At the turn of the century, Cheboygan was a community about to take part in a major transition. The lumber which had fueled local development from its earliest days was beginning to run out and many of the mills were closing or had already done so. Still, industry remained the main economic force, and many found themselves employed in lumbering, shipping, and manufacturing.
But just because people worked for a living did not mean that they did not have time to enjoy other things in life. Recreational activities varied greatly, from taking in a performance at the Opera House to fishing and other outdoor activities. And while we may not think about it, a central library was also an important place for diversion and leisure.
In 1908, local doctor, entrepreneur, and Library Board President Dr. A.M Gerow began correspondence with Andrew Carnegie to build a new library building in Cheboygan. Carnegie, a self-made millionaire, preached “the Gospel of Wealth:” that those who were blessed to be wealthy were merely temporary custodians of that wealth and had a duty to distribute it for the benefit of all society, especially to who were less well-off. Thus, Carnegie paid for the construction of hundreds of libraries all across the country (with municipal authorities pledging to take care of general expenses of keeping the doors open). The city was also required to provide a site for the construction of any library Carnegie pledged funds to build. In February 1908, the Board of Education accepted Andrew Carnegie’s grant of $15,000 for a public library. It appeared at the time that it would be built immediately adjacent to the new high school, at the corner of Division and Dresser.
The library in use at the time, at 307 N. Main, was part of a dry goods store operated by Elizabeth A. Lee. After this building was entirely revamped after a fire around 1910, the library moved back into it, but only for a short time. Rather than purchase a site for the new library, the city accepted a gift from the Cheboygan Telephone Company of the land at the intersection of Elm, Huron, and Dresser Streets. On 2 April 1912, the City Council adopted the following resolution: “Whereas Andrew Carnegie has offered to give $15,000 to erect a Free Public Library Building for this city on condition that the city provide a suitable site…the city accepts the deed of the Cheboygan Telephone Company of said piece of land to be used as a site for said Free Public Library Building…”
The new Carnegie Free Library was opened in late October 1913. Carnegie was meticulous about the design of libraries he funded, and it is evident even in the one here in Cheboygan. The large steps which lead to the entrance are a subconscious reminder that when entering the library you are elevating your mind – and your body by making the ascent. Typically simply constructed yet formal, the Cheboygan Carnegie Library is a bit unique in terms of the dome on top which would have allowed natural sunlight to penetrate into the interior of the structure. An exterior light was also present at most Carnegie Libraries, but its purpose was not simply utilitarian – it also symbolized enlightenment.
The Carnegie Free Library in Cheboygan served its purpose well. It remained a library until May of 1966, when it was replaced by the current structure. That building, constructed at a cost of $75,000, was built with the assistance of a federal grant of $40,000. The Board of Education took over the old Carnegie building, and during the summer of 1969 the first historical museum in Cheboygan opened. It remained here until the summer of 1971, when it moved into the old Cheboygan County Jail and sheriff’s residence.
While the old Carnegie Library building is no longer a library today, it is once again serving as a community center and its interior has been wonderfully restored to look much as it would have many years ago. It remains an historic structure that is architecturally unique for Cheboygan and the area. Its legacy lives on in the fine library we have today – something that perhaps, in some small way, has helped to preserve Carnegie’s doctrine that knowledge, like wealth, should be available to those who aspire to it.
Andrew Carnegie with his wife Louise Whitfield Carnegie in 1915
Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was among the wealthiest and most famous industrialists and philanthropists of his day. He funded the building of 2,509 Carnegie Libraries all over the world between 1883 -1929.