by Margaret Lacey
Reprinted from the Cook County News-Herald,
Vol. 96--March 23, 1987, Grand Marais, Minnesota with permission.
The beautiful new building on the Village Green is the latest of the Grand Marais Public Library's many habitats. It's also the biggest and most expensive, the culmination of a rags to riches story that began 83 years ago as a dream that wouldn't die.
In 1904 the Village Council authorized a "Public Library and Reading Room." It didn't authorize any space or any budget. Just an existence. It appointed C. Murphy, E.M. Pope, Mrs. Woods, L.U.C. Titus, R. Houston, Miss M. Monilaws, S.C. Murphy, D.B. McAlpine, and Mrs. C.H. Carhart to turn this dream into a reality.
This intrepid group got together, held meetings, formed committees, planned fund raisers, and even sent for a "traveling library" (freight charge $1.78). They didn't have any space, so they set up two shelves in the office of L.U.C. Titus. Mrs. Woods "kindly donated" the shelves and helped install the books. Librarians were mostly on a volunteer basis at first, although salaries from 50 cents a week to $15 a month were later established. The library was officially open Saturday afternoons from 2 to 5 P.M., then two half days and an evening, but, in actuality, anybody could take books out almost any time. This practice was finally stopped by official decree.
The Library Board met regularly those first few years. A dance raised $18.75, food sales and card parties added fun, and funds and more traveling libraries came and went. Meanwhile, an organization of local women who called themselves the Willing Workers got in the act. They had a building and offered the library $300 and the use of this if a room was set aside for their exclusive use. This offer was refused. Then in 1909 the Board of Education gave the library two rooms in the old school house. At the same time $250 was donated for books, and a "liberal patronage" of the library was pridefully reported in the minutes of that year. In 1911 the Willing Workers deeded their buildings to the Village for use as a library on condition that the WW reserved the right to use the premises Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays and that a WW be appointed to the Library Board. This must have been agreeable because the library moved in and stayed for more than 30 years.
The Willing Workers were a very active group. They staged dinners, dances, socials, card parties and many other types of money raising activities. In a very few years they raised enough money to build their own building, an amazing accomplishment in the early years of the 20th century. Why, after all that work, it ended up in the Library's hands was never explained.
The years went inexorably by for the library, with many ups and downs along the way. Sometimes there were no meetings for a year. Sometimes one or two. Questions were raised about its continuance. Patronage was down. Librarians came and went. Maud E. Small was the most faithful. In 1912 the Board added Monday afternoon and evening openings because of court being in session. Hours changed frequently over the years with repeated demands for more open hours. Always the cold fact of lack of money stood in the way. Merle Lein and Thelma Woods were co-librarians at that time. Then between 1918 and 1920 there were few meetings and even fewer accomplishments.In 1923 a committee was appointed to have the building wired for electricity, and for the next three years the Library slumbered, nearly forgotten by the town and its Board. But the dreams went on.
Through these years the make-up of the board changed frequently. Members often resigned, but there didn't seem to be any difficulty finding replacements. An alarm evidently went off in 1926 and the library awakened under the leadership of William Clinch. Also in the revival were Mrs. Titus, Mrs. J.G. Scott, Hans Tofte, Matt Johnson, and Blanche Bally. Lucy Keller was appointed librarian and the group met often and regularly through 1930.
There was another hiatus until 1937 when Loren Leng asked to use the library for movies until his theatre was built. Permission was granted with conditions made concerning safety, insurance, and etc. With the decision the board went back to sleep for two years, still dreaming of a new home. A real renewal of spirit came in 1939 when Mrs. William Olson, Mrs. H.A. Massie, and Adolph Tofte were added to the board. At that time the first thing these humanitarians decided was to hire help to clean the library, a chore which had been previously part of the librarian's duties.Frequent meetings were held until Mr. Clinch resigned in 1943 because of ill health, having served since the early 20's. Merle Johnson became the new librarian and a rental library was started. It had been policy for many years to charge $1 deposit for adults and 25 cents for school children. Minutes didn't make it clear if this was per withdrawal or yearly. It seemed to be observed primarily in the case of non-residents.
In 1944 tragedy struck. The barrel stove over-heated and the subsequent fire totally destroyed the building. However, many books and records were saved. The payment of $15,000 in insurance healed some of the wounds and was held as a nest egg to gather interest while they planned for a new building. The library moved to the Village Hall, quarters which were extremely crowded and inconvenient, triggering many more discussions about a new home. The librarian's salary was raised from $25 to $30 a month.
The late 40's and early 50's showed another waning of the board's enthusiasm as no debate or pleas seemed to bring the possibility of a new building closer to fruition.
There was no money and not much support.
The Board was reorganized in 1957 with Ev Bushman Jr. as president. Dwain Johnson drew plans for a new library with a cost estimate of $14,000 to $17,000. For two years the discussions ranged long and heatedly over whether to combine with the school library or remain independent and apart. They also debated using the old Lutheran Church or the old Catholic Church. They voted to join with the school one month and voted to build the next. They looked over the church properties again and again. Much of this time the library was closed, although the minutes don't specify how long. Records only casually mention that they voted to reopen in 1960. The monthly salary of the librarian was now $75.
What must have been an exciting two years is referred to sketchily in the minutes, with only a few sentences outlining what was covered at the sporadic meetings and none of those mentioning construction. For a very brief period the library moved into a store in the Arrowhead Hotel building before the new structure was completed in the fall of 1962.
For about 10 years the meetings of the Library Board were erratic and infrequent. Members obviously regarded their efforts as a job well done and sat back complacently. In all fairness, a great deal of this time was spent in putting something inside the building. They had bare, unpainted floors, walls, and windows. There were no shelves and no equipment. With tile, paint and draperies finished, everyone relaxed and Jean Thomas was appointed librarian. Discussions began again about lack of space. This became more vociferous after Mary Alice Harvey replaced Jean, and services to the public increased, circulation soared, and the building began to bulge at the seams.
Annual circulation went from 3,900 in 1965 to 36,000 in 1986, with steady increases occurring every year in between. Before the early 70's librarians were almost never asked a reference question. Now that library service is one of the most used. Audio and video cassettes and records are widely circulated. VCRs and a 16 mm projector are available to the public. A copying service is provided and computer contact with other libraries right at hand. The small business collection is used a lot.All of these services and more will be available in the new building, which has over 4,000 square feet of space. More light, more space and more workshop area are just a few of the advantages of the new home. There will be a larger area for children. The story hour at the library has packed them in since it started in the 30's. There will be more room for people doing research projects. And, of course, there will be more books. As the saying goes--the more things change , the more they stay the same.
Again the library is moving house without enough money for additional furnishings or equipment. They have taken everything from the old building, patching old items with paint and band aids. Funds for the new building came from a grant from the IRRRB, from the city, from the county, and more than $20,000 from the Library friends, an organization which has been an invaluable source of funds and support since its founding in the late '70s. For furniture and equipment the city gave $3,500, the county the same, and the Library Friends $5,000, all of which helped fill those 4000 square feet of space. Stanley Fishman of St. Paul, architect, was selected by the city council and the library board after interviews with many applicants.
The grand opening of the new library building celebrates a real milestone in the long road to the end of this rainbow. As you walk on the new carpet, admire the new circulation desk built by Kim Linnell and rejoice in all that wonderful space, think what William Clinch, Mrs. Axel Berglund, L.U.C. Titus, Maud E. Small, Matt Johnson, and the dozens who started it all and kept it going for 83 years would feel.
Proud is the word. And every one in Cook County should share that feeling.
In 2017, Library Journal recognized the Grand Marais Public Library as a 5-Star Library for the 10th year in a row. There were only 13 libraries in the nation to achieve this status. In the following WTIP Community Radio broadcast, residents and staff are interviewed for their reactions.