Classical round columns frame the doorway of Green River’s Carnegie library building below a pediment, where scrollwork designs frame a carving of “1906” in script. Inside the main reading room is a large stained glass window that’s been there for well over a century.

The structure dedicated in 1907 was one of 16 Carnegie libraries built between 1899 and 1917 in Wyoming and is among the 10 remaining.

The statewide historic preservation nonprofit Alliance for Historic Wyoming wants to keep it standing.

The library was built during Wyoming’s early years when Andrew Carnegie funded construction for 1,689 libraries across the country with Carnegie Public Library Building grants, according to the Alliance for Historic Wyoming website.

In Wyoming, the libraries sprang up in the new state’s growing communities, according to the website. Five remain as libraries, a few found other uses and others have been torn down, coordinator of the Cowboy Carnegies initiative Andrea Graham said. A couple have largely been covered in additions with little original architecture visible, she said. Four of Wyoming’s Carnegie libraries are on the National Register of Historic Places or are parts of historic districts.

The Sweetwater County-owned Carnegie building housed the county circuit court after the new Sweetwater County Library opened in 1980, according to the website.

But now the building sits empty, Graham said.

“We got very concerned that we were going to lose another one,” she said.

That concern sparked the Alliance for Historic Wyoming a few years ago to create its traveling “Cowboy Carnegies” exhibit. The exhibit tells the story of Wyoming’s 16 Carnegie libraries in five panels of history and images and is on display through May 3 at the Crook County Library in Sundance. Next it heads to the two Campbell County Library branches, where it will be on display in May in Wright and in June in Gillette.

Despite Wyoming’s smaller population, its number of Carnegie libraries was comparable to surrounding states, Graham said.

“They were all beautiful architecturally,” she said. “Carnegie wanted them to be distinguished buildings and centers of culture; that was his goal. So I think towns saw that as a chance to really add something to their community, something valuable.”

Preserving history

The alliance created and began touring the exhibit in 2015 with funding from the Wyoming Humanities Council. The exhibit has traveled to all of the 16 communities that have been home of Carnegie libraries, and alliance members offer a presentation about the history and architecture, Graham said. Interest is growing in other areas and the exhibit is available for booking, Graham said. The Alliance for Historic Wyoming website features articles about the libraries and an interactive map. The exhibit is part of the organization’s Cowboy Carnegies campaign to raise awareness of the buildings and promote preservation.

Many of the Carnegie libraries in Wyoming were started by women’s clubs, often book clubs or those with a literary bent, Graham said. They often started small libraries and book collections wherever they could find space, even if they were only in courthouse basement rooms or their husbands’ law offices, she said.

“After the Civil War there were all these women’s clubs and they were very interested in education and edification and elevating the culture in a town,” Graham said, “So a lot of that was through books and reading.”

About 75-80 percent of public libraries nationwide were founded by women’s organizations, according to Graham’s research on the website. However, grants had to be arranged through local government officials, most of whom were men, which frustrated some of the women, she said. They took active roles raising money for the furniture and books, she said.

“They just couldn’t be the people signing the papers,” she said, “but they were the originators in many cases.”

Six Carnegie libraries in Wyoming have been torn down, including Cheyenne’s library and Casper’s on the site of the current Natrona County Library.

The 1919 Lusk Carnegie Library is still in use as the Niobrara County Library and boasts the only Carnegie library in Wyoming with a corner entrance, according to the website. It’s an example of a Carnegie library that’s made updates including for expansion and accessibility for those with disabilities while largely maintaining its original architecture, Graham said. The half-round windows also have been restored to be more energy efficient, and an addition features elements like the window shape and dark brickwork designs of the original, she said.

“So it can be done,” Graham said. “And it’s getting used all the time. I stopped by there, and there are always people coming and going.”

Building history

The early Carnegie libraries feature ornate architecture with columns on portico entrances, while the later buildings reflect simpler styles of the times. Thermopolis’ Carnegie library, for instance, was built later and features beautiful brickwork, Graham said. That building was the last of Wyoming’s Carnegie libraries built and now houses offices, according to the website. UW Extension offices are currently housed there, Graham said.

“They don’t all look exactly alike, but they have this presence that Carnegie wanted to encourage,” she said, “and you can spot them.”

Cheyenne’s 1902 Carnegie library “was spectacular,” Graham said. The three-story building was Wyoming’s first Carnegie library, and the lead architect for the project, William Dubois, later designed the Green River library and went on to design many other buildings in Wyoming, according to the website. The library, demolished in 1971, was complete with an auditorium, an art gallery and spaces for meetings.

The website quotes one person’s childhood memory of the staircase entry: “When you walked up that staircase, you just sort of got this majestic feeling, like you were going someplace extremely important.”

Graham has used the quote in talks and said many others have shared similar memories. She’s collected many stories from residents around Wyoming during presentations for the exhibit, like those who remember reading on the front steps of Carnegie libraries.

“They were really cultural centers of the town,” she said.

The 1905 Albany County Public Library was the second Carnegie library built in Wyoming and the state’s oldest still standing, Graham said. The city-owned building is used for city offices with many of the same outer and inner elements kept up, like woodwork and tile in the entry hall and stairway, she said.

When the new library was built in 1981 two blocks away, a “human brigade” lined up along the streets to pass the books from one person to another, she said. When Graham told the story in during a presentation for the exhibit in Buffalo, she learned residents there had done the same thing.

“Except the idea was they would keep all the books in order, but people would stop and look at the book and say, ‘Oh this is my favorite,’” Graham said of the Laramie library, “and everything was all out of order by the time it got to the new library.”

Evanston was too small a community in 1902 for a Carnegie grant, but town resident and U.S. Senator Clarence Clark explained in a letter to Carnegie that it would serve residents across the county, according to the website. The library was built in 1906 and now houses the Uinta County Museum and the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, where it’s part of the Downtown Evanston Historic District.

Construction of the 1910 Carnegie library in Casper, remembered for its domed roof, was plagued with difficulty, including funds running out before the building was finished, according to the website.

Casper Mayor Wilson S. Kimball in 1905 wrote to Andrew Carnegie requesting a public library grant.

“This is essentially a range live-stock country, in which many men are constantly going to and coming from town,” he wrote. “A Carnegie Library here would benefit a class that are seldom benefited by such institutions, and would afford a quiet, wholesome and instructive resort of a character that are too scarce in these western range towns.”

It was demolished in 1970.

The fate of the Green River’s Carnegie library building remains uncertain. There had been talk of tearing it down for a courthouse parking lot, she said, though recent evaluations of the building have been done to find out what it would take to stabilize it and what it could be used for, she said. The building is part of the Green River Commercial District on the National Register of Historic Places.

The alliance took the exhibit to the town and met with city and county officials to explain why they believe it’s important to save it.

“So I don’t know what the end result will be, but that was the spark that started this whole project,” Graham said.

She encourages people to see the remaining Carnegie libraries across Wyoming. She’s driven into small towns in other states and seen other Carnegie libraries, usually on main streets, and she can usually spot them by their architecture, she said.

“Carnegie wanted that,” she said. “He wanted distinguished architecture that spoke about education and enlightenment, and that’s what the libraries were supposed to be.”

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Star-Tribune reporter Elysia Conner covers arts, culture and the Casper community.

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