50°FFog/MistFull Forecast

Sycamore's library starts celebration of first 100 years

Sycamore Public Library, built with funds from the Carnegie Foundation, opened to the public in 1905. A 100th-anniversary party is planned for May 24, the anniversary of the day the cornerstone was laid. Provided photo

SYCAMORE - Sycamore Public Library stands on historic ground at State and Main streets. Captain Eli Barnes built Mansion House, a combination inn and stagecoach stop, in 1839 at the library's modern-day location at routes 23 and 64. According to "Sycamore: A Walk Through History" by Stephen J. Bigolin and Nancy M. Beasley, Sycamore was first incorporated as a city in 1869, with Reuben Ellwood as its first mayor. "We are very proud of our history," said Sarah Tobias, of Sycamore Public Library. "The Carnegie libraries are getting harder and harder to find. Many communities have outgrown their space, and because they were unable to add on, many of the buildings have been made into museums or office space, and sadly (others) have been torn down to make way for progress." According to an article found by Tobias among early library documents and newspaper clippings, three meetings were held in January 1877 in the interest of starting a public library and meeting rooms. Many townspeople attended the meetings and offered funding to secure a library. Reuben Ellwood, who was one of the attendees, said, "A free public library is an important branch of free school education, and it is just and proper to tax the people for one as the other." At the same meeting, D.J. Carnes said: "A good library is a part of good education. Those in the middle of life who look back will find that they have gained as much knowledge from books after they have left school as from all of their school education. We should probably do better to spend less money on schools and more on libraries." Society helped start library A 1931 article in a local newspaper stated that a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was formed in Sycamore in 1875. According to, the Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 by Lewis Miller, an Akron, Ohio, inventor and manufacturer and father-in-law of Thomas Edison, and by John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister who later became a bishop of the church. The Chautauqua Institution was founded on the belief that everyone "has a right to be all that he can be - to know all that he can know." To this day, says its Web site, the institution is a "thriving community where visitors come to find intellectual and spiritual growth and renewal." According to "Nostalgia and Glee" by C.R. "Luke" McLagan, "annual chautauquas were enjoyed" in Sycamore for several seasons into the 1920s. McLagan said that "a large tent, comparable to a circus big top, was set up in what was known as Marsh's Park," which was a wooded area that is now the site of Sycamore's West School. McLagan wrote that "many citizens set up small tents of their own" and camped in the area so they could take in every program, afternoon and evening, and also became personally acquainted with the musicians, speakers and entertainers. During its active years, the chautauqua was a fascinating and bright spot of late summer. In order to experience further intellectual growth, local residents worked to create a library. Local residents' efforts On Oct. 18, 1878, according to an article in the True Republican, an oyster stew supper was served in the "spacious room under the store of Partridge & Co." The article says that "the invitation was accepted by a large number of our citizens who felt a deep interest in the reading room and the oysters and the result was the affair was a complete success." Plans were made, and a reading room was opened. According to the article, "some forty businesses have pledged themselves to sustain and maintain the room as a free institution for the benefit of young and old. ... There are 275 volumes in the library and the tables are covered with the choicest periodicals, magazines and daily and weekly papers. Walk in ladies and gentlemen and make yourself at home." In 1891, concerned residents lobbied to open a city library with the help of a board of trustees appointed by the mayor. The library opened in the back of the second floor of the Hoyt and Rogers Store, which is now occupied by P.J.'s Courthouse and Marlyn's Majorettes. The city council appropriated $800, which was used to purchase books, and the Athena Club furnished the library rooms, subscribed for periodicals and paid all running expenses for the first two years. In 1900, a local widow's offer to fund a library in memory of her husband was not accepted. In December 1901, Mayor James Branen sent a letter of request to Andrew Carnegie for a gift of $25,000 to purchase the brand-new Sycamore Hospital at Elm and Somonauk streets and adapt it to the uses of a public library. The future of the hospital was in question due to a medical malpractice suit, according to local historian Steve Bigolin. In the end, Andrew Carnegie, through his personal secretary, gave a total of $12,000 to the city of Sycamore with the stipulation that the city appropriate the equivalent of one-tenth of the gift to maintain the library building and that a proper library site be found. As for adapting the hospital, personal secretary James Bertram replied, "It would not do to make Mr. Carnegie's gift a convenience for getting rid of such a building." Frederick B. Townsend, Sycamore's mayor from 1894-98, also held numerous civic positions over the years and was known as a local philanthropist. He was, according to accounts, instrumental in keeping Sycamore as the county seat. Townsend's home was 331 N. Main St., now the location of AdPro Inc., a few blocks north of the present-day library. He gave to the city a lot on the northeast corner of the intersection of Main and State streets for the library. His only stipulations were that the library be known as the Sycamore Public Library and that Flora Jeannette Dow, who had been serving as librarian since the days of the reading room, should be the new facility's first librarian. Other changes at intersection and the library McLagan wrote that the city's first water system was a 135-foot steel plate tower that stood at the intersection of State and Main streets. It was built in 1888 - over the objection of many residents - to replace their home wells. The silo-shaped water tower was feared by many as a hazard, and was dismantled in 1904. The water tower later was replaced by a fountain, which can be seen in historic photographs of the library. It also was later removed, having been deemed too dangerous for a busy corner. According to Tobias, "By 1935, a stop light was all that brightened the corner." Mansion House, or the city hotel, was moved across the street for a time to where the Sycamore post office now stands. Bloomington architect Paul O. Moratz designed the library building, and J.F. Rees was hired as contractor. Work began in late March 1905. The cornerstone was placed on the northwest corner of the building in a celebration on May 24, 1905. According to newspaper accounts, "The ceremonies were especially impressive and sad as Miss Flora Jeannette Dow, who has been librarian since the library was started, and who in the last few months has gradually been failing suffering from an incurable disease, was carried from her home and with assistance laid the first trowel of mortar." The library was opened to the public on Thanksgiving Day. The Sycamore Public Library will be hosting events on May 24 to celebrate the building's first 100 years. In 2003, the library's board of trustees adopted a mission statement: "The Sycamore Public Library gives residents of all ages the means to get answers to questions on a broad array of topics related to work, school, and personal life; to fulfill their appetite for leisure reading, viewing and listening pleasure; and to gather in a place that is recognized as interesting and inviting." In the 1960s, the children's area was moved downstairs to provide more space. Until 1958, the city council had used the lower level as meeting space. More renovation work took place in the 1970s and '80s. Designs for a library expansion were drawn up in 1972, but the project was not done until decades later. The new area was opened to the public in 1997. An area for technology The area where the addition now stands also was famous. "Nostalgia and Glee" relates, "Newspapers and magazines devoted to agriculture in both the United States and Canada gave Sycamore's Mid-Winter Fair a great amount of excellent publicity years ago when the fairs were held more regularly and when much emphasis was placed on farm products." The first "The Sycamore Mid-Winter Fair and Farmer's Institute" was held Feb. 8-10, 1912, in the building next to the library, which was known as the Townsend Stables, owned by Frederick B. Townsend. The fairs, which showed the latest in the technology of the day, were held until 1954. Townsend retired as president of the Pierce Trust and Savings Bank in 1912, and died in August 1938. Townsend also had served on the board of trustees of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau and was a director of the DeKalb Agricultural Association, or DeKalb Ag, to which the building, then known as the Armory Building, was sold in 1938, according to Tobias. Tobias said that the library "decided to hatch chicks (for its 100th anniversary) because the new section of the library stands" on the site of the DeKalb Ag building, which was used as a poultry research operation and products division. A recent Library Happenings column explained that in the building's use as a mail center for the DeKalb Agricultural Association, it was where "all the chicks mail-ordered by farmers from the community arrived." In order to have chicks hatch about the time of this year's Ice Cream Social on May 24, eggs were placed in an incubator in the library's Youth Services Department in early May. In an article for "Sycamore Business Directory & Community Guide 2005," Tobias gives the invitation to all, "Walk into the Sycamore Public Library, ladies and gentlemen, and make yourself at home." Editor's note: A portion of the material for this story came from Tobias' article for the "Sycamore Business Directory & Community Guide 2005."

Get breaking and town-specific news sent to your phone. Sign up for text alerts from the Daily Chronicle.

More News

Reader Poll

When do you think this Congress will be ready to take a vote on health care?
Within a few months
Later this year
More than a year