Lexington became a community of readers long before it was a community called Lexington.
Lexington’s library system began in Plum Creek in 1886 as a room inside the former post office building on Cayuga (now Washington) Street, on the spot where the Majestic Theater now sits.
The library was called the Reading Room and was purchased from E.H. Krier by the trustees of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for $125 on July 10, 1886 to be stocked with volumes donated by a handful of townspeople.
In the Plum Creek Gazette, which was next door to the Reading Room, this article appeared in the Sept. 30, 1886 edition:
“The ladies are busy at the Reading Room this week, serving oysters, hot tea and coffee, and lunch to the hungry people, trying in this way to raise enough money to put the Reading Room in readiness for winter.”
The Reading Room was open each day until approximately 1891 when the WCTU closed the library and donated the books to Lexington City Schools, where they were housed in West Ward School (now Bryan) until they were destroyed by fire in 1896.
Following the fire at West Ward School, there was a concerted effort among the literati of Lexington to bring a Carnegie library to the city, but funding proved elusive. Instead, the minister of the First Methodist Church, B.F. Gaither, proposed using a room in the northeast corner of that newly constructed church for a reading room.
A book shower was requested in the Nov. 11, 1910 edition of the Clipper-Citizen for books of “proper and moral tone” and the citizens of Lexington donated more than 600 books and other items for the reading room.
In 1910, the first catalog of books was neatly printed and bound into a pocket-sized pamphlet and listed all 784 books in the library’s permanent collection.
The minister’s wife, who is listed in that first book catalog as librarian Mrs. B.F. Gaither, wrote, “Through the courtesies of the Methodist Church, we are housed and cared for so far as incidental expenses go. But the object of this library is to meet the needs of the community at large. We want it understood that all people share equally in this. No favoritism shown.”
The pages on the left side of the book catalog listed books along with their authors, broken down by category. The right sides of the catalog were ads for the four Lexington businesses who sponsored the printing of the catalog; Kandy’s Kitchen, Lew T. Smith, Vogue Clothing Co., and R. Emerson Furniture and Undertaking, the three-story building that still sits across the street from the Pinnacle Agency.
That first year 123 citizens accounted for the circulation of more than 2,200 volumes from the reading room. The library was open three days a week for a total of nine hours and only one book was lost during the first year of operation.
In 1916 word of available Carnegie funding spread throughout the community and this time the effort to bring a library to Lexington was successful. Construction on the new library began in 1918.
Lexington received a grant for $10,000 to build the new library. The contract for the library’s construction was awarded to Messrs. Hansen Bros. of Havelock and their bid was $8,298 - not including heating, plumbing or sidewalks.
The population of Lexington was just 2,500, but according to the Clipper-Citizen, the first year the new library was open circulation was 13,020 out of 2,000 books available.
As Lexington grew in population, doubling to 5,000 residents by 1961, the Carnegie library grew as well. After four decades of serving the community, the Carnegie needed to be replaced.
A new library building, to be built on the corner of 10th and Washington, had a price tag of $80,000. Federal grant money paid for $40,000 of the total building price and the other $40,000 came from local funds.
Another $10,500 was raised for furnishing the new library with money coming from memorials and gifts.
On May 1, 1965, city council members received several bids for the construction of the new library, but the lowest base bid came in at $93,281, several thousand dollars over their estimate of $80,500.
A second bidding round was necessary and it was scheduled for July 1965.
The building architect, George Clayton and Associates of Grand Island, altered the library plans, making changes to the roof and electrical system and the changes brought the price tag within budget.
It was reported in the newspaper the building, “Is still designed to be a very satisfactory facility for the city.”
On hand for the Aug. 23, 1965 ground-breaking of the new Lexington library were Mrs. Ted Sladky, president of the library board; Mayor Ralph Batie, board attorney Larry Weber, board members Dr. Harley Batie, Mrs. C.L. Lovgren, Lee Sanks, Mrs. John Neff, librarians Mary Cooper and Mrs. M.O. Bates, city manager S.Y. Gillan, City Clerk Norris Warren, and city council members M.R. Kammerlohr, Dan Grafton and Charlie Wrightsman.
LPL opened on June 1, 1966 and was dedicated in a formal ceremony on Oct. 2 of that same year.
The Carnegie, located at 705 N. Washington, was sold and became a law office. It has changed hands since and is now the law office of Lexington attorney Will Weinhold.
While the Carnegie served Lexington residents for more than 40 years, the new library started bursting at the seams less than 25 years later. During an inspection in 1991 by a representative from the city’s insurance company, hundreds of books were discovered being stored in the furnace room.
Off site more books were being stored by the city.
Again, the townspeople banded together and decided a new, bigger library was in order.
The project really started to take shape after Lexington resident Gladys Benthack made a donation of nearly $400,000 to the library building fund. Benthack, a supporter of the Lexington Library for many years, was also the first person to receive a library card at the Carnegie Library.
Lexington residents showed their support of the new library by raising more than $1 million dollars and by voting yes to a bond issue for even more cash for the project.
In a letter to the editor, Pam Brand, who was then president of the board for United Way echoed the sentiments of many Lexingtonians.
“I feel strongly that Lexington is a wonderful caring community,” Brand wrote, “and the library campaign this year was just one way that our citizens showed their belief in our town.”
The project was not without its controversy. Letters by citizens that were published in the Clipper-Herald expressed dismay over the building’s price tag and features.
Lexington resident Cyndi Smith wrote “The public voted for a budget of 1.5 million in bonds for the new library, which would cost 2.5 million. Now, we are getting talked into spending more, because the contractors say the beams need to be steel, not wood. That’s bologna. What kind of contractor didn’t know that from the beginning.”
Smith’s argument was the library didn’t concentrate on function, but show.
“I really don’t think we need a fancy library in the first place…Key word: cut back and revise.”
But plans for the new building went forward and the contract for construction of the library was awarded to Lacy Construction of Grand Island. The library’s design was by Beringer, Ciaccio, Dennell and Mabrey.
Groundbreaking at the spacious new building was Oct. 7, 2004. On hand for the ceremony was guest speaker the Honorable James Doyle, Dawson County’s District Judge. Dave Fairbanks, president of the Lexington Community Foundation, conducted the welcoming and introductions. Even as Fairbanks was giving his speech, workers from Lacy’s Constructed roared by in trucks, trying to get in one last truckload for the day.
Doyle gave credit to the many citizens who made the new facility possible; ordinary people who passed up vacations and other luxuries so they could make a donation.
“They didn’t do a lot of things they wanted, but they put their money where their mouth is,” Doyle said. “That $1.4 million came from people’s treasures.”
That community treasure chest, with its vaulted ceiling, large windows and nearly 19,000 square foot of space, just celebrated its fifth anniversary.