Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cassopolis, Michigan

Battle Creek, otherwise known as Cereal City thanks to its being the headquarters for Kellogg's, Post and Ralston, boasts a Carnegie-era library dating to 1905.  It bears the name of Charles Willard, who donated $75,000 for its construction. Willard's family had vast agricultural holdings and owned the local newspaper.  The library's brief biography of Willard made no mention of his being inspired by Carnegie or if he provided the funds after the city failed to win a contribution from Carnegie or if local sentiment against Carnegie blocked it from making a request of him.  Jackson, Lansing, Ann Arbor and other nearby towns all built Carnegie-funded libraries at this time.  None of the young librarians had an answer, nor even knew who Willard was, having to resort to their computers to fill me in.

Though Battle Creek's library bore a semblance to a Carnegie with pillars and fine brick and granite construction, it lacked that mysterious dash of elegance and warmth and quiet grace that characterize Carnegies. How Carnegies attained such a quality is difficult to explain.  It can't necessarily be attributed to their architects, as they had no set design and just the barest of instructions from Carnegie.  Whether the libraries exuded their special dignified aura upon completion or if it was something they acquired over the years is another mystery.  It might be argued that generations of pleased patrons lent the libraries their rarefied air.  It is a sense that touches me at every Carnegie I visit, as if they are a soulful vortex, and that I may well transport from Carnegie to Carnegie. 

I was conveying an extra strong degree of well-being after an evening in Battle Creek visiting Kirk, a long-time compatriot and cinephile extraordinaire from Chicago who had moved back to the home he grew up in last summer.  Kirk had overseen the pair of cinemas of Facets Multimedia for a couple of decades.  He was much beloved by the many who served under him selling tickets and concessions at the box office.  It was a very sad day when his tenure came to an end several years ago.  It tore the hearts out of all us volunteers.  Facets hasn't been the same since. Whether the movie being screened was good or bad, it was always a fine evening when one could spend some time with Kirk.

It was well worth a detour to visit him at his home five hilly miles north of downtown Battle Creek.  I had heard much over the years of his youth on his thirty acre homestead, especially his entrepreneurship as a teen planting several acres with sweet corn, enlisting a crew to help, and then selling his crop.  It was a pleasure to at last see where it had all transpired, though it was now overgrown with trees and grasses.  As we wandered his property his young boxer Digby romped about.  A pack of coyotes inhabited the brush now.  Their howls in the night would send Digby rushing to safety.

I've had many a conversation with Kirk after a movie or an evening of cards that would go on and on, though none as long as this evening.  I arrived at his house before four and we were still talking cinema and sports and this and that at one a.m., well beyond my bed-time when on tour, but such is the captivation of talking with Kirk.  We sat most of the time at his kitchen table, where we dined on pork chops he cooked on his outdoor grill.  

I was happy to learn that he wasn't suffering from a deprivation of thought-proving cinema, as just thirty minutes away in Kalamazoo, a two-university town, there was a ten-screen theater with free parking that offered independent and foreign fare similar to what he thrived on in Chicago.  He also tracked the art cinema offerings in Ann Arbor, less than an hour away and Detroit thirty minutes further.  For Hollywood fare he had three multiplexes in  Battle Creek, one of which he worked at as a projectionist in his early days. Two were presently closed and undergoing renovation.  One had posted an ad for staff, including managers.  Kirk had just applied, hoping he might be accepted as a part-timer, providing him with a little diversion from his retirement.  They would certainly be lucky to have him.

When we resumed our conversation in the morning I didn't think I'd ever leave, not that that would be a bad thing.  Fortunately there wasn't a glut of movies we needed to see, otherwise we might have headed to a multiplex for the day as we used to do in Chicago.  We wouldn't always see the same four or five movies, but we were always interested in each other's assessments of what we had seen.  Kirk is always the one I turn to when I have a question regarding cinema.  His years as a projectionist, especially at Facets, seeing films over and over, has given him a keen insight into the art form.  Disney has been holding a screenplay of his for years, waiting for the right time to produce it.

One of the reasons Kirk had moved back to Battle Creek was to facilitate the selling of his family home.  It has been on and off the market, as the economy has brightened and dimmed, since his father died several years ago.  The news that he might move back to Chicago after he makes the sale was too good to be true, though he said he could buy a two-bedroom condo in Battle Creek for about the tenth of what it would cost in Chicago.  Battle Creek didn't look as depressed as some of the automotive towns of Michigan, but Kellogg's has reduced its workforce from 5,000 to 500.

The pedaling 36 miles south and west to Mendon was nearly effortless with a slight tailwind and the revery of my evening with Kirk.  Then I was rewarded with a near-pristine small-town Carnegie.  The library's copy of "Carnegie Libraries Across America" included a photo of it.  Some one had stuck a stick 'em on the page and written "Coolest Carnegie Library of them all."

It came close to being leveled twenty years ago, having fallen into disrepair. But sanity prevailed and funds were raised and a restoration effort returned it to its original state.  The wooden floors and book shelves and circulation desk all shone with splendor.  And the card catalog too, even though it was no longer used, replaced by the computer.  There was a shortage of space for new books, but the librarian refused to replace the card catalogue with much-needed shelving.

I was greeted with more splendor in Three Rivers by a Carnegie constructed of colorful granite.  It was now an Arts Center and Museum with a glassy attachment, but still a pleasure to behold. 

The thriving town had a block-long Main Street lined with interesting shops including a book store with free books out front.

Just thirteen miles down the road in Cassopolis was another small-town Carnegie without an addition that stood nobly and inviting to all.  It's somewhat narrow and extended front side hinted that it might be a place of worship, as might be said of them all.

I knew it would be easy camping as the countryside was more forested than developed.  When I headed down a dirt road to a corn field at dusk I scared off a cluster of deer, who came sniffing around my tent later in the dark. 


JeffOYB said...

Hey, you visited Michigan! Dang, maybe we could've found you! My wife is from Battle Creek so we visit often. We're fans of the Willard Library!

george christensen said...

I heard from Rick too. I thought of both of you, but didn't quite have the time to swing by your way. I'm off to France in less than two weeks and needed to be back in Chicago by Friday.