History Spotlight: Minnesota's Oldest Carnegie Libraries Still in Use

Kris Lindahl, Contributing Writer

Did you know that the state of Minnesota once boasted a total of 65 public libraries built with grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York? (One additional grant was awarded to Hamline University for an academic library.) It’s true! Between 1886 and 1919, the steel tycoon and renowned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie gifted $45 million to fund 1,579 libraries across the country, and Minnesota claimed her fair share.

Remarkably, of the original 66 libraries located in cities and towns throughout Minnesota, 50 still stand. Twenty-three continue to function as libraries. Others have been converted into galleries, art centers, offices or commercial space. For example, the former library in Montevideo now serves as community space, while the Carnegie Library built in Pipestone in 1903 enjoys new life as a senior center. All of these beautiful, historic libraries contribute much to their communities’ aesthetic, and are one of many amenities prospective residents can look forward to when moving to Minnesota.


Standout Carnegie Libraries

Although many of Carnegie's initial grants were to communities where he had personal ties, 25 Minnesota towns were recipients of library commissions between 1899 and 1903. Duluth received the state's first commissions, for three quote "free public libraries." Minneapolis received four grants; three of these libraries are still in operation. Saint Paul, recipient of four grants, still counts two 1917 buildings as active libraries. 

Let’s take a more in-depth look at some of my favorites.


Stillwater.jpgStillwater, just across the St. Croix River from Wisconsin, is sometimes known as the "birthplace of Minnesota.” It was the site of a territorial convention in 1848 that led to Minnesota statehood, so it seems fitting that it became the site of one of the first public libraries to be built in the state. On July 3, 1901, Stillwater received a Carnegie grant in the amount of $27,500.

Interestingly, Stillwater previously had a library association and maintained a lending library which supplied reading materials for a fee. In 1897, however, the city passed a referendum calling for taxation to fund a public library. When Carnegie funding for a building became available, Stillwater was therefore "first in line," so to speak, spurred on by an all-woman library board. 

The library opened the following year, and it is still operating. Although it has been enlarged and renovated, Stillwater Public Library still bears the stamp of its original Beaux Arts design, and carries on the tradition of its early years.

Little Falls

Distinguished by its Craftsman architecture, the Carnegie Library in Little Falls continues to serve residents some 113 years after its opening. The city received approval of its grant application in 1902, began construction of its library in 1904, and opened the doors in February 1905. Little Falls Public Library recorded 1,415 registered borrowers that inaugural year. 

Nowadays – after extensive renovations and updates to add public computers, etc. – the library is part of the Great River Regional Library System, and serves upwards of 8,300 regional borrowers.


The Hutchinson Free Public Library was dedicated and opened in June 1904. Built of Kasota limestone and brick in the popular Classical Revival style, construction was made possible by a $12,500 grant from Carnegie. Nearly 100 years later, in 2003, an extensive restoration of the original Carnegie portion of the building began.

During the intervening years, the existing space was nearly tripled. Some of the original features, including original shelving and decorative woodwork, are still intact. The library – although changed and sporting a new entrance – still has a prominent place on Hutchinson's main public square.

Sauk Centre

sauk.jpgIn early 1903, citizens of Sauk Centre used $10,000 in grant funding to build the Bryant Public Library. (Its name honors American poet William Cullen Bryant.) It opened the following year.

An additional $1,000 Carnegie grant was awarded in 1907 to replace the original roof. A cupola was added in 1909 to increase the interior's natural light.

Today, the library is known as the  Sauk Centre Public Library. It was expanded in 1998 with two wing additions and interior renovations. New entrance steps were added in 1992, but the building retains its original brick Renaissance Revival façade— highlighted by a low-hipped roof, square-hipped cupola, and central entrance projection that boasts an impressive arched opening. 

Crookston and Morris

Two of northern Minnesota's early libraries are still open, and served for decades as their counties’ only libraries until they were purchased by their county historical societies.

Crookston.jpgCrookston was first offered $12,500 by Carnegie to build its library – but negotiated an increase to $17,500. They won their bid in November 1903. It took several more years to move the project forward, however. Although the cornerstone bears a date of 1907, the library did not open to the public until 1908. Typical of so many Carnegie Libraries, this is a Classical Revival style single-story building with a raised basement and an entrance staircase. A new, larger library was constructed on an adjacent site in 1984. Now the former Carnegia Library contains the Polk County Historical Society's archives.

Similarly, the Morris Public Library was relocated to new quarters in 1968, while the older building became headquarters and a museum operated by the Stevens County Historical Society. The original Classical Revival building, which opened in 1905, has been extensively renovated.

A 2005 addition nearly doubled existing display and storage space, and moved the entrance to another street. The new entrance was designed as a replica of the original, including period columns, quoining, parapet and pediment. The building still prominently features the Carnegie name.

These "free libraries" were never free to the communities that benefited from them. Rather, they were supported by taxation, a somewhat novel concept for the time. Learn more about Minnesota libraries by visiting Minnesota Carnegie Libraries Tour.