Fairfield Ledger

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Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 21, 2017

Carnegie celebrates 125 years

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Apr 24, 2017
Source: submitted This is a postcard showing the Carnegie Historical Museum with its original east entrance and slanted roof. The building turns 125 years old this year, and the museum is holding an open house from 5-7 p.m. Thursday to celebrate.

The Carnegie Historical Museum in Fairfield will host an open house Thursday to celebrate the building’s 125th anniversary.

The open house will be from 5-7 p.m. Attendees will receive a punch card with names of exhibits and artifacts on it. Once they find the artifact in the museum, they will punch a hole into their card. Completed cards will be placed in a drawing for a basket of local goodies.

The portion of the building that houses Indian Hills Community College will be open to visitors as well. Old photos showing the building’s original appearance will be on display. Snacks will be served, too.

The building that houses the Carnegie Historical Museum was built in 1892. It owns the distinction of being one of the 1,689 Carnegie libraries commissioned by steel baron Andrew Carnegie. James F. Wilson, a United States Senator from Fairfield, convinced Carnegie to give $30,000 to the Jefferson County Library Association to build the first Carnegie library west of the Mississippi. Wilson donated the land the building now sits on, and added a cash gift of his own totaling $3,500.

The library in Fairfield was the first Carnegie Library built outside Carnegie’s home state of Pennsylvania and the first of 101 Carnegie libraries that would be built in Iowa.

Carnegie Historical Museum curator Mark Shafer noted that the library was unusual in that it also housed a museum from the start. Many of the artifacts displayed at the time of the building’s opening in 1893 remain, such as Roman antiques, Native American artifacts and several pieces of taxidermy.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Fairfield received 10 shipments of artifacts from the Smithsonian Institute, which included shells, minerals, and more Native American artifacts.

The architecture of the building is known as Romanesque revival, which had become popular in the 1870s. It was the same style employed in the construction of the Jefferson County Courthouse a few blocks away.

“It was big and blocky, and had a massive feel,” Shafer said. “Romanesque revival is characterized by big, heavy arches supported by short clustered columns. There is usually lots of decorative trim, too.”

Despite the building’s magisterial appearance, problems were brewing underneath. It had been built on a creek bed, and continued to settle long after construction. Concrete grout was pumped into the ground beneath the structure to provide stability.

“In the 1940s, this building was close to being condemned,” Shafer said. “They were probably not aware of how spongy the ground was when they built it.”

Fires were a major problem in the 19th century, a time before electricity when buildings were illuminated with candles or gas lamps. The Carnegie Library was engineered to withstand these fires. A layer of concrete and iron separates each story from the next, so a fire on one floor won’t spread to another. The Carnegie building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, which, at the time, made it the sixth structure in Jefferson County to be so recognized. Shafer said he routinely meets visitors who have traveled to Fairfield specifically because they saw the museum listed on the national register.

Fairfield’s first library predates the construction of the Carnegie building by 40 years. In 1853, Ward Lamson had received $400 in pledges from 122 people to begin a library. The Jefferson County Library Association rented a room in a building on the square and opened its doors to the public offering 525 volumes.


Information from Susan Fulton Welty’s “A Fair Field” and “Truth Seeker” by Ward Lamson were used to compile this story.

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