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 marks it's 100th anniversary. A gift of $10,000 from Almeron Eager’s estate in 1902, assured Evansville
residents of a public library building.
The Eager Free Public Library was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. The nomination
papers, described the hip-roofed oblong structure. “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 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 Lloyd Wright.
Claude and Starck were partners in a Madison architectural firm 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 Claude and Starck are 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.
L. T. Pullen, Daniel Johnson and Isaac A. Hoxie, the Review editor, called a meeting of “The friends of a Public
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 established tax-supported public libraries. Evansville’s joined the ranks
in 1899, when the City Council appointed the first public library board. Although women could not vote or serve as
officers 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 basis.
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 another women's organization, the Afternoon Club, 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.”
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 Estate trustees.
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.
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. The library opened a few days later.
On June 9, 1908 the building was dedicated. 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 reading materials.
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.”
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
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 library.)
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
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 1992.
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 until 1996.
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 Cooksville.
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 years.
Donations of genealogy, photographs, cemetery records, scrapbooks and other historical documents soon filled the
Eager Reading Room with Evansville area history.
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. The library board had previously worked with Mark
Kraft and his father. 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 restroom.
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. The library director, Ruth Ann Montgomery
wrote the grants in the amount of $204,000. The grants were received and the work started with a ground breaking
ceremony in 1995.
Front Row: Harlan Miller, Mayor of Evansville; Alice Mackie, Director Ruth Ann Montgomery
Back Row: Richard Waller, EFPL Board; Janet Petterson, EFPL Board, Kathy Rohde, President of EFPL
Friends; Diana Eager, EFPL Board President; Mark Kraft, Architect; Tom Benzinger, EFPL Board &
Evansville School District Superintendent. Ground breaking ceremony July 1995
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 addition.
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.
In 2007, circulation at the Eager Free Public Library was more than 75,000 items and the selection of materials has
expanded to DVDs, CDs, books on tape, Videos, as well as thousands more books and magazines that were
available to Evansville area residents in 1908 when the building opened. There are also public and staff computers,
a catalog and circulation system shared with the seven-member Arrowhead Library System public libraries, and on-
line access to Videos, music and audio books.
In 2007, the City of Evansville purchased the post office building on South First Street, adjacent to the Eager Free
Public Library. This will allow the library to expand to the south, as funding becomes available. The Eager Free
Public Library Board is in the early planning stages for fund raising and extension of the building. The current
director of the library is Kathi Kemp.
|Life-sized statue of Almeron Eager
The dream of a public
library was first
expressed in the
Evansville Review in
March 1875. “Why
may not Evansville
have a public library?"
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.
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.
|Library interior April 1908 before books were brought from the High School/Public Library on South First Street
A Donor Board was created by
Ed McCartan to honor those
who had given more than $100
to the library.
|Children's Room in former meeting room in the basement of the library
Photo taken in 1994
“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
“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
Children's Room in new
summer of 1995