Corbin H. Crable
It was a long, difficult road to travel, but Edgerton residents for years spoke loud and clear through both their words and their actions: We want a library, and we will build it ourselves if we must.
Ten years later, the small building on East Nelson Street stands as the fruit of their labor, a literary mainstay and social epicenter in this small town. Built from the months of hours put in by community volunteers and even prison inmates, its future was uncertain only a decade ago, when Edgerton citizens came together, rolled up their collective sleeves and got to work on a project of which they could all be proud.
Local library services disbanded in the 1970s, at which time Edgerton residents still paid county taxes for library services. Deciding they wanted and deserved more, a letter writing campaign in the mid-1980s resurrected those services – but not to the extent Edgerton’s residents had hoped for.
What the county actually gave them were two small rolling book carts, placed in what is now City Administrator David Dillner’s office at the Edgerton Community Center – where residents could select books they wanted to “check out” on an honor system. After giving their address and telephone number to city officials, residents could take the book for as long as they needed.
According to former USD 230 Superintendent Gary George, Edgerton Elementary School left its school library open during the summer months so students could read and study there. One of the main reasons this was done, he said, was to ensure the safety of Edgerton’s children, who ran a risk riding their bicycles on Highway 56.
“Traveling Highway 56, there was no shoulder and no way to ride a bike there safely, so to provide another option we did arrange to have summer hours (at the school’s library),” George said.
Residents wanted more
Finally, after years of reading and rereading the meager offerings on the small carts in city hall, residents spoke out, both to city and county officials. Not only does Edgerton have one of the highest mill levies in the county, they argued, but many of the local book offerings were outdated and in poor condition. They had paid their taxes for years with little to show for it, and besides, many Edgerton residents were not able to travel to other county libraries due to a lack of transportation. Editorials by Gardner News publisher Rhonda Humble called for the addition of a library in the community as well, arguing that the community and its citizens would benefit greatly from such an addition.
City officials heard their residents’ concerns and, in the spring of 1997, established a group to secure a library facility for the city. According to county officials, however, the city did not meet standards for a branch facility as laid out by the county’s library board. However, if the city secured a location, the board offered Edgerton what it termed a “virtual library,” in which no books would be kept. Only computers would be available for the public to order books and wait for them to be delivered.
Not good enough, the Edgerton City Council decided. The council rejected the offer on the grounds that no child would know what they wanted to read until they physically held the book in their hands. Besides, they argued, the community still deserved more.
They responded to the offer by receiving the Edgerton State Bank Building, located across the street from the community center. Sold for $1 by former Edgerton Councilman Mike Schmidt, the bank building, which Schmidt had previously owned and operated as a grocery store for several years, was constructed in 1906. It boasted a Romanesque Revival brick exterior and arched stone windows. But there was much work to be done on the building – a leaky roof, rotting floors and generally deteriorating rooms greeted the city when the purchase was complete. In all, estimates for the cost of the renovation project topped $250,000.
Thankfully, money for renovations came in from several sources – a CDBG grant supplied $200,000 for the project, $50,000 in local funding was procured, and the library board itself donated $60,000 toward shelving and furnishings.
Perhaps even more importantly, area schools and groups organized fundraisers – everything from bake sales to raffles to garage sales – in order to raise money for the library, exhibiting what former City Clerk Rita Moore has called Edgerton’s “can-do community spirit.”
Citizens work together
In 1999, volunteers from all over rolled up their sleeves and got to work renovating the grand old structure. Everyone from local children to the elderly to politicians cleaned up the debris within the building, patterned windows, painted walls and supplied meals for one another. Even inmates from the Lansing Correctional Facility were shipped in to help renovate the interior and exterior of the building.
Moore said the project successfully created a common bond between everyone in Edgerton.
“It was the community project for our city,” Moore said. “Everybody came together. You saw volunteers and contributors from everywhere. It was awesome. It was exactly what the community needed.”
In summer 1999, however, the project hit a major road block. Johnson County commissioners sliced the library board’s budget, and that without the full original amount budgeted, it was unlikely the project would reach completion.
Edgerton residents refused to give up on the library, though, and letter-writing campaigns let local and regional politicians know they would continue to fight for their library. Gardner News editorials urged politicians to lend their weight to the project, and the county commissioners’ offices received a deluge of voices in support of the library.
Ultimately, the commissioners did approve the full funding amount in their budget for fiscal year 2000 – but the project’s troubles were not over yet. Bids from contractors came out to be double the original estimate of $250,000. The bids received by the council fell between $486,000 and $548,000. Edgerton Council members decided to reject all submitted bids and removed from their list some renovations that could be performed by volunteers. The second round of bids proved to be more successful, with several local contractors donating both materials and manpower to the library’s cause.
“We were elated – the whole community,” city employee Janeice Rawles said. “We were elated that we were finally going to have the library we had worked so hard for.”
A special volunteer
Volunteers continued to pitch in as well. One of the first, a 10-year-old girl named Ali Richards, had voiced a hope for years that the community would receive a library. Although Ali died of a brain aneurysm while the building was in the midst of renovations, the community continued to respond in the kindness of their words and deeds, contributing funds for a special arch stained glass memorial created by Ali’s grandfather. The arch “hangs in the library as a reminder of the dream and the commitment of one youth in our community,” according to Moore.
Rawles said that with the community’s help, Ali’s dream was going to come true.
“(Ali) wanted the library so badly, and everybody helped,” she recalled.
Meanwhile, books came pouring in from all over the country; many were sold at a large book sale for raising additional funds.
All told, the cost of the project clocked in at $434,463, with $200,000 coming from the CDBG grant, $10,000 from a KC150 Legacy Grant, $35,302 from the city of Edgerton’s operating fund and $189,161 raised by the community itself.
The finishing touch on the bank – its name – came one day during a brainstorm between city officials and organizers. In homage to the old building’s previous use, they decided it would be named as a place where residents could access a wealth of information – a veritable Bank of Knowledge.
George, who worked on multiple letter writing campaigns on behalf of the school district, said such teamwork was characteristic of those working on making one town’s dream a reality.
“I think it demonstrates that when groups of people come together with a common purpose, they can accomplish a lot,” George said. “The need was there, and the people deserved (library) services.
“After several years of effort, we finally had a library,” he said. “We were very pleased with what we had, but it did take a lot of effort from a lot of different people. It was an important addition to the city of Edgerton, and it was a positive step forward.”
The big day arrives
Officials from across the state descended on Edgerton in July 2000 for the Bank of Knowledge’s ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication. Attendees marveled at the library’s collection of more than 7,900 books and other materials, Internet work stations, meeting room and outdoor patio/reading courtyard, where bricks bear the names of donors associated with the project. Inside, too, the Wall of Recognition bears the names of donors who gave $250 or more to the project, while the names of those who gave $1,000 or more have been forever memorialized on the Arch Window Recognition plaque.
“This project was much more than brick and mortar. It is about Edgerton’s future,” then-Edgerton Mayor Frances Cross said at the library’s opening ceremonies. “The return on the investment we have made will continue for many generations. … We have benefited from the amazing generosity of people who have asked to remain anonymous and from the good heartedness of people who may not be considered wealthy by Johnson County standards, but who we consider to be rich in spirit.”
Although the library turned a decade old in 2009, Rawles said, Edgerton residents still treat the facility like it is brand new – and that the feelings of pride and excitement in their accomplishment have not diminished, but grown over the passing years.
“What a commitment the community made to itself,” Rawles said. “It’s still the talk of the town.”
Former Edgerton City Clerk Rita Moore supplied many of the notes and documents used in the information gathering for this story.