As I meandered around the Centralia Carnegie Library, I was stunned to hear the comment, "I hear it might snow tonight." The north wind of the past two days had kept the temperature from rising above fifty and had forced me to wear my wool hat all day for the first time on these travels, but sub-freezing temperatures didn't seem imminent. It was late in the afternoon, so the ridiculously cheap, potentially lice-laden $19.95 motel I had seen entering town suddenly became attractive. But only for a flicker, as there were two hours of light left and I had a tailwind that could not be ignored. I've camped in the snow before. There is hardly a more soothing sound than the soft caress of snow flakes upon one's tent. "Let it snow," I thought. "Let it snow."
I didn't linger in this stately Carnegie longer than it took to explore the two wings that had been added to its sides and also the much larger addition to its backside. The brick wings matched the original brick, so they hardly seemed to be an addition, and the backside expansion couldn't be seen from the front, so the library maintained its majesty. It was set back in a large park two blocks from the main avenue that ran through town. The sprawling grounds with a scattering of towering trees had the feel of an English commons. The inscription over the library's entry of "Free to the people" rather than the usual "Free to the public," when a community deemed it necessary to use the word "free" to describe its library, seemed more personal and inclusive, adding to its warmth.
It was my second Carnegie of the day. The first had been in Belleville, fifty miles to the west, in the thick of the spillover of the St. Louis metropolis into Illinois. The sprawl went on for over twenty miles north to south from Edwardsville, whose Carnegie I had visited three weeks ago. I was lucky to find a place to camp in that stretch ten miles before Belleville amongst all the development in a thicket on the fringe of a housing development. Belleville with 42,000 people was not only the largest of the towns in the beltway, it is the largest town in Illinois south of Springfield and the eighth most populous city in the state outside the Chicago metropolitan area. It has been a city of prominence since its founding. It established the state's first public library in 1836. The grant of $45,000 from Carnegie in 1913 to build a much more significant library was the sixth largest in the state, behind $75,000 to Springfield, $65,000 to Danville, $60,000 to Decatur and $50,000 to Evanston and Galesburg. Of those only Danville's still stands, though as a museum. The Belleville library had an expansion to one side that one could pretend wasn't there.
Among Belleville's early industries was the Herman Goelitz Candy Company that later took on the much snappier name of Jelly Belly in recognition of its most popular candy--jelly beans. In 2000 it began sponsorship of a bicycle racing team that continues to this day--the most senior domestic team by far. It's long-time director is the Olympian Danny Van Haute from Chicago. Unfortunately, I couldn't convey my thanks to its corporate honchos, as the company has relocated to California, though it does maintain an Illinois presence with a factory in North Chicago. Before entering the world of bicycle racing, Jelly Belly was best known for being the supplier of Ronald Reagan's favorite candy. He took to jelly beans when he stopped smoking and would commence meetings by munching on them and passing around a bowl to all in attendance. A large bowl stood prominently on his desk in the Oval Office.
As I headed down the road out of Centralia wondering if snow was in my future, I was happy for the refrigeration the cool temperatures provided. Upon entering Centralia I paid a quick visit to an Aldi's dumpster, something I can not resist, especially since there have been so few of them on this trip. I was in no need of food, but I was happy to stock up on several pints of chocolate milk, yogurt, strawberries, tomatoes and bananas. It is always a lark to swoop in and grab a load of food in a fraction of the time expended by all those pushing carts up and down aisles and then have to wait in a line to fork over a wad of cash for their purchases. Besides the perishables, I also scored a couple of packages of mini-donuts and dented cans of beans and fruit cocktail. And I filled two of my water bottles with orange juice My panniers were bugling with a couple day's worth of food.
I had a wonderful feast in my tent in a thick forest without any concern of lice or bed-bugs. I had pushed down a path so I was well away from the road and had a perfectly quiet night as if I were back in the times of Daniel Boone. The temperature in my tent never fell below forty, and neither rain nor snow made a visit. As I packed up in the morning, I dined right royally on cornflakes with chocolate milk and strawberries. It was just five miles to the Carnegie in Mount Vernon, another statuesque red-brick monument with wings added to its side set in a large park. As I entered this sizable town, I passed a scattering of sculptures in the 90-acre expanse of the Cedarhurst Art Center, another of those many attractions I have come upon that warrant a return. I arrived at the library well before it opened, so I didn't need to be concerned about the sign on its door that warned "Bicycle parking at your own risk." Another notice advertised that rather than giving out candy for Halloween the library would be doing a "Books for Treats."
Before the next Carnegie in Marion, a city synonymous with its federal penitentiary, I passed by the euphemistically titled Big Muddy Correctional Center that looked like a prison with high walls topped with barbed wire and towering guard posts at each of its four corners. I also passed through West Frankfort, whose motto is "Work--Live--Dream." I skipped the Cozy Table restaurant in Benton, as my corn flakes and strawberries had yet to wear off, stopping instead at its non-Carnegie library to warm up with the temperature just 43 degrees. There I learned that George Harrison had spent two weeks in Benton with his older sister in 1963, a year before the Beatles made their triumphant first tour in the States. She was living there with her Scottish husband who was an engineer in the coal industry, who had first been lured across The Pond to work in Canada. Though their residence in Benton was short-lived, their house had been turned into a Bed and Breakfast called a Hard Day's Night.
During his visit he bought a Rickenbecker guitar at a music shop in Mount Vernon. They weren't so easy to come by in England. It was auctioned off in 2014 for $657,000. It wasn't the first time I had crossed paths with the Beatles on a bike tour. During a ride through the Ozarks a few years ago, I passed through Walnut Ridge in Arkansas where their private plane had landed in 1964. I met a woman who had touched George Harrison. And I also passed through Liverpool, where there are plaques galore honoring the lads.
A replica of the Statue of Liberty, one-nineteenth the size of the original, stood in front of the library. A brochure celebrating the centennial of the library system in Benton in 2016, which has had four buildings serve as the library over the years, told the story of the statue. It was donated to the city in 1950 by its mayor in conjunction with the Boy Scouts, who were celebrating their fortieth anniversary, making available to any community the statue for $300 plus shipping to promote liberty, a program not unlike Carnegie's library-giving. A total of 208 statues were erected in 38 states, possessions and territories. At the unveiling in Benton, attended by over a thousand people, the mayor said, almost in Trumpian rhetoric during the McCarthy era, "In these tense times and questionable loyalties, I thought it would be proper and timely to erect one of these statues in our beloved home town of Benton."
I don't recall coming upon any of the other 207 statues in my years of traveling the US. They would make another interesting quest once I complete this Carnegie-mission. Each would have a fascinating back-story. The question is would the Boy Scouts have records of them or is this a totally forgotten story.
The Carnegie in Marion had a large addition to its backside, which is now its frontside, as the original entrance has been closed. The new entrance to the side replicates the original entrance with "Carnegie" spelled out in an arch above "Library." The smaller original library now includes a snack counter called "Carnegie Commons." Two older ladies were chatting away. One commented that the apartment she had moved into was so small that she had to go outside to change her mind.
I was spared seeing the penitentiary, which is seven miles to the south of Marion, on a road different from what I took. I had been meaning to take a ride to it from Chicago a few years ago when a messenger friend ended up there for a drug and violence offense, but he was transferred to another prison and then released before I had a chance to.
I had visited the Carnegie in Vienna a few years ago with Janina when we drove down to southern Illinois on her spring break to camp and hike and bike in Shawnee Forest, so was happy to fully consecrate my visit to it by arriving via bike. A sign along the main highway through the small withering town pointed to "Carnegie Library." And "Carnegie" was prominent on the library itself, including on the addition of a canopy.
Now it's on to Metropolis and the bottom of the state, twenty-one miles away. The forecast is for warmer weather so I may have a tailwind when I begin my ride north to Chicago, three hundred and fifty miles away.