The last few days of my thousand mile ride back to Chicago from Atlanta coincided with National Library Week, a perfect week to be library-hopping through Indiana and Illinois. Many of the libraries on my route were celebrating it in some manner. One had a chicken-joke contest with the winners receiving an Easter basket of eggs and other chicken-related items. The library in Clinton, my last Carnegie in Indiana before slipping into Illinois, offered cookies and juice without any restrictions on where one could partake of them, defying the usual "No food or drink" admonition of most libraries.
The Clinton library had somewhat bastardized itself with an addition that mirrored the original library. One couldn't enter the library through its original entrance up a set of stairs as it had been blocked and replaced by a street-level, handicap-accessible entrance right alongside the old entrance. It was admirable that the library board chose a design that reflected the building's original design, but it could leave one feeling confused, thinking he was seeing double.
My now favorite library in Merom acknowledged that it was the week honoring libraries with a simple display on its well-decorated circulation desk.
I should be documenting all the Carnegie "circ" desks, as they are invariably marvelously crafted works of art with an array of drawers and special features that could keep a pack of monkeys busy for hours opening them all. The circ desks were constructed as mini-fortresses, strategically placed as was characteristic of the times, so the librarians could stand guard over their books. Kim was delighted to demonstrate her many favorite idiosyncrasies of her desk.
Beyond Clinton I turned on to highway 36, the Ernie Pyle Memorial Highway, that passed through the small town of Dana, his hometown just a few miles from the Illinois border. A museum in the town is devoted to the Pulitzer Prize winning WWII correspondent who died during the War, shot by a sniper in Japan.
Shortly after crossing into Illinois I turned north on to highway 1, which would take me all the way to Chicago within a mile of my apartment, 150 miles away. Right on the highway in the town of Ridge Farm was a matchbook-sized perfectly-proportioned gem of a Carnegie, as fine of an example of a Carnegie as one could find. There were no other buildings nearby, heightening its splendor. With a population of 900 it is the second smallest town with a Carnegie. Its librarian well knew that Merom was the smallest, but she didn't know the next smallest after hers.
I had the library all to myself even though it was late in the afternoon after school was out. The librarian had to turn on the WIFI for me and give me a password, which is regularly changed to discourage the general public from sitting in their cars using the WIFI rather than coming in to the library.
She gave me directions to the much, much larger former Carnegie in Danville, population 33,000, sixteen miles up the road. It was right by the new library on Vermillon Street, named for the river that passes through the city. Carnegie would not be pleased at all to know that his library was now a War Museum and had large guns in front of it. Carnegie devoted the last years of his life advocating world peace, conferring with world leaders on both sides of the Atlantic trying to avert war. He was most distraught that his efforts failed. He died in 1919 a somewhat broken man despairing over the senseless carnage of the First World War.
On the eastern outskirts of Danville was one of the more unusual Carnegies, a library on the vast grounds of a huge medical complex of the Veteran's Administration that dated to the early 1900s, old enough to have served veterans of the Civil War. It was like a small community with a library of its own. The now vacant library sat in the middle of what resembled a large collegiate quad.
Just one final Carnegie, the twenty-ninth of these travels, remained on my route, and it made for a grand finale, not only with its simple majesty, but its extra warm neighborly feel. It was a couple blocks off highway 1 in Milford, a town of less than 2,000 residents thirty miles north of Danville. A fireplace flanked by two comfortable chairs lent it the air of a den. A biography of Carnegie and a book on the Carnegies of Illinois were featured on a coffee table in front of the fireplace. Carnegie's portrait hung on the wall to the right. The friendly librarian said that one of her patrons, whenever she enters the library, turns to the portrait and says, "Thank you Mr. Carnegie."
A note on the library door warned of a cat on the premises, though the librarian said it was shy and rarely seen. It hid in a box under the circ desk when others were in the library. After hours she knew its favorite spot was a chair with a red cushion, as she had to brush hair out of it every morning. It was the second resident cat of the library. The first had been most friendly, often sitting on the laps of patrons. Many used to come in just to pay it a visit.
It didn't gain the renown though of a cat by the name of Dewey, who resided in the Spencer, Iowa library, and was named for the Dewey Decimal System. He was immortalized by the best-selling book, "Dewey: The Small-Town Cat Who Touched the World," written by the town's librarian Vicki Myron in 2008 two years after Dewey died. The Milford library had a copy. After the librarian fetched it for me, her husband happened to drop in, a farmer who looked as if he might have played defensive tackle in the NFL. He was as cordial and unpretentious as his wife, the epitome of small-town wholesomeness. We chatted about my travels and a bit about his farming. He was waiting for the soil to dry before he could plant. This was turning into more of an ice cream social without the ice cream than a visit to a library. As always, I wished I could have lingered all day and then returned the next. When I finally forced myself to leave, I turned to Carnegie's portrait and said, "Thank you Mr. Carnegie."