Spitting image of a proper libraryThe Northwoods town of Washburn decided to refine its culture in 1891, when the primeval forest still pressed against downtown.
The Northwoods town of Washburn decided to refine its culture in 1891, when the primeval forest still pressed against downtown.
The residents voted $1,200 that year for a free public library, to be constructed of sturdy brick outside and natural pine on the inside. It was divided into a librarian’s office, a book vault, and a reading room furnished “with comfortable seats, tables supplied with writing materials and other conveniences.”
May Greenwood served as librarian from 1898 to 1964 —that’s right, 66 years — and recalled that “all of the 1,099 volumes were kept in the vault on shelves, which were covered carefully every night with heavy, turkey-red curtains to keep off the dust. The patrons could not browse among the books but had to choose them from a catalog and then request them from the librarian.”
The local paper proudly claimed “all the conveniences of much larger and more pretentious libraries are found in our home institution.” But the library rejected the refinements of high culture by making one concession to local standards.
Greenwood recalled “between each pair of high-backed chairs was a cuspidor for the convenience of tobacco-chewing patrons. These had to be cleaned regularly, until a visiting library inspector instigated a revolt, when the cuspidors were quietly hidden and the tobacco-chewers were forced to deny themselves that pleasure while reading.”
Ten years later, Andrew Carnegie funded a more modern public library. It had no spittoons but still provides Washburn residents easy access to information.