116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: Iowa’s first Carnegie library
130-year-old building is now a museum in Fairfield
When a Jefferson County library opened in 1853, it was housed in rented rooms and open only to those who could pay dues.
It had accumulated 20,000 books by January 1892, when the library received a letter from Washington, D.C., from Iowa’s U.S. Sen. James F. Wilson, who lived in Jefferson County.
He wrote that Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie had agreed to donate $40,000 — more than $1.3 million in today’s dollars — to build a public library in Fairfield.
The Jefferson County Library/Museum was built at 112 S. Court St. on land donated by Wilson. The building was designed by architect C. Stafford of Kansas City, Mo.
It was the first Carnegie library built outside of Pennsylvania and the first of 101 Carnegie libraries that eventually would be built in Iowa. It also was the only Carnegie library built without any stipulations attached.
The library, dedicated Nov. 28, 1893, still stands and is now the Jefferson County Carnegie Library Museum.
The library “was a large building, constructed almost entirely of stone and iron, in a substantial manner, comprising not only all requisites for a library but a hall seated with opera chairs and a museum filled with specimens of natural history, geology, etc.,” the Muscatine Journal reported Feb. 26, 1894.
“It was not erected, as one might suppose, with an appropriation voted by the people of the county, as is allowed under our laws, but wholly by private munificence. The principal contributor was Andrew Carnegie, the celebrated manufacturer, who gave $40,000.”
The library’s third-floor museum housed Dr. J.M. Shaffer’s natural history collection of 684 mounted bird and animal specimens; acquisitions of Native Indian curios from W.W. Junkin; a collection of Roman antiquities and relics from Italy and Switzerland from Major S.H. Byers; and archaeological items purchased from Samuel B. Evans.
But any building requires maintenance, and those expenses became a concern.
W.H. Johnson of the Iowa State Library Association asked if the solution might lie with the city of Fairfield. What if the city took over those expenses?
The stockholders of the Jefferson County Library Association favored that proposition. The matter was put to a vote — in which women were allowed to cast a ballot — in 1899. The measure passed by a wide margin, with citizens agreeing to a small tax to support the library.
In 1914, the museum acquired its iconic buffalo head.
In the early 1900s, Maple Grove Farms owner J.O. Singmaster of Keota had a herd of buffalo. Two buffalo were slaughtered for the 1912 Fairfield Old Settlers celebration and again in 1913, with the hides and heads sold.
E.R. Smith presented one of the mounted heads to the library at the 1914 Old Settlers celebration. “May it be preserved for hundreds of years as a memento of pioneer days,” he said during the presentation.
It was recently refurbished and still hangs in the museum stairwell.
At Fairfield’s Centennial in 1939, the Fairfield Daily Ledger reported how the library would help the city celebrate.
“The museum will be open each day during the Centennial,” the Ledger reported. “The basement room has been rearranged with the department publications in convenient arrangement.”
The old newspapers in the library’s basement proved a valuable source for centennial activities.
In June 1940, when it was determined the weight of the library’s timber and slate roof was damaging the building, the original gabled roof was removed and replaced by a flat roof, with a firewall added to the top of the building. Sections of damaged brick walls and the chimney also were repaired.
Sen. Wilson’s granddaughter visited the library in 1956, looking for her grandmother’s scrapbooks. She also found her grandfather’s personal papers — including letters from Carnegie and President Ulysses S. Grant — in the drawers of an old bookcase. The Fairfield Daily Journal had reported in 1916 reported that the Wilson family had given the papers to the library.
In 1965, the library’s first-floor ceilings were dropped and the entry remodeled.
The Jefferson County Carnegie Library Museum is celebrating the building’s 130th anniversary. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The public library moved to a new building in 1996, and the museum shares the original library building with Indian Hills Community College. Indian Hills classes use the second floor, and the museum fills the building’s top and lower floors.
The third floor has a spinning wheel once owned by Mary Ann Rutledge, mother of Ann Rutledge, reportedly Abraham Lincoln’s first love. It also has a number of other Jefferson County historic artifacts, including a model of the USS Iowa that came to the museum in 1897.
The museum also has a symphonium music box. When our guide, Interim Director Lawrence Eyre, wound it up, its music drew visitors from all over the third floor to watch and listen.
A virtual tour of the Jefferson County Carnegie Library Museum is available for viewing at https://3dmedianow.com/3d-model/carnegie-historical-museum/fullscreen-nobrand/