To learn more about the history of Grand Haven’s old Carnegie library, we sent to Columbia University in New York, where the archives of the Carnegie Corporation of New York are housed. We were able to obtain copies of much of the correspondence, now on microfilm. The letters begin in 1902 and continue until 1916, consist of over 100 pages and made for unexpectedly interesting reading.
Andrew Carnegie was a native of Scotland but spent most of his life in the U.S. Between the 1880s and 1917 he gave some 2,500 library buildings to cities and towns, primarily in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Carnegie himself was apparently involved in the decisions, but the day-to-day correspondence was carried on by his personal secretary, James Bertram. The amount of money given for each building was tied to the size of the local population; other than that, Carnegie’s sole requirements for the libraries were that the municipality provide the land, agree to fund them annually in an amount equal to ten percent of the building’s cost, and that they follow very general design guidelines.
Carnegie was first approached by the Grand Haven Woman’s Club in 1902. They wrote a letter describing the town’s needs and included a quote from Scottish poet Robert Burns. Their request was approved in the amount of $12,500; however, the city planned to erect the building in Central Park and because the Ferry family had donated the land solely for use as a park, the plans had to be set aside until another site could be obtained.
Dr. Elizabeth Hofma represented Grand Haven in most of the letters. In 1904, she wrote that it had been suggested Carnegie buy an existing house; part would be turned into reading rooms and the rest be rented out. Bertram replied that Carnegie rejected this idea.
Things took an unexpected turn soon thereafter; local businessman Webster Batcheller left a bequest of $7,000 for a library building and $3,000 for furnishings and books. When W.H. Loutit wrote to inform Carnegie of this, James Bertram said that in view of the bequest, Carnegie would lower his grant to $5,000. Late in 1905, Mayor Harbeck asked if Carnegie would reconsider and give the formerly-agreed upon amount so that “we can erect a building that will be a credit to everybody.” However, Bertram replied that as the city had allotted $1,250 a year to maintain a library, it would be inadequate for a $20,000 building and “you should not require any more than $5,000 from Mr. Carnegie”. There is no more correspondence on the microfilm for the next six years.
In March of 1911, Dr. Hofma wrote to Carnegie, describing local fund-raising toward a library, noting that “we now have durable sources and can not only care for a twelve thousand dollar building, but a twenty-five thousand dollar one will be none too large now.” Apparently there was no reply, for she wrote again, two weeks later, stating that “We now have a wide-awake council. Our city has grown so have our needs.” In April, the “Industrial Committee” telegraphed Carnegie, asking to see him. Bertram replied that “Mr. Carnegie does not give interviews” but asked that they “send particulars by mail”.
Hofma wrote back immediately, saying that “our industrial committee wishes me to say that four years ago you kindly offered our town a public library. Our City Council at that time was not agreeable to the terms and it was dropped.” However, “(O)ur present council is eager to do everything in its power to progress, also the Business Man’s Assoc., the Board of Trade, the Woman’s Club.” She wrote again on May 5th of 1911, “hoping for a continuation of your generosity and thanking you for teaching the people to think and to hustle.” Dr. Hofma’s letter was handwritten and she underlined those words.
Carnegie’s private secretary, James Bertram, was noted for being very direct, succinct and sometimes terse, and in his reply of May 10th said, “This Library matter for Grand Haven, Mich., has been taken up on four separate occasions since 1902, and you now bring it up and conceal, by silence, vital facts; viz. that the city…. was left $70000. to erect a Library Building and $3000. for books and furnishings over six years ago. What is now the amount of the bequests with accumulated interest?”
On the 13th, Hofma wrote that “the offer of 10,000 dollars to the city of Grand Haven… was to be accepted within a limited time… We had a very unfavorable council at that time, which dallied around until the time set had expired and the money was lost to us. The people indignant but helpless. …(O)ur public school superintendent too had much weight with this council. The books were then housed in the school building and he wished to keep them there, the very next year this board of education was obliged to place the library in rooms over a store where they now are, in order to make room for the pupils. This was not mentioned in a former letter, because I did not know you knew or cared about it.”
Bertram replied just three days later, saying that “Mr. Carnegie would like to know the date of the Batcheller offer of bequest and the date the city or its representative were first officially or unofficially aware of it. Also give the date this Batcheller offer expired.” Hofma answered on the 20th: “I searched the records in the City Clerk’s office and find that on June 24th 1904 the city was first notified of the Batcheller gift by the Probate Judge of Cook County Ill. Webster Batcheller died in San Francisco, Cal. June 2nd 1904. The offer expired two years after the death of Mr. Batcheller.” She enclosed a copy of the clause in the will.
On June 19th, Bertram sent a letter to Hofma with the following terms: “Owing to the fact that two offers of Library Buildings have been made to Grand Haven and both have been rejected or neglected, Mr. Carnegie can only consider the matter on receipt of an official application from the City Council and signed by the Mayor.” On July 14th, Mayor Archibald Campbell sent such a letter. Later in the year, Bertram sent a letter to Campbell saying that “Mr. Carnegie will be glad to renew his present promise to provide Twelve Thousand Five Hundred Dollars for the erection of a Library Building for Grand Haven, but is not disposed to add appreciably to that amount as he thinks it sufficient to erect a modest Library Building for your community.” He also stated that “this amount indicated is to cover the cost of the Library Building complete, ready for occupancy and for the purpose intended.” The next document on the microfilm is a copy of the Council’s agreement to Carnegie’s terms.
Early in 1912, Hofma sent an architect’s preliminary plans; she also asked if the grant amount could be increased by $2000 for a larger lecture room. Bertram wrote back that “the plans will not do at all.” The next document microfilmed is a copy of a telegram sent by Hofma on April 15th, stating that Mr. Loutit and Mr. Robbins “would like to meet with you in New York”. The next day, William Loutit sent a telegram indicating that they “will see you Thursday”. There is nothing in the Grand Haven Tribune about their trip, but much of the news during the next few days concerned the sinking of the Titanic.
In May of 1912, revised plans were sent to Carnegie. They were approved in June, but Bertram asked for another copy of the council resolution, this time signed and sealed by the City Clerk. This was done in July of 1912. Another snag came in October, when the library board found that all the bids to erect the building were in excess of the money available; the architect modified the plans, but then it was too late in the year to begin construction and Mayor C.W. Cotton, also president of the library board, wrote to New York to let them know. He wrote again in February of 1913 to say that bids had been accepted and that construction would proceed as soon as weather permitted.
As the building neared completion in November of 1913, Dr. Hofma wrote to Carnegie to express the city’s gratitude. She noted that there were some problems finishing the basement interior because of lack of funds, saying that “I am asked as Secretary of the Board of Library trustees to again appeal to you our benefactors to come to our aid…” They asked for $2500. However, later that month Mr. Bertram said that “Plans for the building were only approved… on the distinct understanding that the building the plans called for was to be erected complete, and ready to occupy, with the $12,500 promised…” and “therefore, we do not see our way to provide a further contribution”. In the last week of the year, Hofma wrote that his reply was a disappointment, but went on to say that they would be putting up a large portrait of Mr. Carnegie.
The grand opening of the library took place in January of 1914; the Grand Haven Tribune described it in detail – and had an article on how to use a card catalog, which was new technology at the time. Dr. Hofma described crowds of people, the fireplace with its Delft tiles, and the piano donated by Story and Clark. She made one last request for funds for a coal bin, but Mr. Bertram sent a letter six days later to say that “I am directed to state that this Corporation is unable to make a further contribution to the library building.” The final correspondence dates from May of 1916, as Dr. Hofma notes that “we thought… you and our friend Mr. Carnegie would like to know our library is put to good use. We have Boy Scout Happy Hour, Parent-Teacher, Domestic Science Meetings and Musicals as well as public speakers in the Auditorium.” She described the beginnings of a local history collection, said they had started raising money for an extension and asked if Carnegie “could not add 5,000 to his gift to us.” Bertram replied that they were “glad to hear of the progress made in your community. As to your specific request however please refer to our letter of January 19th, 1914.”
The Carnegie library served Grand Haven for over fifty years. An extension was never built, although the city purchased land adjacent to the building in 1946. Plans for the current building began in the early 1960s and it opened in the summer of 1967. The Loutit Foundation gave the city the building, land, most furnishings and many of the books. The Carnegie building was razed shortly thereafter and the site is now the parking lot for Fifth Third Bank.
Much of this information came from the Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, specifically Microfilm Series II.A.1.a. Free Public Library Buildings, Reel 12.
It is used with the kind permission of Jane Gorjevsky, Curator, Carnegie Collections, Columbia University Libraries - Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
1914-1924 Isabel Thomson
1924-1959 Helen DeYoung
1959-1979 Elizabeth von Oettingen
1979-1994 Mark Ames
1994-1998 Ellen Benes Gedeon
1998-2001 Charlene Zoet
2001-2010 Sandra Knes
2010-2011 Kerry FitzGerald, Acting Director
2011-present John Martin