IN THE HEAT OF THE HEARTLAND
7/4/12 – As we entered Nebraska we quickly saw why it is called the Cornhusker State. Endless acres of corn stretched off to the horizon. Much of this was to feed Big Agriculture’s desire for corn-fed beef and ethanol. When we filled up our car I noticed that 10% of our gas was ethanol. Nebraska was also the land of great libraries. Rulo and Pawnee City , NE were just the start. One of my favorite libraries of the trip was in tiny Burchard, NE. Although it was closed Walker noticed that the door was ajar. Inside was another archive of a small American town. The library included lists of fallen American soldiers from WWI and WWII. High School trophies and ribbons dating back to the 1930s were in a dusty display case. Dozens of mysterious small white crosses were in boxes. Old books and magazines were on the shelves. A beautiful wooden desk sat next to a window. It had little wooden boxes each with the names of Nebraska cities. It was stifling inside and as I photographed I was literally dripping with sweat. We stopped briefly at the Homestead Act National Monument that was celebrating the 150th anniversary of this pioneering legislation. Walker and I had an interesting debate over whether this Act (generally seen as a good thing) was worthwhile. Undoubtedly it was crucial to the settling of the area. We tried to find a library in another small town but was told it had been torn down. It was still well over 100 degrees when we came to Lincoln, NE. Because it was a holiday everything was closed including the library. I quickly photographed the exterior and jumped back into the car. We have been listening to “The Peoples History of the United States” and the reader Matt Damon was speaking about the Vietnam War period. For some reason when he started talking about Ron Kovac, the crippled veteran turned anti-war activist I really got choked up. He had written a book called “Born On the Fourth of July” about his experiences that later became a famous movie. Here we were in the heat of the Heartland on the 4th of July photographing America’s public libraries. I started to think back to when I was Walker’s age living through those chaotic, revolutionary times of the Vietnam War. Each generation has its own cross to bear and ours was that war way back when. Weeping Water, NE got the award for the most poetic name for a library and a town. The library was originally built as a church and academy before it became a library. The old limestone walls exuded rust colored stains that made the library look like it was weeping blood. It was a strange but fascinating effect. After driving many miles on dirt roads we were hot and exhausted but we stopped for one more library in Wehawka, NE. In the last sunlight I photographed this incredible log cabin library. Nebraska has great libraries and the state gave us a good look into rural, mid-Western America. We ended the day in Omaha, NE and I felt like we had accomplished much during our long dive. As we watched the fireworks from our hotel I felt glad we were doing this project. In a way, it is our chance to understand this big, complex, fascinating country through its public libraries.
7/5/12 – The Central Library in Omaha was plain and boxy. But it was representative of a style of modern, utilitarian, urban architecture that is fairly typical throughout the nation. I hesitated but finally decided to photograph this library that was nicely situated amongst Omaha’s tall buildings. Also, this site was the location for the famous photographers William Henry Jackson’s first studio. His adult life spanned from the Civil War to WWII. He was best known as a photographer for the great 19th century geological surveys of the American West including the first one into Yellowstone. His photographs of that area were used in the effort to create the world’s first National Park. The small library in Wisner, NE had potential. Great silos and towers loomed in the background but from the street they were hard to see. I tried to go into every story across the street from the library to ask if I could photograph from the roof. Every one was shut as was much of the town including the library. It is hard to believe that Nebraska had so many topnotch libraries. Rudy’s Library in Monowi, NE was one of them. The entire population of this town consists of one woman, Elsie Eiler. She runs the only business in town, a local roadhouse. Over the years she watched all the other town residents move away or pass away. Her husband Rudy died a few years ago. Because he had collected so many books she decided to pen Rudy’s Library in a small shed next to her home. The memorial to her husband was free and open all the time. People can self-check out books by signing a notebook and return them when they are done. People from all over had checked out books and presumably mailed them back later. Again, the shed was stifling hot with seat pouring off our faces and hands making the photography a little slippery. I happily photographed the old books, magazines and newspapers. Some of the papers dated back to the 1940s. I photographed a magazine article about Elsie and an etching of Rudy having a beer in the bar. A wooden sign off in the corner simply stated “Rudy’s Dream”. After I finished I walked into the roadhouse, bought a cold soda and thanked Elsie for creating such a memorable library. Our next step was in the tiny town of Lynch, NE. Its library had a simple style and the late afternoon light made it beautiful. One reason we found so many good libraries in Nebraska was because of Walker’s research. He discovered a Flickr page that sowed every library in this state and we were able to narrow it down to the most interesting ones on our route. Missouri came from a Google search for libraries in Nebraska. Little by little our research from many different sources produced the Library Road Trip for 2012. We entered into South Dakota again and soon crossed the Missouri River. We had been driving north since the Ozarks and we could really tell the difference in the longer hours of daylight. Our last library today was in Tripp, SD. This small farm town had a beautiful country library that glowed in the setting sun. Behind it towered a huge bank of clouds that seemed to envelop the whole blooming sky. We finished the drive at dusk in Mitchell, SD. We ended the day with our usual routine of a Mexican dinner, changing the 4X5 film in the motel bathroom, downloading the digital photos and then we crashed.