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Preserving Carnegie's legacy: History buffs seek funds to save library buildings

Carnegie libraries

CROOKSTON-- Jerry Amiot and some of his fellow history buffs have spent the past several days moving thousands of files -- old property tax records dating back to the mid-1930s -- along with cabinets and other long-forgotten treasures out of the old Carnegie Library.

It's a modest start to what they hope is a successful renovation of the historic structure that was built in 1907-1908, but has been vacant for more than a quarter-century, since a new Crookston Public Library opened in 1984.

Members of the Polk County Historical Society hope to have the building cleaned and open for public viewing during the community's annual Ox Cart Days in August, when they plan to launch a fundraising campaign for the building's restoration.

"It's such a grand old building," said Amiot, historical society president. "We want to make people aware that we want to make good use of it. "

Crookston's library is one of three in northwest Minnesota that are in some stage of restoration or "Save the Carnegie" campaign. Others are in Bemidji and Thief River Falls.

They are among 65 Carnegie Libraries built in Minnesota in the early 1900s with funding from Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corp. The grants generally were about $12,500 each. Between 1899 and 1917, the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist contributed nearly $1 million in Minnesota alone, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Eight public Carnegie libraries were also built in North Dakota, including those in Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Grafton. The Grand Forks library was demolished when the city's new library was built in the early 1970s; it was replaced with the parking ramp downtown.

A Carnegie library remains at UND, where it houses UND Enrollment Services.

The Carnegie in Grafton, built in 1904, is the only one in the region that's stilla library. An adjoining building was built in 1976, according to Sue Votava, reference librarian.

The Devils Lake library currently houses private businesses.


In Bemidji the campaign to save the Carnegie hit some early hurdles when the City Council twice voted to tear down the building.

"Finally a bunch of us went to them and said, 'We understand you can't afford to restore this,' but give us a chance to do some fundraising," said Lew Crenshaw, Save the Carnegie committee chairman. The council changed course and contributed $100,000 to the fundraising campaign, to be launched this summer, he said.

Bemidji's Carnegie opened in 1910. Since the Bemidji Public Library moved to another location in 1961, it has served as offices for several arts groups

Crenshaw believes it could take about three years and more than $1 million to restore and move the building, which sits precariously close to the four-lane U.S. Highway 2business route through Bemidji. The committee has hired Moorheadbased Michael J. Burns Architects, which also is working on the Thief River Falls project, to survey the building and to provide a more precise cost estimate.

"It's really the cornerstone of the Bemidji historic district," Crenshaw said. "It's been here over 100 years, so there's no great rush to get this done. The important thing is to not be lost."

Thief River Falls

In Thief River Falls, discussion of restoring the Carnegie began in summer 2009, according to Don Stewart, a retired community development director who leads the restoration campaign.

"A small group got wind that the City Council was thinking about selling the Carnegie," he said. "This group thought it should be preserved, and could be put to some good use."

The Carnegie served as the city library from 1915 to 1966, when a new library was built. It later hosted Red Lake Watershed District headquarters.

The majority of the $1.1 million needed for its restoration has been committed, mainly by three benefactors: Jean and Mark Larson, Gretchen and Gene Beito, and the Engelstad Family Foundation.

Larson is president of Digi-Key, the city's largest employer. The Beito family owns Northern State Bank of Thief River Falls. The late Ralph Engelstad was aLas Vegas casino mogul born in Thief River Falls.

Stewart said it's important to preserve the Carnegie as one of two buildings of historic significance in town, the other being the Soo Line Railroad Depot, which serves as City Hall. "We were a lumber town, initially," he said. The majority of the early buildings were made of wood, and have been lost, he said.


In Crookston, the county historical society has set aside about $5,000 for lead paint and asbestos removal.

The society's board has talked about applying for grants, but wants to talk first with those involved in restoration of other Carnegie libraries about ways to raise money. The Polk County Commission gives $14,500 annually to the society, which also runs the Polk County Museum.

By the time Oxcart Days arrives in August, the group hopes to give tours of the Carnegie to show visitors the possibilities.

"We're really leaning toward it being an arts and heritage center," Amiot said. "All we know for sure is that we want to preserve this piece of history. But it takes money. We're really hoping that some people will see the importance and come forward."