Late last week, a man walked into Turlock’s Carnegie Arts Center carrying a bronze bust of Andrew Carnegie himself.
The visitor asked director Lisa McDermott if she would like to have it for the center, which will celebrate the building’s centennial beginning in February.
Of course, she accepted. Virtually every bit of memorabilia from the days when the building was a Carnegie Library was lost in a devastating fire in 2005.
“It’s in my office now,” she said, as she determines where to display it securely.
For more than a half-century in five Valley communities – Turlock, Oakdale, Newman, Patterson and Riverbank – Carnegie libraries were where people of all ages came to read, learn, study and socialize, courtesy of steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. He gave more than $60 million to fund over 2,500 libraries worldwide including 1,679 in the United States between 1883 and the mid-1920s.
The irony is that the way he and other tycoons of the era made their money ultimately led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which banned business activities intended to eliminate competition.
Carnegie amassed his fortune by dominating the steel industry just as John D. Rockefeller controlled the petroleum industry through Standard Oil and J.P. Morgan financed railroads. They became known as the “Titans of Industry” to some, “robber barons” to others. They basically hated each other until William Jennings Bryan ran for the presidency on the promise he would further challenge their empires by strengthening the anti-monopoly laws. So they put aside their personal differences to back Republican candidate William McKinley in 1896 while financing a smear campaign against Bryan. McKinley won – a president bought, according to many historians.
When Carnegie sold his steel holdings to Morgan for $480 million in 1901, it made him the richest man in the world. Though he, like Rockefeller, Morgan and other moguls, built his empire on the backs of his workers, Carnegie long saw philanthropy as the best use for his riches. In his “Gospel of Wealth” in 1889, he challenged other rich folks to use their fortunes to better society as well.
Carnegie certainly did, founding universities and Carnegie Hall. He established foundations to fund the sciences and museums. He also committed to improve literacy and education by funding libraries in towns and cities all across the nation, which is how the five Valley cities got their Carnegie libraries.
He demanded each library be built on city-owned land and that the citizens additionally raise 10 percent of the amount granted. Turlock became the first town in Stanislaus County to take advantage, receiving a $10,000 grant in 1914. Its library opened Sept. 16, 1916, and remained a library until 1968.
Oakdale’s came next, built in 1917 at a cost of $7,000 followed by Newman in 1920 at $8,000, with Patterson and Riverbank libraries both opening in 1921, each costing $3,000. Riverbank’s was one of the last three Carnegie libraries built in California. In each town, women’s organizations were instrumental in compelling the men who ran the towns to apply for the grants. The men listened.
All remained libraries well into the late 1960s or 1970s. Turlock’s building is home to the Carnegie Arts Center while the old libraries in Newman and Riverbank house their towns’ historical society museums. The Carnegies in Patterson and Oakdale are now privately owned office buildings.
During their time, these libraries were the cultural centers of their communities. Remember, there was no television when they were built or for decades thereafter. Many homes still didn’t have telephones. Personal computers and smartphones remained 70 years away. If you wanted information or needed to do research, you went to the library as many people still do. Except today, they go to computer kiosks to locate the specific reference materials or books they want elsewhere in the buildings.
Every one of them remains more pleasing to the eye than the Stanislaus County Library branches that replaced them, in many cases because they were built before earthquake safety standards were established.
“But they’ve gone through lots of earthquakes,” said Barbara Powell, board member of the Newman Historical Society and a volunteer at its museum in the old Carnegie Library on Main Street.
Though they haven’t been public libraries for decades, these buildings still are remembered fondly by longtime residents who spent much of their youths in them.
In Newman, there’s an even deeper connection. Tom Powell, also a Newman Historical Society member and volunteer, was there with his wife when I dropped in Tuesday. He spent many afternoons at the library.
“My mom (Delia Powell) was the librarian here,” Tom Powell said. “Any kids who graduated up until 1968 remember my mother very well.”
McDermott, director of Turlock’s Carnegie Arts Center, said visitors often tell her stories about going to the library there. She’s had immigrants tell her they learned to read there and long-married couples say they met there.
The visitor who brought in the bronze bust of Carnegie last week, she said, is a Modesto resident and the grandson of the artist who created it.
Indeed, the face of the man who built the place is most welcome.