Idaho History

Carnegie grants helped build libraries across Idaho

Caldwell’s 1914 Carnegie Library
Caldwell’s 1914 Carnegie Library Provided by Arthur Hart

The golden age for building public libraries came to Idaho in the early 20th century. Multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie, through his foundation, had offered grants for that purpose since 1883, and a total of 1,689 Carnegie libraries had been built in the United States by 1929. Idaho towns received grants of $138,000 between 1901 and 1914.

Lewiston’s Tseminicum Club, founded in 1898, applied for a Carnegie grant in 1901 and opened its library building in Pioneer Park in 1903. This women’s civic organization takes its name from the Nez Perce term for “meeting of the waters” because the city sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.

In Boise, the Columbian Club, founders of the Idaho Free Traveling Library, donated its 14 cases of books to a newly formed State Library Commission in February 1901. It then applied for a Carnegie grant to build a new public library for Boise. The city announced a national competition for plans for the building, which drew an impressive response from architectural firms from as far away as New York, Boston and Chicago. In all, 17 sets of plans were received by the February deadline in 1904, including four from Boise, three from Seattle and one from Spokane.

The local architectural firm of John E. Tourtellotte & Co. won first prize, which included superintending the building’s construction. C.Z. Hubbell of Spokane won the second prize of $75, and Campbell & Wayland of Boise won the third prize of $50. On March 6, 1904, the Statesman printed the renderings of what the building would look like, and heaped glowing praise on other work the company had done, including the state Capitol, construction of which would begin in 1905.

In July 1904, the firm of Michael & Weber was awarded the contract to build the library for $23,334.35, with a completion date of Dec. 1. In that January the library’s board of trustees secured estimates for beautifying the grounds around the new building. From sketches prepared by Tourtellotte & Co. it was estimated that it would cost about $1,000 for curbing, walks and steps, and another $1,000 to create a parklike setting for the building.

That Boise people loved books and reading had been demonstrated dramatically in March 1904, when the opening of the Boise Book & Music Co. at 719 Main St. attracted crowds estimated to be as high as 10,000. The Statesman called the appointments of the new store “magnificent.”

Other women’s clubs across Idaho were responsible for acquiring Carnegie grants for their communities. In Moscow in 1903 it was the Pleiades Club, whose name was taken from that constellation’s seven stars — since its membership consisted of seven faculty wives. In partnership with the Ladies Historical Club, the women secured $10,000 from the Carnegie Foundation. The California Mission-style building opened in 1906, the most northern example of the style in Idaho. It has been much enlarged since then. Other Carnegie grants helped build libraries in Caldwell, Nampa, Mountain Home, Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Wallace, and Preston. Although all but two of these buildings still stand, only three of them still function as libraries.

Pocatello’s Carnegie Library, now home of the Bannock County Historical Society, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, the first of seven libraries in Idaho built with Carnegie funds to receive that distinction for their architectural and cultural significance.

Lewiston’s Carnegie Library is in the process of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, where it would join the other Idaho libraries.

One of the Idaho Carnegie library buildings no longer standing is the one in Preston, which opened in 1912 thanks to the efforts of a women’s organization known as the Browning Club. After a new library was built, the old one was given to the city and then torn down because of a severe termite infestation.

Nampa’s Carnegie library building, secured through the efforts of the Woman’s Century Club, was destroyed by fire not long after the library moved to the First National Bank building in 1966.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email