Writing a biography of Andrew Carnegie, back when I still worked almost entirely for textbook publishers, I was impressed with how his impoverished youth influenced the way he later spent the huge fortune he earned. He started working at age 12, shortly after his family arrived in the United States in 1848. He was a “bobbin boy” in a weaving factory. He worked hard, but he understood that the most important thing for getting ahead was education. He read constantly and went to night school. The efforts paid off, and he found himself with increasingly important jobs. By his mid-20s, he was superintendent of railways in Pittsburgh. He used his income to invest in new technologies and inventions, including sleeping cars for trains and steel mills. He recognized the potential of steel and bet everything on the belief that steel would become vital in the U.S.—which it did. The Carnegie Steel Company made him fabulously wealthy.
The rags-to-riches story was delightful, but it was what Carnegie did with his money that made him so memorable for me. He believed that “A man who dies rich dies disgraced,” and he set about giving away most of his fortune. He set up charitable agencies, museums, and child-welfare centers, both in the U.S. and the British Isles. He never forgot the lesson of the importance of books and learning, and so much of his fortune went to aiding colleges, funding scientific research, creating museums, and building libraries across the United States, Canada, Britain, and even farther afield—thousands of libraries. (I recently read the wonderful book Up from Slavery, by Booker T. Washington, and learned that Carnegie contributed a library to Tuskegee Institute, as well.)
Today, Carnegie Libraries and Carnegie Museums make up the single largest group of related historic buildings in the country. And why do I mention this here? Because there is a Carnegie Library in Mitchell, SD. The 109-year-old library in Mitchell is now home to a combination of Corn Palace memorabilia and books, tools, mementos, and records tracing the history and genealogy of the Mitchell area. The dome of the library was painted by Oscar Howe, the Sioux artist about whom I posted earlier. The building is also notable for being one of only three surviving buildings in Mitchell built of local red quartzite.
Here are two of the many displays, one a memento from the Corn Palace and one about local history—the country’s first flour mill was built here. Note on the poster about the mill the reference to the Jim River—because even in something as serious as a museum display, folks are too laid back up here to call the river by its formal name, the James River.
(And if you get to Carnegie’s hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, don’t miss the Carnegie of Natural History Museum. I posted last year, on my World’s Fare blog, about my favorite part of the museum: the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems.)