Friday, September 25, 2015

Geneva, Nebraska

Last winter in Oman I camped night after night in great expanses of sandy deserts.  Across Nebraska I've been able to disappear into vast expanses of corn fields for the night.  I've pedaled right up to dark knowing that I'd be able to slip into a nook amongst the head-high stalks when the light ran out.   Sometimes I've found a secluded open patch right along the road, and other times I've had to pedal a ways down a narrow dirt tractor path until I found space enough for my tent.  I've had no concern about being discovered.  Many of the towns I've been passing through have less than a hundred residents.  That doesn't mean they don't have character or characters.  One of the handful of those in Holstein, population 48, surrounded his home with sculptures of scrap metal including bicycle parts.  The centerpiece of his front yard was a pedestal of four bicycle wheels with cups to catch the wind.

He utilized a bicycle fork to concoct a creature that he perched atop a replica of an oil rig.

If he lived in the larger town of Arapahoe, the librarians would have had to keep a close eye on him to make sure he didn't try to appropriate any of their vast array of cake pans that could be borrowed for baking.

It wasn't a Carnegie.  There were only two Carnegies in the first two hundred miles on route 6 along the southern border of the state heading east from Colorado.  The first was in McCook, which I've already reported on, and then Holdrege, before a tight cluster of six of them.  Holdrege hardly counted as a Carnegie, as an addition in 1964 totally obliterated its character, actually knocking down its front facade and pair of pillars to extend the library out to the street.  

A framed photograph inside honored what it had once been.  

The librarians didn't seem distraught about the desecration of their library.  Rather they were proud that a local had donated a million dollars for its expansion.  Not only had the library been expanded to the front, but the rear as well.  Before I left the librarian who had googled a route out of town for me to avoid some road construction wouldn't let me leave until I had seen a giant stuffed dragon in the children's section in the back that was over thirty years old.  The woman who created it now lived in England but had returned a few years ago to restore it.

The most magnificent of the set of six Carnegies fifty miles up the road was in Hastings, a city large enough to have a Walmart.  Unfortunately, it had been torn down years ago and replaced on the same site with just a library.  Sutton, thirty miles further, was another of the eleven Carnegies of the sixty-nine built in Nebraska that had been demolished, a higher percentage than most states.  Only seven states though had more Carnegies than Nebraska.  It is one of the few states, along with Illinois and Indiana, that has had its Carnegies documented in a book--"A State of Readers--Nebraska's Carnegie Libraries," from 2005.  It was on prominent display in the Clay Center Carnegie, a classic one-room library that had not been added on to.  The librarian said the board had investigated the possibility, but didn't have the funds to do it.  

It was a rare Nebraska town with about the same population, 861, as when the library was built in 1915.  It was a pleasure to linger in the library, soaking up its century of satisying generations of the town's folk, reading about the state's Carnegies.  Most noteworthy was learning that someone had written an appreciation of James Bertram, who oversaw Carnegie's library program.  The American Library Associatin in Chicago has a copy of this book written in 1936.  It will be the first book I'll seek out when I return to Chicago, even ahead of the recent biography of Luis Ocana, the 1973 winner of The Tour de France.

The town of Harvard, nine miles away, had shrunk from 6,000, when its Carnegie was built, to 998 today, of which twenty per cent are Hispanic and not all English speaking according to an elderly jogger I stopped as I approached the town to ask the way to the library.  I also asked him if the library was open, as the one in Fairfield only had afternoon hours three days a week.  He said, "I ought to know, as I'm on the board,  but I can't tell you."  It had an odd set of hours, three to eight on Tuesdays,  one to six on Wednesdays and Thursdays, nine to two on Fridays and ten to two on Saturdays.

Even odder were the hours of the library in Fairfield, thirteen miles away.  The most direct route between Fairfield and Harvard was on a dirt road for ten miles.  That truly gave me the sense of being out in rural America.  With a population of less than five hundred, Fairfield's library was only open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1:35 to 5:25.  I was there at nine a.m. hoping to find a cafe serving hotcakes.  The town did have a deli and a restaurant, but neither opened for breakfast.  I had to make do with a pint of chocolate milk and corn flakes from the town's small grocery store.  I hoped I could take advantage of the library's WIFI as I sat on its front steps under a plaque that said it had been designated a National Historic Place in 2001, but it required a password.

I asked the friendly librarian at Clay Center about the unusual hours of the Fairfield Library.  "We think there is something strange in their water there," she said.  "They make the librarian punch a time clock at the city hall before she reports to duty.  She signs in at 1:30 and then opens the library a few minutes later, and then closes up a little before she signs out at 5:30."

I concluded my day of Carnegie-hopping in Geneva, a veritable metropolis of 2,000 residents.  In 1995 its citizens raised $650,000 to quadruple the size of their library built in 1912 for $9,750.  They were proud to do it without any federal assistance through church groups holding soup suppers and the sale of $100 bricks and other donations.  The locals seemed to have a history of independent-thinking.  The local newspaper published a letter shortly after the construction of the library that didn't totally embrace Carnegie.  It read, "However much Mr. Carnegie may be censured for his methods of money making, we certainly cannot but commend him and congratulate ourselves for one method he is using to spend a portion of his vast accumulation."  The seamless red brick addition to its rear didn't diminish its stature.  

Just one more Carnegie in Nebraska on my route and then another dozen or so across Iowa.

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