Greshams Carnegie Library reaches its centennial milestone

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The historic Carnegie Library in downtown Gresham celebrate its 100th birthday on Friday, March 1.

One has to wonder what Gresham’s earliest residents would think of the way folks acquire and read books these days.

Grabbing a paperback at the grocery store. Using headphones to listen to a book. Or turning pages on an electronic device with a lighted screen.

Fortunately, Gresham also had some fairly forward thinkers, when it came to providing reading material to local residents. From their humble beginnings, Gresham’s first public library building, the Carnegie Library, reaches the century mark Friday, March 1.

To commemorate the milestone, the Gresham Historical Society will host a 100-Year Celebration and open house for the public from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 16, at the Gresham History Museum. Vignette displays will tell the story of how the area — once known as “Campground” — blossomed into the fourth largest city in the state. The displays will feature historical documents and everyday artifacts.

Visitors will find photographs of Gresham’s unique landmarks, like Zim’s 12-Mile Corner and the former Multnomah County Fairgrounds and hear historical recollections from some of the city’s pioneer families. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The Gresham Historical Society, now located in the former Carnegie Library, has a display honoring the history of the 100 year-old building.

But the event also will be a step back in history, when children gathered in a corner of the building for story time and when getting your hands on a book wasn’t as easy as it is today.

Gresham’s earliest library was established in 1903. It was one of three “deposit stations” housing collections of books in Multnomah County outside the main library branch in downtown Portland. Stations in Bridal Veil and Fairview served residents in other outlying areas. Nestled in a room above the city’s post office, Gresham’s “reading room” was open three days a week and offered a choice of nearly 100 books. Folks obtained their library cards through postmistress Mrs. Ione McColl, but securing the services of a librarian proved difficult and the reading room closed in May 1905.

Timothy Brownhill and H.L. St. Clair, who later founded the Outlook, fostered interest in a library and resurrected the community reading room later that year. Residents took on the project, turning it into a cooperative effort, by providing the room with heat, lights, furniture and janitorial services.

The Library Association of Portland allocated books and magazines and picked up the $1 weekly salary for a permanent librarian. Gresham’s first official library housed between 200 and 300 books, was open five hours a day and by 1907, was circulating more than 7,000 books to residents.

But by 1912, the reading room had outgrown its space. Community members raised $1,900 to purchase land for a permanent library on the corner of North Main Avenue and Fourth Street and secured more than $13,000 from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation for construction and furnishings.

The Carnegie Library was dedicated and officially opened to the public on the afternoon of March 1, 1913. The 3,032-square foot building has long been revered as one of the finest examples of Tudor architecture, boasting a unique brick arrangement on its exterior walls and colophon windows made from glass and lead. Seven libraries in Multnomah County were funded by the Carnegie Foundation in the early 1900s. Three are still part of the public library system.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: GRESHAM HISTORICAL SOCIETY - This 1914 photo shows the interior of the Carnegie Library when it was one year old.

Philanthropist for public institutions

Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant, was an early industrialist who amassed a fortune in the steel and railroad industries in the mid-1800s. He was reputedly “appalled” at the level of illiteracy across the country and blamed westward migration for the lack of consistent education.

Among institutions like universities and medical centers, Carnegie identified libraries as philanthropic areas worthy of public support.

In 1868, Carnegie wrote himself a note — “Thirty-three and an income of $50,000 [sic] per annum…Beyond this never earn — make no effort to increase fortune, but spend surplus each year for benevolent [sic] purposes.”

Carnegie’s philosophy was a “gospel of wealth,” meaning those with money had a responsibility to give their excess to others so they could help themselves.

It wasn’t until Carnegie sold his steel interests to J.P. Morgan, for nearly $500 million in 1901 that Carnegie lived up to his preachings.

By the time he died in 1919, Carnegie had donated more than $333 million ($4 billion today) to underwrite numerous causes and institutions.

In 1960, Gresham’s Carnegie Library was busting at the seams along with the city’s population of nearly 10,000.

The library was remodeled to include more shelving and a reference room and within a year, library users had checked out 74,826 books.

But the historic library soon found itself sorely in need of space again. Gresham had become the fourth largest city in the state by the mid-1980s, and annual circulation for the local library was more than 220,000 items.

In 1987, voters passed a $1.7 million ballot measure for construction of a new 20,000-square foot library on the corner of Northwest Miller Avenue and Third Street.

Book Brigade

by: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO 1989 - On December 30, 1989 Gresham citizens lent a hand -- literally -- when the library moved from the  Carnegie building on Main Avenue to the new library on Northwest Miller Avenue. The books were passed hand-to-hand between the two buildings.

On Saturday, Dec. 30, 1989, between 400 and 500 volunteers formed a human chain passing nearly 15,000 books hand-to-hand through downtown streets from one building to the other.

Utahna Kerr, a longtime member of the Gresham Historical Society and museum volunteer, remembers the chilly, cloudy morning and those who turned out to help with the move.

“There were so many people who wanted to be part of the Book Brigade that they had to take turns,” Kerr said. “There were a lot of school children, too. And they all got a button that said, ‘I Was Part of the Book Brigade.’ ”

Gresham’s new library was dedicated Jan. 7, 1990. It featured such state-of-the-art upgrades as a computerized card catalog system and a locator service to find books at other branches.

The Gresham Historical Society took charge of the Carnegie building in 1990, renaming it the Gresham Pioneer Museum. The group spent three years restoring the inside of the building — replacing flooring, polishing woodwork and installing newly donated display cases. The museum’s first exhibit was called “Tombstones Tell Tales.” It featured pioneer headstone rubbings done by a local high school student as part of his Eagle Scout project.

But the exhibit also unveiled a mystery.

“Someone had turned in a headstone they found in a bunch of blackberry bushes,” Kerr said. “We put it on a piece of marble and used it as part of the exhibit. We were never able to find the headstone registered in Multnomah County, so it had to have come from somewhere else — we think Kentucky. What we learned was when people from the Ozarks were coming west, they knew they weren’t going back, so they brought the tombstones of their loved ones with them.”

The late Pat Stone became museum director in 1990 and is credited as the driving force behind the Gresham Historical Society. Under Stone’s watch, the museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places and renamed the Gresham History Museum.

Stone is highly remembered for her tireless dedication to preserving not only the museum’s artifacts but also the city’s history. Bequeaths from her estate, as well as $27,000 from the estate of longtime Gresham businessman Jack Malcom, has allowed the historical society to continue the building’s restoration.

“If it weren’t for Pat, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Dorothy Douglas, president of the historical society’s board of directors. “She was obsessed with preserving Gresham’s history.”

The museum board honored the will of its generous benefactors last year, when it buttoned the doors for six months to remove a false ceiling believed to contain asbestos. Construction to raise the ceiling yielded previously unknown electrical wiring, which not only allowed additional lighting, but also an opportunity to enhance the building’s historical accuracy. The museum reopened, all spiffed up, in July with an exhibit of vignettes showcasing the people, places and events that shaped the city.

“It was a lot of work and because we were closed so much, I think people forgot we were here,” Kerr said. “But it was wonderful because people came in and said, ‘I used to come here when it was a library.’”

The museum has also become beneficiary to an annual funding source supplied by passage of a 2011 library levy. Those resources have allowed the historical society to provide a stipend for a part-time museum clerk, a collections database for registering artifacts, video and audio equipment to record and document oral pioneer interviews and a security system for the building.

In addition, Douglas said, the historical society’s current board of directors is upholding Stone’s mission by mapping future plans to include fund raising, special museum events and volunteer development.

Visitors at the Carnegie Library’s 100 Year Celebration on March 16 won’t find shelves with books anymore, but an event planned to open this summer will prove history does repeat itself.

“It’s amazing the people who remember the Story Corner so we’re bringing it back,” Douglas said. “We’re going to put a blanket on the floor, since reading and blankies go together — even if you’re 25! The purpose is to bring kids in to see history, hear history and make it relevant in their lives.”

Carnegie Library Through the Years

1903 First “book deposit” opens to residents, above the Gresham Post Office, offering a 50-book collection.

1905 Unable to find a permanent librarian, the “book deposit” closes.

1906 A cooperative effort by residents launches a new “reading room” with aid from the Portland Library Association and the Gresham’s first permanent librarian.

1912 Community members raise $1,900 to purchase land on North Main Avenue and Fourth Street to build a library; $13,000 in additional funding came from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation.

1913 Gresham’s Carnegie Library opens on March 1, with 3,000 book titles.

1960 Library is remodeled to meet growing demand, installing additional bookshelves, new furniture and equipment.

1987 Voters pass a $1.7 million ballot measure to build a new library on the corner of Northwest Miller Avenue and Third Street.

1989 On Dec. 30, between 400 and 500 volunteers formed a human chain to move books hand-to-hand from one library building to another.

1990 Gresham Regional Library is dedicated on Jan. 7; Gresham Historical Society absorbs care of the Carnegie building and renames it the Gresham Pioneer Museum, with Pat Stone as director.

1994 Museum reopens after a three-year renovation, featuring an exhibit called “Tombstones Tell Tales.”

2000 The Carnegie building is added to the National Register of Historic Places and renamed the Gresham History Museum.

2012 The museum closes for six months, to remove a false ceiling believed to contain asbestos; it reopened in July with an vignette exhibit of Gresham’s pioneer families called “Gresham Welcomes You.”

March 1, 2013 The Carnegie Library turns 100.

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