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What’s in the name? 

Inspired by the “Emma Willard School” of Troy, New York, Willard Carpenter had always wanted to found an educational institution with the name “Willard.” Carpenter’s son-in-law observed that he “seemed to be struck on the name.” And that’s how Willard Library got its name.

College or library? 

Founder Willard Carpenter wanted to leave a lasting legacy in Evansville, a town he had helped to build through politics and business. His dream was to build a Willard College. Although the project was actually begun—plans were drawn up, trustees were appointed, and resources were allocated by Carpenter—the resources available were not great enough to fund a sustainable institution of higher learning.

A considerable fortune that Carpenter had amassed in his earlier years in Evansville had been lost through some unfortunate railroad and other dealings. Although Carpenter had worked to rebuild his wealth, he did not have enough years remaining to replace the money he had spent his most productive years pursuing through real estate and other business deals. And the real estate he held had been considerably devalued by the economic conditions of the day.

And so, faced with that reality, and with many who agreed that the college would struggle at best, Carpenter was encouraged by his peers to direct his intentions to the founding of another institution, perhaps a library.

Carpenter seemed to like the idea, seeing a connection between the two—both were dedicated to learning and would benefit the community. And so, his long-held dream of creating a Willard College was re-directed into the creation of Willard Library.

A library begins 

Following receipt of the August 23, 1876, letter to the Library trustees from Willard Carpenter, the trustees sent a letter of their own, accepting their new roles.

On August 23, 1876, Willard and Lucina Carpenter—although she reportedly opposed the idea—executed a deed of trust, conveying the promised property to the Library Trustees.

In the spring of 1877, at age 74, Willard Carpenter, hoping to speedily complete the library project, made two trips to Chicago to consult with architects. Robert Boyd and Henry Brickley were chosen to be the architects for the job, and groundbreaking was scheduled for May 17.

By August 13, the stone foundation had been completed to the top of the water table, and by September 2, 1877, the stonework was finished. But at that point, the foundations were sealed to be made weathertight. The real estate market was very weak, and the trustees had decided to wait to continue construction until their land holdings—the source of project funding—could command higher selling prices.

Quelling rumors that the project had been abandoned, work on the Library resumed in 1882. Carpenter wanted to see the Library built in his lifetime, and although the land values had not rebounded as hoped, he was ready to “hurry matters up.”

The former architects were no longer in business in Evansville, but their successors, James and Merritt Reid, took over the project.

With construction in full swing in 1883, Willard Carpenter, now 80 years old, was on the job site every day, inspecting the work of the paid laborers—and working. Not everyone was thrilled with that arrangement. His family was said to be embarrassed that he was hauling around wheelbarrows and climbing up on the roof; and one has to wonder how excited the workers were to have his watchful eye on them daily.

His work came to an end, however, in late October 1883, when Carpenter suffered a paralyzing stroke. On November 3, he died.

Speaking ill of the dead? 

The town’s primary newspapers, the Courier and the Journal, both ran extensive obituaries of Carpenter and lengthy editorials. Both papers reviewed his life and career and praised his good works.

While neither paper spoke ill of the dead, they both reported that others had spoken ill of him. The Courier read, “No man in Evansville, living or dead, has had as many unpleasant things said of him…,” and the Journal reported, “Mr. Carpenter was not without his enemies.”

In his business dealings, Carpenter’s ethics were often quietly questioned. And he had been involved in so many deal-related lawsuits, that working to untangle them had been a way of life for him.

Some of his detractors, sadly, were within his own household, as would be detailed in testimony during a later legal proceeding involving the Library. While generous with the community, Carpenter was not reportedly generous with his own family. This driven businessman apparently had little constructive involvement with his three children, Louise, Marcia, and Albert. Later in his life, he determined they would receive very little inheritance from him. (In fact, he allegedly told daughter Louise and her husband that they would receive nothing.) Instead, he had determined to give his money to public charity. His wife had insisted that he give property to her before she would sign with him to deed the rest of it to the Library trustees.

This grand ornament Carpenter had built for the city—the Library—must have been a bitter reminder to those closest in his family tree that he loved the city and his own name more than he loved them. He had been one of the architects of Evansville, through his political and business dealings. And he had seen to it that he would be remembered—by designing, funding, and helping to build a monument to himself.

None of this, of course, would have been mentioned in the obituary of a community leader of such standing.

Bring in the books 

By 1884, Willard Library, at a construction cost of $60,000, was nearly ready to open. It was time to stock the shelves with books.

The purchase of new volumes for the Library was personally overseen by Samuel Bayard, who traveled to Cincinnati for that purpose. Alongside the newly purchased volumes, most of the first 10,000 books to grace the shelves were hand-me-downs from the Evansville Library Association and the Public Library of Evansville.

The first librarians at Willard Library, Otilda Goslee and Lou Scantlin, had been employees at the Public Library of Evansville.

Opening ceremonies were scheduled for March 28, 1885, and a public invitation ran in the morning Courier that day:

“A cordial invitation to the public is extended, and as the library is for the masses, rich and poor alike, the capacity of the house ought to be fully tested…. The members of the board desire it to be distinctly understood that all citizens are cordially invited to attend the opening ceremonies and that they will be heartily welcomed.”

The Courier article also contained a detailed description of the interior of the Library—since most onlookers would have been familiar with the exterior that had been under construction in plain view for some time. The article contained a characterization of the books, as well.

“On entering from the wide stone stairway into the vestibule the unique patterned tile flooring attracts the eye at once. To the left is the spacious library room, which, with its handsome tile flooring, heavy oak finished woodwork and corniced ceiling, does full justice to the outer appearance of the building. Behind a railing reaching across the room are ranged the book shelves substantially filled with mental food of so varied an order and supply to meet the wants of ‘all sorts and conditions of men.’“The books represent a judicious and careful selection, and it is observable from the well-worn and used condition of those of a solid nature that the study of the sciences, philosophy, history and the arts here is extensive. Of light fiction the number of books is very meagre, and this fact has caused not a little complaint, but it has been the means of elevating the taste of not a few to a liking for standard novels, with which the library is well stocked, and even to heavier reading.“The office room on this floor is furnished in the same excellent manner as its surroundings. From the vestibule the broad heavy balustrade staircase leads to a large room above corresponding with the library room below. It is proposed to make this the reading room. Instead of plate glass, as in the library room, the windows here are ornamented stained glass. In one corner is a room corresponding with the office down stairs, and which has been engaged by the Ladies’ Literary club, which has furnished it with exquisite taste.”

On opening day, the Library had been decorated to receive its public for the first time. An orchestra was prepared to play. Addresses were scheduled to be delivered by prominent citizens and members of the board of trustees. And the weather was dreadful.

Although the crowd size was no doubt diminished by the elements, the opening went on, as scheduled, on March 28, 1885.

Just two days later, on March 30, patrons began checking out books. In a two-day period, 98 people registered as patrons. In that day, to be issued a library card, one needed a co-signer who would vouch for the character of the cardholder.

Source: “Where There’s a Willard: The First 100 Years of the Willard Library of Evansville, Indiana.” Copyright 1986, Friends of Willard Library, Inc.