Eager Free Public Library
Researched and Written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
The Eager Free Public Library has a long history of service to the Evansville community. In 2008, the
library building will be 100 years old. The gift of $10,000 from Almeron Eager’s estate in 1902,
assured Evansville residents that their dream of a building to house a public library would take shape.
The Eager Free Public Library has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. In
the nomination papers, the building was described as a hip-roofed oblong block. “This fine Prairie
School building consists of two stories, a main floor and a basement, with an unfinished attic. The low
foundations of concrete are battered. The body of the structures of dark pressed red brick, topped
with a string course and surmounted by a fine Sullivanesque plaster frieze. Five ribbon windows with
leaded glass punctuate the frieze on the east and west walls. Above the frieze spread the broad, flat
soffited eaves of the roof. The roof is still covered with terra cotta ceramic tiles.”
The Evansville library is the first of six Prairie School style libraries known to have been designed by
the architectural firm of Claude and Starck of Madison. Evansville’s library was built in 1908. The
communities of Detroit Lakes (1912), Minnesota; Rochelle, Illinois, Tomah (1912) and Merrill (1911),
Wisconsin and Hoquiam, Washington (1910) are similar in design to the Eager Free Public Library.
The library director in Hoquiam had been a resident of Evansville and liked the design of the library
so well that she persuaded her board to hire the same architectural firm.
Louis Ward Claude and Edward F. Starck were Wisconsin natives. Claude was employed in the
offices of Adler and Sullivan in Chicago in the early 1890s and with Burnham and Root, the Chicago
World’s Columbia Exposition designers, in 1893. He was a life-long friend of Louis Sullivan and Frank
Claude and Starck were partners from 1896-1929 and their Prairie style designs are some of their
most noteworthy works. In the National Register nomination papers for the Eager Free Public Library,
the firm is praised for their development of exteriors in the Prairie Style, “with emphasis on the
horizontality of brick walls and spreading hip roofs. The rhythmic grouping of windows was enhanced
by their geometric patters in softly colored leaded glass. Horizontality was furthered by rich organic
terra cotta friezes in Sullivanesque style. They closely resemble the designs of Louis Sullivan.
The dream of a public library was first expressed in the Evansville Review in March 1875. “Why may
not Evansville have a public library? Many villages no larger than ours and with far less means have
made the attempt of establishing a library a complete success, and why should not we try for a work
that would be of such high utility. A public library would be a constant benefactor. We justly pride
ourselves on the good morals of our place, and no doubt the larger portion of our people desire not
only to maintain the present good state of things but to feel that we are constantly rising to a higher
L. T. Pullen, Daniel Johnson and Isaac A. Hoxie, the Review editor, called a meeting of “The friends of
a Public Library.” In May 1875, a small library was established in the Evansville school building on
First Street and ten years later, the librarian reported that there were 394 books, 20 Congressional
records, and 19 “encyclopaedia” (non-circulating, but available at the school.) The library loaned 640
books and the librarian received a salary of $30.
In the 1890s, many Wisconsin communities were establishing tax-supported libraries. Evansville’s
joined the ranks in 1899, when the City Council appointed the first public library board. Although
they had no vote in other City matters, there were several women appointed to the Public Library
Board, including Mrs. C. E. Cummings, Marilla Andrews, Hattie J. Boyd, and Mrs. O. C. Colony.
Almeron Eager, Rev. J. E. Coleman, Rev. W. M. Short, Perry C. Wilder, and E. H. Fiedler were the
men appointed to the nine-member board. Rev. Short was the first President of the Board; Mrs.
Cummings, Vice President; and Marilla Andrews, Secretary.
Marilla Andrews was also the editor of the Badger, an Evansville weekly newspaper. Her records of
the Board proceedings and community support for the library appeared in the press on a weekly
Miss Lutie E. Stearns, the Secretary of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, gave a speech at the
Evansville City Hall in support of the new library. She advised the Board on purchasing new books.
The Board requested ideas from the public and asked that people to send a post card with a list of
ten books to be placed in the new library. They would then select the ten most popular books for the
library. They also solicited donations of books.
The Finance Committee of the Board was expected to raise funds in support of the library. They
began by soliciting $100 and $200 contributions from City residents and those living in the
surrounding farming community. “This library will probably be of as much or more service to those
living near Evansville as to those in the city and a subscription from any of our wealthy farmers would
be duly appreciated,” Marilla Andrews announced in the April 29, 1899 issue of the Badger.
The Women’s Literary Club pledged $100 and the Afternoon Club, another women’s organization,
also pledged $100 toward the new library. The Junior Endeavor society pledged $50. Suppers, book
carnivals and other fund raising events were organized by these groups to raise more funds to
support the library.
By December 1899, the committee had raised sufficient funds to purchase a few new books. The
school board allowed the public library to be combined with the high school library and space for the
library was provided on the first floor of the new high school building.
The public was invited to the high school building to visit the library room, sign up for a library card,
and check out one of the new books. The library was open daily from 3 to 5 o’clock and on Tuesday
and Saturday evenings from 7 to 8 p.m. “As the children usually crowd into the room as soon as
school closes, the older patrons will find the early hours the best for them.”
Charles Van Hise, Robert M. LaFollette and Burr Jones, all well know Wisconsin figures and former
students at the Evansville Seminary, offered their services to raise money for the new library. In
February 1900, the men presented a series of three lectures. Newspaper announcements urged
people to attend. “Every resident of Evansville ought to be proud of these men and ought to show his
appreciation of their generosity by his presence at the lecture.” Tickets for the series cost 50 cents,
and the entire proceeds were donated to the library fund.
The Library Board and others in the community promoted building a new public library. Almeron
Eager helped to make that dream a reality. From the time he was appointed to the library board until
his death, he supported the public library financially and influenced the City Council and others to be
generous in their support.
Almeron Eager’s will designated a $10,000 gift to the City of Evansville for a public library. He
stipulated in his bequest that the city build a library, name it the Eager Free Public Library, and place
his statue in the entry of the new building. From 1902 to 1907, the administrators of his estate were
steadfast in their efforts to bring Almeron’s gift to life.
Eager’s gift was the largest donation that the City of Evansville had ever received. It carried such
strict requirements that the City Council refused to accept the conditions of Eager’s will and delayed
building progress for nearly five years. They pondered not only the cost of the building, but the
perpetual upkeep and the location of the library.
The lack of support by Evansville City Councilmen frustrated businessmen and social organizations,
as well as many promoters of Evansville. William Spencer, a New England minister and native of
Evansville, wrote to the Evansville Enterprise in support of the public library. “It is a painful surprise to
learn that anyone in my native town for any reason whatever, should oppose the establishment of a
public library there. I cannot understand how any really intelligent person, who cares for the civil
welfare could have any other feeling that that of profound gratitude for the splendid gift.” Spencer
offered books from his own extensive collection as a donation to the new library.
Community members pledged $2,030 towards the new library. Another $1,000 was added from Eager’
s estate. The lot at the corner of First and West Main streets was purchased from Flora Winston for
$1,950 and a small house on the site was sold for $250. The remaining funds went into the library
fund for books and other needs.
In May 1903, the City Council accepted Eager’s gift and promised to appropriate $1,000 per year to
support the library. There was nearly “unanimous sentiment” that the site for the new library should
be at the southeast corner of Main and First streets, according Allen S. Baker, one of the Eager
By 1906, the lot at the corner of West Main and First Streets was secure. Flora Winston’s house was
moved from the site and James M. Ballard, the local cemetery sexton removed the stone from the
cellar of the old house to prepare for the building of the new library.
A popular building contractor William Meggott went to Madison in April 1907 to see the plans that the
architectural firm of Claude and Starck had prepared for the new library building. Meggott was
responsible for construction of the Grange Store, the Economy Store, and St. Paul Catholic Church.
The first shovelful of dirt was excavated for the new library building in early May 1907. The brick
arrived at the end of June and the iron beams, girders, and truss frames arrived in early July. The
New Bedford stone from the Indiana quarries arrived later that month. By late July, the masons were
“as busy as bees in swarming time,” according to a Review report.
The masons had reached the soffit by early September and the stucco work under the eaves was put
on. The “Eager Free Public Library” stone sign above the front door was in place by the end of
September. The roof tiles were installed by late October.
All of the contractors worked to enclose the building before the cold weather prevented outside work.
Inside, the lath was installed and the finishing work could begin.
On the first floor, finish carpenters worked on built-in shelves and a half-octagon librarian's desk that
faced the north entrance. The office had large plate glass windows to allow the librarian to work and
still see visitors to the library. Leaded glass windows and other large plate glass windows gave
natural light to the building's interior.
While the building was under construction, a life-size statue of Almeron Eager was being prepared by
sculptor, Alice Cooper, in Chicago. A death mask plaster cast was taken of Mr. Eager and the
sculpture is based on this mask. When it was completed, the statue was placed atop a pedestal of
Montello granite. It made an imposing figure for all who entered the building.
Statue of Almeron Eager by Alice Cooper
The interior work took most of the winter. In April 1908 the library board announced that the public
library rooms at the high school would close for several days so that the books could be removed to
the new library on Main Street. School children helped carry the books from the old library to the new.
On June 9, 1908 the building was dedicated and opened for the first time. The opening ceremony
was held at the Magee Opera House on East Main Street. Attorney Robert M. Richmond read letters
from former residents including two United States Senators, Robert M. LaFollette and South Dakota
Senator Richard F. Pettigrew.
A former resident and Madison attorney, Burr Jones was the principal speaker of the day. He spoke
of the early days of settlement, when men like Almeron Eager did not have access to books and other
Allen Baker, an Eager estate trustee noted, “All modern cities have libraries, therefore Evansville
must have one as a matter of course.” Baker noted that there were 5,600 books in the Eager Free
Public Library. His figures differed from the local newspaper. Baker said that the entire cost of the
building and grounds was $15,951. This included outside walks and curbing.
“Evansville’s New $13,000 Library” was the headline news in the Review that week. The news article
described the building. “It is not imposing on account of size, being 38 x 60, but the simplicity of its
lines, and the softness of its coloring makes it a pleasing bit of architecture. The structure is tasty in
every particular, from it exterior of vitrified brick with bronze green and lighter shades of green on the
frieze, to the mission oak-finished interior.”
“A side entrance on First gives one access to the basement, wherein a reserve store room, furnace
room, a good class room and a moderate sized lecture room is located. The rooms here are finished
in Georgia pine and hardwood floors, each room possessing a distinctive tint and shade of finishing
peculiar to its use. From the basement a wide-stairway leads to the vestibule and the library proper.”
“Hardwood finishing and furniture is to be found here all presenting a deep, rich coloring, while the
sides and ceilings are toned to light brown tints. The floor is covered with cork, thereby deadening all
noise and making it quiet when many people are in there. Facing the entrance the librarian’s half-
octagon shaped desk is located and to the rear is a large room devoted to her use exclusively.”
“The shelving is arranged on all sides, and a few are posed across the rooms, from which easy
access is gained. Reading and reference tables are pleasantly located in the front. Although the
building is to be heated by steam, a cheerful open fireplace is located in the rear.”
“Facing the librarian’s desk and standing on a large pedestal of Montello granite, is a life-size bronze
statue of the donor, A. Eager. Its close resemblance to the original is noted in its form and features
and the work brings forth comments of praise from every person who beholds it.”
Hattie (Mrs. W. T.) Boyd was the librarian when the library opened. Mrs. Boyd was also one of the
first library trustees approved by the City Council. Within months of the opening, there were
complaints that books were being marred with pencil marks and mutilated by scratches. “Probably
most of this is done by boys or children. When children have books out of the library, it would be well
for parents to exercise some oversight of them,” The Tribune editor warned.
Over the next few years, the library received several gifts. The Evansville Historical Society donated
a large Manitau stone, to the library and it was placed at the southwest corner of the library lot in
1909. It was one of five stones known to exist in Wisconsin at the time. The stone was a relic of
Native American groups that had used the stone for worship, according to a Janesville Gazette article
in 1909. “Manitau means Spirits and tradition among the Indians tells of the worship of these Manitau
stones,” the Gazette reporter explained. (It can be seen today at the First Street entrance of the
In June 1913, the Women’s Literary Club presented the library with a large clock that was placed near
the statute of Almeron Eager. The clock was donated in memory of Eva J. Spencer, a pioneer club
woman and organizer of Evansville’s Chautauquas.
In 1915, the Women’s Literary Club, the Tourist Club and the Afternoon Club donated a piano for the
library lecture room, also known as the library hall.
For many years, few changes were made to the library. Evergreens were planted at the library in
1937. The Evansville Review said, “The library’s appearance has been considerably enhanced by
the work done.”
In 1952, the front entrance of the library was remodeled. The stairs to the main entrance were placed
directly in front of the doors, rather than to each side of the porch entrance. Two planters were
moved from the porch to a low brick planter on the north side of the entrance walk.
In 1964, the original cork floor was covered with vinyl. The vinyl floor was covered with carpeting in
New furniture for the fireplace area of the library was donated by Leonard P. Eager. A brass and
wood coffee table from Cairo, Egypt was purchased by Leonard during a trip to the Mid-East in 1966.
Lounge chairs and table made the area a comfortable reading nook.
In 1972, Leonard Eager donated funds in memory of his mother, Gertrude Eager. The money was
used to convert the lecture room in the basement of the library into a children’s room. The City of
Evansville also appropriated funds and others also made donations.
The new room was opened in early 1974. The child-sized tables and chairs from the children’s
reading area on the main floor were moved to the basement room and shelving was attached to the
walls of the room to accommodate the books. Picture frames and a clock were given by the Women's
Literary Club in memory of Marilyn Antes, Lena Bewick, Elizabeth Brunsell, Eloise Eager, Ruth Pullen
and Ellen Townsend.
This project was completed in early 1974 and was used as a children’s reading and program room
The Eager Free Public Library joined the Rock County Library System in 1969. The Library System
was reorganized as the Arrowhead Library System in 1979. Services included rotating collections of
books, art prints, audio-visual materials, and delivery of books to seven public libraries in Rock County
The library’s historical significance to the community was recognized by many local residents. In
1974, Gordon Orr, a prairie school architect and consultant, and Richard Hartung, director of the
Rock County Historical Society met with the Library Board in November 1974 to encourage them to
have the library nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Hartung explained to the
board that the Evansville library is significant, not only to the Evansville community, but nationally “in
that it is an excellent example of the Prairie School type of architecture.”
In August 1977, the Eager Free Public Library became the 267th Wisconsin entry on the National
Register of Historic Places. The library joined several other Rock County buildings on the registry,
including the Tallman House in Janesville, the Milton House in Milton and the historic district in
Seventy-five years after the roof was installed, in 1982, the first major repair was made to the roof. All
tiles were removed from the roof and the under layment was replaced, by the Millen Roofing Co. of
Milwaukee. The company replaced 15 to 20 percent of the tiles and reused tiles that were not
cracked or broken. The cost for the 1982 roof repair was $16,000.
Although the original Historic Places nomination said that the frieze work under the eaves was terra
cotta, an examination of the frieze revealed that it was made with a combination of plaster and linseed
oil. Weather and damage from a high pressure water cleaning process damaged the frieze and the
library board invited Julian Orlandini, of Orlandini Studios in Milwaukee, to examine the frieze in order
to repair it.
In a February 1984 letter to the library board Orlandini said: “The ornamental frieze under the eves
of the library is made of moulding plaster (plaster of paris.) Then was cast in many pieces from molds,
fit to the library building, attached with nails, then coated with boiled linseed oil and oil base paint. As
it stands now it shows signs of water damage, too much paint, and general deterioration from age.”
Orlandini said a simple solution was to caulk the holes and spot paint to slow decay. He offered to
remove all pieces and create new molds, make fresh plaster casts and replace the originals. The
cost was expected to be about $25,000. The library board considered the alternatives and chose the
caulking and painting solution.
In 1989, Leonard Eager, grandson of the original donor, provided funds for the remodeling of a
storage room in the basement. The remodeling was completed and the Eager Reading Room for
local history was dedicated. A new gas fire log was also put into the wood-burning fireplace and
Leonard Eager also donated the funds for this project. Leonard served on the library board for 64
The most significant change to the building occurred in 1995-96 with the addition to the south of the
original structure. The addition to the library was designed in 1994 by Mark A. Kraft of Architects-
Engineers, Inc. Kraft had also designed an addition to the J. C. McKenna Middle School and was
recommended by Evansville School Superintendent, Tom Benzinger, a member of the library board.
In the early 1980s, the firm designed a new boiler for the library heating system.
Driving the new addition was the library’s lack of accessibility and compliance with the Americans With
Disabilities Act (ADA). The Arrowhead Library System conducted a study of the building in the early
1990s and found many non-compliance issues with ADA, including steep stairs and an inaccessible
After much discussion with the City Council, the Library Board received approval to apply for two
grants to assist in paying for the addition that was expected to cost more than $400,000. Grants in
the amount of $204,000 were received and the work started with a ground breaking ceremony in
The addition included 1,250 square feet in the basement level and lobby area and 1,474 square feet
added to the first floor. An elevator, two accessible restrooms and accessible service desk brought
the library into compliance with the ADA.
Once again community members came forward with funds to pay for bookshelves, tables, chairs, and
service desks for the new addition. A library open house in March 1996, celebrated the new
The frieze, the stained glass windows and the exterior brick wall were preserved in the first floor
addition so that visitors have a close-up view of these building features. The first floor office, built in
book shelves and the children’s room in the basement level in the original library were also
preserved. The former lecture – children’s room returned to its former use as a meeting and program
room for library and community activities.