Saturday, October 12, 2019

It’s a Wrap


The cold wet weather that dogged me much of this ride put a final stamp on my home stretch run, but for a change it included a brisk tailwind as if giving a blessing to my three-week, 1,500 miles of pedaling that took me to forty-five Carnegie Libraries. It propelled me to one-day best for this trip of 122 miles, allowing me to arrive home a day early. I didn’t quite make it back before dark, but those final miles were on roads I had ridden many times.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the tiny Carnegie library in Waterman at three after seventy-two miles in a misty rain with a temperature that never exceeded forty-two degrees that I was I confident I could make it all the way home.  It was then that I alerted Janina that if the wind didn’t lapse, I could well be back a day early. The wind persisted, but it was somewhat blunted once I entered Chicago’s suburban sprawl beginning with Aurora twenty-five miles further. My speed also diminished having to contend with traffic lights and stop signs, but my legs remained strong, despite only two rest stops all day at the Carnegie library in Sterling after twenty-three miles, then the one in Waterman forty-nine miles later.  

I didn’t pause for the Carnegies in Aurora or Naperville with the need to push on in the final stretch, but I had made their acquaintance in year’s past. The same could be said of Sterling and Waterman, but on both of those occasions on a spring ride in 2013 I had visited them during hours when they weren’t open. So I at last had the pleasure of spending some time inside their friendly confines. 



Sterling’s Carnegie sits in a small park and had an addition to its backside and a long ramp added to the front leading to a new entrance. It’s interior had been modernized with several sets of cushy den chairs and a long row of stool-like chairs facing a narrow desk looking out the new rear window with a strip of electrical outlets. It was nice not to have to hunt for an outlet as I had to do in the tiny Waterman library that wasn’t much different than it had been when it was built in 1913 other than the addition of computers and dvds. 



I commented to the Waterman librarian that the library had to be in one of the smallest communities to receive a Carnegie. She didn’t lay claim to that, though she could have, as the town only had a population of 400 when it was built, 100 less than Merom, Indiana,and 400 less than Laurens, Kansas, who both make such a boast.  Instead she said she thought her library was the last to be funded by Carnegie in Illinois. Many librarians in states across the country like to distinguish their library with such an assertion.  According to Wikipedia there were at least two built after the Waterman Carnegie in Illinois.

Before I crossed the Mississippi I visited one last Carnegie in Iowa in Maquoketa. It was a fine finale for my rounds of the state. It boasted a set of six columns on the outside of its entry and another eight inside encircling a pale blue dome. The mantle over its fireplace was graced by a photograph of the first librarian standing in front of the circulation desk. The Carnegie portrait hung in a history room in the large addition to the side of the original that replaced the entrance through the columns. It was my forty-second Iowa Carnegie in three weeks. 



I didn’t fulfill my hope of completing the entire menu of Iowa’s still standing ninety-seven Carnegies, falling eighteen short, largely thanks to riding on a crippled rear hub for four days and being forced to backtrack to Des Moines to find a bike shop large enough to have the rare replacement cartridge of ball bearings.  I was on my way to Council Bluffs when I had to turn back. 

All but one of the Carnegies I missed were in the northwest quadrant of the state. One other in Fayetteville, west of Dubuque, would have required an extra sixty miles of pedaling, which I didn’t think I had time for if I wished to return home in time for Sunday’s marathon, one of the premiere in the world attracting 45,000 runners from everywhere. It is always a spectacular event. I’ve missed it the last couple of years and wanted to break that streak. I especially looked forward to scavenging discarded gear with Tim, who I hadn’t seen since March in California on that Carnegie circuit.

From Maquoketa it was thirty miles east to cross the Mississippi just north of Clinton, over a bridge I had never ridden with a single narrow  lane for pedestrians and cyclists. A fine ride some year would be to bike the length of the river crossing ever bridge bicycles are allowed on. I’ve been over many, but far from all.



That would be an easier endeavor than getting to all the Carnegies or all the Boy Scout Statues of Liberty or state capitols or national parks or highest points in every state or any number of other potential bike tours. There are an infinite number of possibilities. If I hadn’t been away for six months and needed to catch up on the sedentary life a bit, I’d hop a train to Omaha after the Milos Stehlik tribute on Tuesday and get those remaining Carnegies in Iowa or take a train to Toledo and start in on Ohio, one of the six states with more than one hundred Carnegies.

I’ll have to go through some tent withdrawal now. My final campsite in Illinois was in one last cornfield, my predominant night spot in Iowa. Iowa is almost as much a pork state as a corn state. The most popular food on RAGBRAI isn’t pie, but rather pork chop sandwiches. As I cycled the state my nostrils were continually assaulted by the stench of pigs emanating from large warehouses they were confined to. I never saw a one in the out-of-doors. I was very careful not to camp near one of these pig prisons. I don’t know how anyone can live in their vicinity.  



The title of the book I read on RAGBRAI, “Rumble Yell,” came from another of the banes of cycling in the state—all the rumble strips along the highway to alert motorists they’d gone astray. The shoulders of the roads were very erratic, some had strips and some didn’t and some allowed a few feet of unrumbled pavement for cyclists and some just a few inches. Those narrow bands could be like walking a tightrope. Sometimes there was no shoulder at all, making it even more perilous. Iowa may be the most rumbled state in the state. It also has maybe the smallest percentage of undeveloped land with only 1.5 per cent given to nature. But all the corn fields provided ample refuge for camping. A state with nearly one hundred still standing Carnegies certainly puts it in the upper echelon of places to cycle.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Dubuque, Iowa


Flanked by the mighty Mississippi and Missouri rivers, Iowa can almost be considered a land of rIvers with eighty of them lacing the state and eventually feeding into one or the other of the two most prominent. They create valleys I must bike in and out of and also interfere with the network of county roads. I have all too often had to settle on busy four-lane divided highways when there was no viable alternative and occasionally been forced on to gravel.

I was subjected to twelve miles of hectic highway 30 heading towards Cedar Rapids before I could escape it on my way to Tipton and it’s Carnegie. My escape route led to Wright Brothers Boulevard past the Cedar Rapids airport, one of the larger of the many small airports scattered all over the state. A couple of pre-dusk landings interrupted the tranquility of my campsite less than ten miles away in a clutch of trees beside a golf course. I found three bells embedded in the mud, but didn’t fear being bombarded, as it was too cold for evening or early morning golf.

I had to cross the Cedar River to reach Tipton and that resulted in a dozen miles of gravel riding. I can only guess when looking at the county roads on my GPS whether they will be paved or not. I was lucky 140th street leading to the river crossing was paved, but beyond it I had to battle the dirt. I crossed the river on a pedestrian bridge that had been wiped out and replaced a few years ago from flooding waters. 



For some reason beyond my comprehension, riding gravel has become a popular trend, which the bike industry has been promoting to sell more bikes and gear. Some think gravel is less dangerous to ride with less traffic, but for me it is much preferable and safer to be riding on smooth pavement, rather than the risk of wiping out, as I did in Nebraska a couple of years ago on gravel suffering a severe contusion of my collar bone.

The popularity of gravel-riding is reflected not only in the bicycle industry selling “gravel bikes,” but according to the editor of the VeloNews, there were many more hits on its website of articles on the Dirty Kanza Race than on The Tour de France this past year. That might have been because three of Education First’s riders, including Taylor Phinney, contributed their presence to Kanza this year.

The latest stretch I had to ride had fairly smooth, gravel-free paths much of the way, making it almost pleasurable and giving me opportunity to let my thought drift from trying to stay upright to fond memories of riding over one thousand miles of dirt up the Alaskan Highway and other shorter stretches in Bolivia and Iceland and Cambodia and elsewhere. Those were all triumphal rides, but not altogether enjoyable. I wanted to kiss the pavement when I crossed from the Yukon to Alaska and the dirt ended. But it is true one pretty much has such roads to one’s self. For days riding on the fringe of the Amazonia in Bolivia hardly more than a vehicle passed per hour.

My short stretch in Iowa rewarded me with a rare Carnegie relic in the Tipton “Free Public Library”—Carnegie’s cane in a glass case. There was no portrait accompanying it, just a glass-enclosed explanation for the cane. It had been given to Robert Cousins, an eight-term Congressman from Iowa, who visiting Carnegie in Scotland. Cousins became hobbled by rheumatism during his visit. Carnegie gave him his cane. A few years later Cousins gave it to a local jeweler in Tipton, who likewise had developed a limp. After his death a relative bequeathed the cane to the library. It was propped off in a corner. I don’t know if I would have spotted it had not the librarian pointed it out to me.



Tipton’s Carnegie had an entire block to itself sitting in the center of a grassy park, the ultimate setting for a Carnegie with no other buildings detracting from its majesty. An addition to the rear couldn’t be seen when gazing at it head-on. Another check mark in its favor was one could still mount the steps up to its original entrance and walk right on in letting the cozy setting swell one with pleasure.



My route to the next Carnegie in Monticello took me through Anamosa, birth place of Grant Wood, the artist responsible for the American Mona Lisa, “America Gothic” of a farmer and his wife. It appropriately hangs in Chicago’s Art Institute, as Wood attended the School of the Art Institute and unveiled his masterpiece there in 1930, eleven years before his death at the age of 51.  



I passed the small school he attended as a youth four miles to the east of Anamosa. Banners down the Main Street had a bicycling variation on America Gothic. He is buried in the town cemetery on a ridge overlooking the Wapsipinicon River.  



My route to the next Carnegie in Monticello took me through Anamosa, birth place of Grant Wood, the artist responsible for the American Mona Lisa, “America Gothic” of a farmer and his wife. It appropriately hangs in Chicago’s Art Institute, as Wood attended the School of the Art Institute and unveiled his masterpiece there in 1930, eleven years before his death at the age of 51.  

I passed the small school he attended as a youth four miles to the east of Anamosa. Banners down the Main Street had a bicycling variation on America Gothic. He is buried in the town cemetery on a ridge overlooking the Wapsipinicon River.  



I didn’t quite make it to Monticello and it’s Carnegie before dark, so ended up camping between a corn field and a stream on the outskirts of the town.  



I arrived at the address of the Carnegie shortly after eight and was thwarted once again by faulty information on Wikipedia. I had to go to the Iowa Carnegie website for the correct address, just down the street. Someone was now living in it and not taking very good care of it. There were cracks in its facade and the window frames were in great need of paint. According to Wikipedia it ranks number seven on Iowa’s list of endangered historic buildings. At least the present resident cared enough to have flowers on the steps leading to the entrance.  


The Manchester Carnegie, thirty miles to the north, was shrouded by trees.  



It had a variation on the “Free” pronouncement that has been more common in Iowa than other states, going with “Free to the people,” rather than the more common “to all” or “Free Public Library.” Beneath the Carnegie Portrait in the new entrance was a brief history of the library stating it was the third oldest of the still functioning Carnegie libraries in the state.



I had the trip’s first encounter with a police officer on my forty-five mile dash to Dubuque. He pulled me over three miles after I had been forced onto the busy four-lane route 20 for a five-mile segment in the middle of the quiet two-lane old 20 that paralleled it. He said he’d had a couple calls from motorists who were concerned for my safety, as the highway only had a gravel shoulder that I wanted no part of.  

It wasn’t against the law to be on 20. He just wanted to let me know there was a nearby bike path on an old train route. It wasn’t paved, but it would be much safer. My inclination was to spend ten more minutes on the hell of the faster and more direct four-laner before returning to old 20, but decided to give the bike path a try when the officer said it went all the way to Dubuque.

Just before we parted I remembered to ask him a question I’d been meaning to ask someone for days. I’d been noticing black caterpillars crossing the road. I’d been avoiding them thinking they could be a vital part of the ecosystem, but also thought they might be a pestilence that I ought to be crushing. The officer said they are a menace to the corn and farmers would be happy if I helped in their extermination.



The Dubuque Carnegie was the largest in the state. It’d had a huge addition to its side, but the original still reigned supreme despite the adornment of several sheets of vinyl between its pillars promoting upcoming events. It’s interior was breathtaking—more pillars and a dome. It faced to the north, rather than towards the Mississippi, though the river was several blocks away.  



It’s “Strengthen the Arm of Liberty” Statue of Liberty was just five blocks away in Washington Park on my way out of town.  



I had just enough time before dark to find a cluster of bushes to disappear into under a cliff side on the outskirts of the city. Just one more Carnegie in Maquoketa thirty miles to the south before crossing the Mississippi and heading home.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Vinton, Iowa


I’ve got another correction to make to the Wikipedia page on the Carnegies of Iowa along with correcting the address for the Carnegie in Emmetsburg. It had no address for the Carnegie in Waverly, just that it now served as City Offices.  That sent me off on a prolonged hunt trying to find it.  It was a Sunday morning, so I couldn’t ask at the new library.  I had to initially rely on whoever I saw whohappened to be out and about.  The first was an older guy riding his bike on the sidewalk.  He didn’t know.  Nor did another older couple out walking their dog. A young officer at the police station had no knowledge of where the Carnegie might be or even if there had been one. He called someone to ask, but that person didn’t have the answer either.  A jogger said the former library had been across from the Fareway supermarket, but he didn’t realize it had been a Carnegie.  When I went to give it a look, it was clearly not a Carnegie.  The plain building was now home to an insurance company.

A carpenter doing some renovation of a porch said he knew all the old buildings in town, but he didn’t think any had been a library. He was the only one to give me a lead, thinking that maybe an old building with columns on the Wartburg College campus on the outskirts of the town might be what I was looking for.  

It was too far from the center of town for it to have been a plausible candidate, as a central location was one of Carnegie’s prerequisites. I had passed by the college and knew there was a Casey’s gas station nearby where I could take advantage of its WiFi to do a little more research. There is a website devoted to the Carnegies of Iowa. It gave me the news that the Carnegie was no more, but gave no date as to when it was torn down.

At least my search led to some other discoveries, including a mural appropriate to my present undertaking.



Another was one of those eight-foot tall bronze replicas of the Statue of Liberty that the Boy Scouts of America made available to communities for $350 in 1950 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Scouts, a program they called “Strengthen the Arm of Liberty.” There are some 200 of them scattered in 39 states. I have stumbled upon a few in my travels.  



They are always a stunning site, giving such a jolt of pleasure that I have considered making them my next quest when I complete the Carnegie quest, which I’m about half way done with. I ought to be combining them. There are nineteen in Iowa, the most of any state other than Kansas and Missouri, who have twenty-five and twenty-four. Wikipedia has a list. I’ll be able to see another in Dubuque in a couple of days when I stop by for its Carnegie.  

The next day I called the Waverly library to ask when the Carnegie had been razed and where it had stood.  I was told that it hadn’t been torn down, but had been encased by new walls making it an entirely different building.  It was that undistinguished building across from the Fareway at 100 Second Street, SW. The news made me want to go back and give the building a closer look and go inside to see if it did have any distinguishing features.  I couldn’t do it on this trip, but perhaps sometime in the future.


Though I was denied in Waverly, the next town, Waterloo, twenty miles south along the Cedar River, made up for it with a pair. Waterloo, like Waverly, had communities on either side of the river. When the Carnegies were built in 1902 Waverly was a growing, bustling city of 15,000 earning two grants from Carnegie for a west side and east side library on either side of the Cedar River. Both are distinguished edifices, though neither still serve as libraries. 

The west side branch is now a law office and has lost none of its grandeur, other than its new entrance oddly placed directly below the original entrance replacing the steps up it. It made it appear as if it provided entry to a bunker.



The east side branch was just a mile away across the river. It shared the same stand alone light fixtures of its brother to the west, but otherwise bore no similarity other than being a large formidable building. Unlike the other it included “Free to All” along with its identification as a “Public Library.” Its tenant, which offers “neighborhood services,” did not seem to have the resources to maintain the building as well as the law firm. It was looking much older and haggard, as if it might have dated to the early 1800s, rather than 1900s.



I left the river and ventured back into small-town Iowa for the Carnegie in Reinbeck. It’s simple brick and stucco design had a small addition tucked to its back side where one now entered the library. There weren’t sufficient funds to close off the original entrance so a sign on the door reading “Not an entrance” had to suffice.



The addition to the Traer Carnegie was tacked on to its side and provided the new entry. The former entrance had been turned into a patio. The “Public Library” over the entry was uniquely flanked on both sides by “Carnegie,” a nice double dose. Neither Reinbeck or Traer were not large enough towns to warrant Monday morning hours, so I could only soak up their auras sitting outside for a few minutes snacking and resting before my next jaunt. As I sat on the bench in front of the Traer library a young woman asked me when the library opened. She was distraught that it wouldn’t be for a couple of hours. “I just took my meds,” she said, “I have the shakes and I need a place to sit down.”  



Twenty-five mikes to the east, Vinton had a population large enough to support a McDonald’s and to have library hours commencing at nine a.m., well after I arrived. It’s addition to the rear did not disallow entry up the original steps, as I always prefer, as did Carnegie as a symbol of rising up to knowledge. The interior had been fully renovated with outlets in the floor. It didn’t have the warm den-like atmosphere of its past, but the usual large windows and high ceilings of the Carnegies still gave it an ambiance lacking in modern-day replacements. One could check out a wide variety of cake pans for two weeks.



I didn’t care to linger long as I was enjoying my first four-star riding conditions since I began these travels over two weeks and a thousand miles ago. There wasn’t a cloud in a sky that was a brighter blue than I could remember. It was an ideal 70-degrees with just a hint of a wind that was giving me a slight assist. This was a day when I didn’t want to stop riding and had me in that state of mind that there wasn’t anything else I’d rather be doing.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Nashua, Iowa


My last two fall rides making circuits of the other “I” states with over one hundred Carnegies, the weather was so idyllic I didn’t want to stop riding. This year the weather has been abominable—day after day of cold rain and head winds. I’m not crying “Uncle” by any means, but I’ve hardly had a day of blissful, carefree cycling that more often than not have defined my years of touring. More often than not my day on the bike has a been a battle of some sort, early on with a rear hub that only had bearings on one side interspersed with inclement weather and now weather even nastier.

The wind has been a continual factor, often of enough intensity a sidewind has even been cause for concern. I’ve been reading “Rumble Yell” by Brian David Bruns, a book recounting the ride of a trio of guys across Iowa in the 2012 RAGBRAI and not once has he mentioned the wind, just the heat and the hills. The wind isn’t much of a factor in the summer, but it’s a different story this fall with the weather very much in turmoil.

I did have a glorious day of riding with the wind at my back a couple of days ago, but it switched from blowing out of the west to coming at me from the east the next day right into my face. It was a chilly wind accompanied by a cloud cover that threatened rain all day continuing the pattern of murky days. And then the next day it was headwinds combined with a pelting cold rain. Even with booties enough water penetrated my shoes that my socks absorbed so much water that I could wring them out at my library stops.  

I was resigned to another motel, but the rain stopped enough before dark to allow me to somewhat dry out other than my feet. Rather than pushing on 18 miles to where I knew there was a motel, I took advantage of a municipal campground along the Cedar River in Nashua at a wide point where it could have passed for a lake. It came with a hot shower, but in unheated quarters with a frigid concrete floor. At least it had a hair drier allowing me to somewhat dry my soaked shoes.


The Carnegie in Nashua was the only one of my three for the day that still functioned as a library. It sat on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood and was adorned with a simple “Library” over its entrance, now closed, though not blocked off with a barrier as many are when an addition offers a new ground level entrance.


The day before the Carnegie in Cresco generously remained loyal to its original entrance despite a new entrance on its addition to the side. I arrived at Cresco at five, right at closing time, as the librarian was exiting the library from the original entrance and locking up. I had forgotten it was Friday, when libraries often close a little early, so didn’t realize what the person exiting was doing as I stood across the street with my camera. If I hadn’t been battling a headwind all day I would have arrived at least an hour earlier.



I would have been several minutes sooner too if I hadn’t been slowed by all the many captivating bronze statues around the town celebrating childhood’s simple joys, including a boy on tricycle with his sister aboard.   



They dated to 2006 when a local couple donated a handful to the town wishing to enhance its public spaces. The sculptures were such a hit that others provided funds for more and local businesses pitched in—a masonry providing the bases they all reside on, a jeweler providing the plaques on each and a hardware store the equipment necessary to install them. The visitor center offers a map of the thirty scattered around town.

If I were searching for a small town to disappear to, Cresco would be a strong contender. Besides the Carnegie and the community spirit exemplified by the sculpture project, it had a bike store and also a supermarket with unlocked dumpsters that provided a bountiful haul of yogurt, cheese and assorted dips. My two insulated water bottles were full of chocolate milk from a half gallon I’d stocked up on earlier in the day, so I was going to have a dairy-rich diet for the next couple of days.  

Cresco was also enhanced by an Amish community. I was passed on my way into town by a one-horse carriage galloping along on the wide gravel shoulder. 


I arrived shivering and soaked at the gallant Carnegie in New Hampton the next morning. It called itself the Carnegie Culture Center, a fancy name for museum. I was happy to see an “Open” sign in the window. The woman in charge was a genuine Carnegie enthusiast as well as a passionate curator of the museum, who ambitiously mounts a new exhibit every six months related to the region. The current one related to farming. The last one was on girl’s six-person basketball. There were several glass-enclosed counters with amazing miniatures by a local artist. One replicated a photo from 1908, just before the Carnegie opened, of the circus coming to town with a parade of elephants down the town’s Main Street packed with totally enthralled locals.

She kept me spellbound for over an hour as she gave me a tour of the museum even though I was eager to get off my legs and get to the new library, which I hoped was warmer than the museum. I clutched my arms to my chest all the while she talked trying to warm up. She told me about a book on Iowa’s Carnegies by John Witt published in 2003. She called her husband and had him bring over her copy for me to look at. I’ve read books devoted to the Carnegies of Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ireland and Ontario, but didn’t realize there was one on Iowa as well. The local library had a copy and I’m sure I’ll be able to consult it it more libraries before I leave the state. The three hundred page book had two to six pages on each of the 101 public Carnegie libraries in the state, though nothing on its seven university libraries.  Before I left she enlisted her intern to take a photo of us outside in the murk making sure he included the “Free Public Library” above the entry.  



She told me the New Hampton library was one of triplets, that there were two others by the same architect and of a similar design. I had visited one the day before in Osage. It was now the City Hall, and like the New Hampton library hadn’t been added on to, though it didn’t include “Free” on its facade. The third was off in the southwest corner of the state in Villisca. I visited it several years ago. The Carnegie book had a photo of each library in the state accompanied by two pages of copy, but it didn’t mention the relation and similarity of these three.

After an additional hour at the new library the rain had stopped when I resumed riding, but the air was thick with moisture. Cars could get away with intermittent wipers, but I still needed plastic bags over my gloves and had to occasionally wipe my glasses to see. If I wanted to eat or drink I had to stop, and I did need to fuel up every few miles.  



I was at least rewarded with a stunner in Charles City constructed of local stone. It was now the “Arts Center,” choosing not to include Carnegie in its name, as most do. After a warm-up and squeeze of my socks in the new library it was on to Nashua following the raging Cedar River.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Mason City, Iowa


Iowa has its own set of Great Lakes—a trio up near the border with the state that claims to have ten thousand lakes. A Carnegie resides in the town of Spirit Lake, the most prominent of the three lakes. I wasn’t able to appreciate them, as low-lying clouds dispensing a cold rain obscured them.  

I could hardly look around anyway as there was an abundance of traffic to contend with in the semi-resort communities surrounding the lakes. There is enough affluence and vanity in the vicinity to attract a cosmetic surgeon who advertised his services with a giant billboard reading “Fear No Mirror.”


The Carnegie relinquished it’s status as a library thirty years ago and presently serves as a Christian youth center. A much faded “Carnegie Library” adorns the still regal building. The new library a few blocks away would not attract anyone’s attention and has no chance of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places, as most Carnegies are.

The forecast called for a lull in the rain from two to four. The lull arrived with amazing precision. The sky lightened enough that I hoped the forecast had been bungled and the rain had past, but no it resumed right on schedule just as I was arriving at the next Carnegie in Estherville. I had been hearing about its magnificence from librarians for days, partially because it had had a much lauded addition a couple of decades ago.  


The library is the town’s centerpiece, sitting in the middle of a large grassy block in the town center allowing its grandeur to be seen from all round. The addition matched the grandeur of the original other than usurping its original entrance, rendering it obsolete, even though the columns and arch with “Public Library” above lured one into wanting to follow the footsteps of the thousands over the decades who had entered that way.

In the portico of the old entrance were two locked cabinets containing books from the outlets that had served as the town’s library in the 1880s and 1890s before the Carnegie was built. One was a doctor’s office and another a popular store in the town. The books included a complete set of Dickens.

When I left the library I had two-and-a-half hours of light to reach Emmetsburg and a motel, which I was going to need again if the rain didn’t relent. My tights and shoes and gloves were damp and wouldn’t dry in my tent. The cold drizzle continued with the temperature now below fifty. I needed plastic bags over my gloves to keep my hands warm. At least a fellow cyclist in the Estherville library had told me of a cheap motel on the outskirts of Emmetsburg.  

I arrived right at dark, dripping wet. Before I could register I had to go back to my bike to get a wipe for my glasses to see. The Indian owner leerily asked how many days I wished to stay, as many of his residents were there for extended periods, and figured I might have just lost my housing, kicked out by a wife or landlord. 

Though it was bargain-priced it still offered a modest breakfast of cereal and rolls. The owner appreciated that I provided by own bowl and utensil and even more so when I told him he didn’t need to change the sheets in my room as I had slept on the floor on my sleeping pad in my sleeping bag, preferring the hardness of the floor to the squishy softness of the bed, and at least giving me a hint of sleeping outdoors on the ground. “There’d be some hope for the planet,” he said, “if more people were like you.”


The rain had past, but it was still cold, not even fifty. My shoes were still a bit damp, but with heavier socks my feet were okay. I began the day with a Carnegie right there in Emmetsburg except it wasn’t at the address on the Wikipedia page. I was suspicious when it was several blocks from the town center and when I approached it I could see the narrow stucco building didn’t have the bearing of a Carnegie. A sign out front identified it as a history museum, and its cornerstone read 1920, a year after Carnegie died. It had actually been church, not a library.

I went back to town and stopped at the first open business I came to, a small printing shop. The Carnegie was just a block away on 10th street near the City hall. The Carnegie now served as offices for Iowa State University. It was somewhat obscured by trees, but “Library” could still be read on its facade.


Not only had the rain stopped, but for the first time in several days the wind was blowing from the West with just a little northerly in it to keep it cold. It could be my first day-long tailwind since my first day two weeks ago when I was headed north and had a southerly. The 87 miles I did that day was the most of the trip and a good incentive to top today after a couple of paltry days in the rain. Maybe even a century. I fell twelve miles short, stopping 45 minutes before dark when a rare small forest was too inviting to pass up. I didn’t care to camp in a cornfield that could be extra muddy from two days of rain.


I could have camped in a state campground on Clear Lake, where I stopped for the lone Carnegie of the day that was still a library, but there was two hours of light left and a tailwind that I couldn’t relinquish. The Carnegie in Algona, thirty mikes before Clear Lake, was being converted into the Carnegie Center for the Arts. A side door still had “The Carnegie Tea Room” on it, it’s previous incarnation. It was a rare Carnegie with no mention on it of its past as a library, just the allusion by the name taken by its tenants, and a cornerstone of 1904.


Clear Lake’s Carnegie had a large addition to its side, another that detracted from its original entrance. If one’s gaze scanned the building above street level, it would be puzzled by “Carnegie Public Library” over the old now blocked entrance and the new one next to it with “Clear Lake Public Library” over it. I was equally puzzled by several shelves in the library of “Christian fiction.”


Ten miles further on a busy four-lane highway that took me past an Aldis, whose dumpster provided orange juice, muffins, avocados and bananas, was the day’s fourth Carnegie in Mason City, a grand edifice that now housed a construction company and an architectural firm. It’s was now known as “The Carnegie Building.”

I let the wind blow me west for another five miles before I had to turn north for the first time of the day towards Osage. Leaving the city I passed a sign to a campground, but was happy I continued on to one of my own devising in a forest beside a stream. No worries of mosquitoes with the temperature threatening to plunge to freezing.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Spencer, Iowa


An all day rain with the temperature hovering around fifty forced me into a motel for the first time in these travels. The decision was made for me at five p.m. when I stopped at the Spencer library in the rain and it took me a full five minutes to pry off my soaked cycling gloves, as I could barely get my fingers to function. I was much colder than I realized and with no imminent break in the rain I couldn’t count on my exertion to warm me or to dry my garb. 

With 11,000 people Spencer had several motels to choose from. It was the first town I had passed through since Des Moines four days ago large enough to have a Walmart and a series of stop lights down its Main Street. My tent was wet from the night before and my shoes were plenty damp too, though I had been wearing booties over them. I’ve had other days of rain on this trip, but it had never been cold enough to require the booties. When I stopped to put them on under the awning of a rural gun store, an older woman offered to give me a ride to wherever I needed to go. I wasn’t even tempted.

The Spencer library wasn’t a Carnegie, though it resided on the spot where a Carnegie had stood until it was torn down in 1970, one of ten of Iowa’s 108 Carnegies to suffer such a fate. It at least lives on in a photo by the library’s drinking fountain. Much greater memory, though, is paid to Dewey Readmore Books, the library’s cat from 1985 to 2006 immortalized in the book “Dewey: The Small-Town Cat Who Touched the World,” by Vicki Myron, director of the library. A ceramic replica of Dewey sits beside the circulation desk.



Outside the library a plaque resides in an alcove to the right of its entrance where his remains are interred. A large portrait of him hangs over a faux fire place in the periodicals room.  



Dewey souvenirs are for sale—posters for $15, puzzles for $10, tote bags for $4 and post cards for $1 or four for $3.50. He had loads of room to roam in the spacious single floor library. The Hollywood studio that was all set to film his story may have turned off the green light on the project when it discovered how bland and characterless the library was, both inside and out. If his domain had been a Carnegie, that could have made the difference, as it would have co-starred with Dewey.

The tiny, quaint Carnegie in Laurens, thirty miles away, would have made a superlative setting. It’s simple, stucco design was uncharacteristic of Iowa, but distinguished enough to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the year it was replaced and turned into a museum.


One of the two women tidying up the museum packed with local artifacts said she and her husband had passed me on the road the evening before and were concerned for my safety as a local teacher had been killed ten years before riding that road in the same waning light. They were especially concerned as their daughter-in-law had been a passenger in the car.  They lived along the road and were going to invite me to their home, but I disappeared.  I had slipped into a patch of woods three miles before Laurens.  

As I acknowledged the portrait of Carnegie in the entry that most of the Carnegies have, she proudly said that Laurens was the smallest town to receive a grant from Carnegie. I’ve heard that before, including at Merom, Indiana, the library that put my name up on its message board knowing I was on my way. Merom had a population of just over 500 when it received its grant. Laurens was 800.  

The woman pulled out a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings on the library to prove her case, many of which repeated the notion that Laurens was the smallest town to receive a Carnegie grant, a self-perpetuating myth. One article cited the 1935 Century of Progress in Chicago, where the Iowa exhibit included mention of Laurens as the smallest town with a Carnegie. It may have been the smallest in Iowa, but not elsewhere.

The many articles in the scrapbook traced the history of the Laurens Carnegie. A group of women, known as the Mother’s Club, which became the Laurens Woman’s Club, initially opened a reading room with 100 columns, half for adults and half for children that they rented from a store for twelve dollars a month. When they learned of Carnegie’s beneficence they applied for a $3,500 grant, and passed the requisite ten per cent per annum amount of $350 to fund it. Women had yet to gain the right to vote in federal elections, but they could vote on issues such as this. One article from the times said the election “demonstrated a woman’s ability to vote.”  

Laurens resides in Pocahontas County. The town of Pocahontas had a giant statue of her and mentioned the county was one of three in the state to be named for a woman. The women in Laurens thought another might be Lizzie, but they didn’t know.  


The plaque outside the glorious Carnegie in Humboldt, another worthy of biking hundreds of miles to see, also raised the issue of woman being able to vote stating, “The decision to build gave the first voting privilege to the women of Humboldt.” This was in 1908 more than a decade before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. Humboldt’s library was constructed of limestone quarried on the site of the library and from another quarry a block away. The columns were of Indiana limestone. It is adorned with “Carnegie Library” on its facade and “Free to the People” below it. An addition to the rear in 1992 made it accessible to those who couldn’t mount the steps.



The Carnegie in the larger city of Fort Dodge would have been spectacular in its day. It is still a site to behold, but not so well maintained. It was converted into six apartments in 2000. None of the librarians at the new library live there, though they were tempted to pool their resources and purchase it when it went up for sale again a few years ago.


My route from Laurens to Spencer took me through the small town of Marathon. Cyclist Rick in Lansing alerted me that the acclaimed food writer Richard Olney, whose latest book on French cuisine he was reading, grew up there. Its library, only open four days a week for twenty-one hours, had one of his earlier books.  

There was no plaque on the house he grew up in, as there would be in France, where he now presently lives, as it burned down. Nor was there a sign on the outskirts saying it was the home of Olney, as it would have if he had distinguished himself athletically, just a sign promoting its marathon, which was run for the last time in 2018 after twenty years, when the organizers grew too old to promote it, and no one else cared to. The librarian said he could call Olney’s brother and sister, who lived nearby and were retired, if I’d like to meet them.