History of the Eager Free Public Library
In the 1890s, many Wisconsin communities were establishing tax-supported libraries. Evansville 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.
The city of Evansville formed a public library in 1899 and housed it in the high school building while the library board searched for a suitable location in a separate building. 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 in 1902, 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.
There was some opposition from citizens who argued that the annual upkeep for the building and the library services was too expensive for the taxpayers. William H. Spencer, a former resident, wrote a letter to the editor of the Evansville Enterprise: “It is a painful surprise to learn that any one in my native town for any reason whatever, should oppose the establishment of a public library there. I can understand why a keeper of a bawdy house or of a gambling resort might be hostile to such a movement. They might say that their business flourished most where idleness, ignorance, rowdyism and general immorality were found most prevalent, but I cannot understand how any really intelligent person, who cares for the civic welfare should have any other feeling than that of profound gratitude for the splendid gift.”
The issue of a site for the library was solved in the fall of 1903, when Flora Winston, a Chicago resident who had lived in Evansville and owned the lots at the southeast corner of West Main and First Street donated the lots to the City for a new library. Mrs. A. Eager and her daughter Gertrude contributed the additional money needed to complete the building as planned. Eventually, the City Council accepted Eager’s gift and promised to appropriate $1,000 per year to support the library.
In May 1907, the first shovel of dirt was excavated for the new Eager Free Public Library. The architectural firm of Claude and Starck from Madison designed the Prairie style building. Louis Ward Claude and Edward F. Starck were Wisconsin natives. Claude, the primary architect on the project, was employed in the offices of Adler and Sullivan in Chicago in the early 1890s and with Burnham and Root, the Chicago World’s Fair designers, in 1893. He was a life-long friend of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Claude and Starck were partners from 1896-1929 and their Prairie style designs are some of their most noteworthy works. They would design at least five more libraries that were nearly identical to the Eager Free Public Library in Rochelle, Illinois; Detroit Lakes, MN; Tomah and Merril in Wisconsin and Hoquiem, WA.
While the building was under construction, a life-sized 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.
In April 1908 the public library rooms at the high school were closed for several days as school children helped carry the books to the new library. The library was officially dedicated on June 9, 1908 when the Eager Estate handed the responsibility of the library building to the City of Evansville. The library became the center for cultural and civic events in town. In 1913, the beautiful grandfather clock was donated to the library in memory of Mrs. Eva J. Spencer, a charter member of the Women’s Literary Club and active supporter of the library.
The building remained unchanged until 1952 when 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 1973, the basement meeting room was converted to a “Young People’s Room.” Plans for the remodeling began when Leonard P. Eager donated money given by friends in memory of his wife, Eloise Eager. The City Council supplied additional funds and this project was completed in early 1974. The space was used as a children’s reading and program room until 1996.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 (see the listing here). In the application, the building was described as a fine example of the Prairie School architectural style and the earliest existing example of Claude and Starck’s “Sullivanesque” libraries in Wisconsin. The firm’s regional reputation for fine library buildings is based on the functional plan of the building, with open interior spaces, high windows above built-in book shelving and a useful basement.
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 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 by Mark A. Kraft of Architects-Engineers, Inc of Madison, Wisconsin. Driving the new addition was the library’s lack of accessibility and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
The addition was funded through two federal grants, support from the City of Evansville, and private donations. The addition included an elevator, two accessible restrooms, library service areas and meeting rooms.
In the early 2010s community interest in an expanded and updated 21st century library began to grow. On April 6, 2018 ground was broken on the site for the library addition. The library remodel and addition was designed by FEH Design. Vogel Bros. Building Co. worked as the general contractor on the project. The expansion project doubled the library’s size by building on the south side of the building on the lot where the U.S. Postal Service was previously located.
The new building was dedicated on (date to be announced). The project supplied much needed updates to mechanical systems, increased community spaces, technology updates, and restoration of some of the library’s original features. A new children’s patio, young adult space, larger local history room, community rooms, additional restrooms, and expanded library service areas were added.
The Eager Free Public Library opens doors for curious minds by encouraging literacy, inspiring learning, and connecting people.