indiana with a series of four red-brick Carnegies before the yellow of Poseyville. Immediately after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky, rather than proceeding into Evansville for its two remaining Carnegies, I headed ten miles up river to Newburgh. On the way I passed a cluster of Native American mounds in Angel State Park along the river that dated to pre-Columbian times.
Newburgh's Carnegie was now part of its City Hall with the wide river and a pedestrian walkway behind it.
Ten miles inland the Booneville Carnegie had been converted to the town's police station. Booneville is the county seat and had a typical gaudy and grandiose courthouse in the town center, a stark contrast to the simple elegance of its Carnegie. The county courthouses of Indiana do seem to vye to outdo one another. One doesn't know whether to be impressed or overwhelmed by their screaming audacity. They are almost more intimidating than welcoming.
The pair of Carnegie branch libraries in Evansville both resided in large parks that they had all to themselves and had not been added on to despite the open space. The first on my route was the East Branch in a quiet residential neighborhood.
And the second on my way out of town to Poseyville was the West Branch on a main thoroughfare with a set of picnic tables out front.
My first day in Indiana, from noon on, included four Carnegies, more than I had seen in three days in Kentucky. Day two was a stellar five-library day, with all still serving as libraries. After Poseyville, Owensville and Fort Branch came Princeton, a larger town necessitating an addition to its library, unseen from its front side. But a canopy over the entry broke its tradition from its past.
The best riding of the day was the thirty-five mile stretch mostly on a quiet secondary road I had all to myself to Washington. I stopped for a barbecue sandwich to escape a light rain in a small general store packed with authenticity.
A sign on its front porch offered an invitation to "Sit a spell" on its pair of rocking chairs.
Two old-timers in overalls came doddering in with one bragging he could still move faster than the other. A younger guy sitting alone reading a newspaper kidded the waitress about her age, which also seemed a regular routine. The town-tinkerer in each of the small towns I passed through had a line of over-hauled lawn-mowers sitting along the road for sale. The occasional farm wife fetching the mail from the mail box along the road also reminded me this wasn't suburbia.
Washington's Carnegie was another that sat majestically in the middle of a large park. Its large, most compatible addition, actually enhanced its majesty, giving it the air of a French chateau.
Sullivan's Carnegie near sunset the next day likewise had a little extra grandeur constructed with limestone and adorned with a dome, a rarity among Carnegies. As with the Carnegie in Vincennes, it acknowledged its significance with a plaque posted out front giving its history.
It was the twelfth Carnegie I had come upon in three days in the tiny corner of Indiana near the Ohio and Wabash rivers, not even ten percent of the 167 in the state, the most by far of any state. It was as many Carnegies as I had visited in the previous ten days through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. And unlike those in the other states, most of them still thrived as a library. How sweet it is.