Breaking ground, and unsealing a time capsule

By Jared Olar

Library Assistant

Up to this point in our series on the history of the Pekin Public Library, we have related the steps that were taken to design a new library building that would include a Dirksen Congressional Research Center, up to the moment on June 20, 1972, when the Pekin library board accepted the bid of Del Construction Co. of Washington, Ill., to build the new 32,500-sq.-ft. library and Dirksen Center for $1,111,780.

In the month following, a special ground-breaking ceremony took place adjacent to the Pekin Carnegie library to initiate the actual construction of the new building. The ground was broken on July 18, 1972, by George Stolley, library board vice-president and chairman of the building committee, along with library director Richard Peck and library board president Miss Josephine Jubain.

While workers dug up the ground, poured concrete, and the new structure rose from the ground, the library’s staff occupied its time in a major project by which the old bookcard index filing system that had been in use, with few significant modifications, since the early 1900s, was replaced by a microfilm circulation system. This switch-over took place in February of 1973.

About three months after that, construction work paused momentarily so workers could pry the Carnegie library’s cornerstone free, enabling access to the time capsule that had been sealed in the cornerstone on Aug. 19, 1902. The ceremonial opening of the time capsule took place on May 31, 1973, and it was found that the collection of 34 preserved mementos were all in excellent condition despite being confined in the capsule for almost 71 years.

The Pekin Daily Times news report on the opening of the time capsule describes the event in these words:

“A small black metal box, well preserved in its chiseled-out niche in the cornerstone of Pekin Public Library, today yielded a surprisingly varied view of the community nearly 71 years ago.

“Installed by the Masonic Fraternity on Aug. 19, 1902, the box was pried from its mooring this morning in bright sunlight at the corner of Broadway and S. Fourth streets, after an earlier postponement because of rain. Only a small group of curious persons, who happened on the scene, and a cluster of newspeople witnessed the opening, after the box was lifted from the 900-pound stone. Because of the dimensions of the container – about five by five by nine inches – some of the contents had been trimmed to fit. A border slicing had been performed on some old city directories, for instance.

“After construction workers handed the box down from the corner of the soon-to-be-demolished building, Pekin Mayor William Waldmeier, Library Board President Josephine Jubain and Librarian Richard N. Peck revealed the items enclosed – ranging from a photograph of and letter from Andrew Carnegie and a warranty deed to the real estate occupied by the building to a 1902 copy of the Pekin Daily Times and issues of other local newspapers of the day. A catalog of products of the Smith Wagon Co. was among the items, as were several lists of Masonic members and officers, who had raised the money for the laying of the cornerstone.”

This scene from the opening of the 1902 Pekin Carnegie library’s cornerstone time capsule was published in the Pekin Daily Times on May 31, 1973. Shown in the foreground from left to right are Pekin Mayor William Waldmeier, Library Board President Josephine Jubain, and Pekin Library Director Richard Peck. In the background are Robert Mott, Ray Frank Jr., and Lou Fischer, the construction workers who pried the cornerstone loose and retrieved the time capsule.

After the time capsule was opened, the copper box and its contents were preserved in the vault of Herget Bank, but about 20 years ago they were transferred to the library’s own historical archives. Photocopies of the items are kept in a vertical file in the library’s Local History Room.

In our ongoing library history series, we have previously described the contents of the 1902 cornerstone, and have been illustrating these columns with photographs and digital scans of documents and relics from the cornerstone.

Shown here in a photograph from earlier in 2021 is the old copper time capsule that was embedded in the cornerstone of the Pekin Carnegie library from 1902 to 1973. Etched on the bottom of the copper box is the name “Louis Zinger Jr.,” who is known to have fashioned several Illinois time capsules around the early 20th century.

The Pekin Public Library is currently exhibiting many of the cornerstone time capsule mementos in two display cases in the library’s Local History Room and in a third display case located under the stairway to the library’s second floor. The Local History Room exhibit will remain on display through the end of the year. The Local History Room is open during the library’s regular hours.

Next time we will tell of one of the most memorable events in the history of the library, and of Pekin itself – the visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon to dedicate the cornerstone of the new library and Dirksen Congressional Research Center.

With the 1902 Pekin Carnegie library behind them, Pekin Library Director Richard Peck, Library Board member George Stolley (chairman of the library’s building committee, wielding the shovel), and Library Board President Josephine Jubain break ground for the planned new Pekin Public Library and Dirksen Congressional Center at 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 18, 1972.

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Looking back over 155 years of Pekin library history

By Jared Olar
Library Assistant

This month the Pekin Public Library marks an important anniversary in its history: it has been 125 years since the library became a branch of Pekin’s city government. It was in Feb. 1896 that the city of Pekin formally assumed the ownership and management of the old Pekin Library Association, a private corporation that was first organized in Nov. 1866.

So, while the library itself will turn 155 this November, the institution known as “Pekin Public Library” is now 125 years old. This anniversary provides a good occasion to take a look back over the library’s history. In today’s column, we’ll run through a general overview of the history of the library and the library building. In columns over the next few weeks and months, we’ll take close looks at specific aspects and episodes of the library’s history.

As both longtime residents of Pekin and attentive visitors to the library know, the current Pekin Public Library building is not the first one to be erected on its site. Prior to the construction of the current library in 1972, Pekin’s readers were served by a smaller structure that stood at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway. When the old library was demolished, its former site became a sunken plaza, but since the 2015 remodel and expansion of the library, the old sunken plaza is no more, replaced by a quiet reading room and a grove of trees with water drainage.

That earlier library structure – one of the nation’s many Carnegie libraries, built in 1902 under the patronage of famous American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – was the first building constructed in Pekin to serve specifically as a public library. In 1900, Miss Mary Elizabeth Gaither (1852-1945) had written to both Carnegie and to Pekin banker George Herget, seeking their support for the construction of a library building. Carnegie agreed to provide funds, and Herget donated land to the city to provide a site for the new library, and Bloomington architect Paul O. Moratz was hired to design it.

Shown in this clipping from a 1901 edition of the Pekin Daily Times is Bloomington architect Paul O. Moratz’s sketch of his proposed design for the 1902 Pekin Carnegie Library. It has been 125 years since the city of Pekin assumed ownership of the Pekin Public Library.

To celebrate this milestone in Pekin’s history, a formal dedication ceremony took place on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1902. On that occasion, the library’s cornerstone was laid – and within the cornerstone was placed a time capsule containing an assortment of documents and relics pertaining chiefly to the history of the plans and preparations leading up to the construction of Pekin’s Carnegie library.

The time capsule remained sealed for 70 years. When the old library was replaced with a new, expanded facility in 1972, the cornerstone was opened and the contents of the time capsule were found to be in a very good state of preservation. For many years after that, the cornerstone materials were stored at Herget Bank, later being transferred to the Pekin Public Library’s own historical archives, where they are stored and preserved today.

Among the items that had been placed in the 1902 time capsule were two local newspapers from February 1896 – a copy of the Pekin Daily Tribune and a copy of the Pekin Daily Evening Post, both of 13 Feb. 1896. They were selected for the time capsule because that date was close to the day that the library became a municipal body of Pekin’s city government.

Shown here is part of the front page of the Feb. 13, 1896, Pekin Daily Tribune, one of the newspapers that was preserved in the 1902 Pekin Public Library cornerstone time capsule.

Miss Gaither, whose actions and advocacy were responsible for the construction of our Carnegie library, prepared a historical report for the Library of Congress in 1903, in which she related the story of the library from 1866 to 1903. (Her historical account had previously been included in the 1902 time capsule.) Her “History of the Pekin Public Library” says:

On November 24th, 1866, a large number of the ladies of Pekin met to organize what was for many years known as the ‘Ladies Library Association.’” Also included in the cornerstone time capsule was one of the handwritten invitations to that meeting.

On March 5, 1883, the Pekin Library Association formally incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois – the original, sealed articles of incorporation from 1883 also were included in the cornerstone time capsule.

Ten years later, on Feb. 6, 1893, the Library Association petitioned the city to have the library and its collection handed over to the city’s ownership. The process of transferring the library from private to public control was completed three years later.

Pekin’s Carnegie Library served the community for seven decades, after which construction began on an entirely new library in 1972 – the one still in use today. The new facility was also the home of the Dirksen Congressional Center for 28 years, and in June 1973, President Richard Nixon came to Pekin to dedicate the Dirksen Center. Two years later, in August 1975, President Gerald Ford returned to dedicate the new library building.

Since then, the Pekin Public Library has benefited from advances in technology and some remodeling. The most significant changes came in 2014 and 2015 thanks to a $6 million remodel and expansion that included a new entrance, community and conference rooms, study rooms and a quiet reading room, and a fresher, brighter, and lighter look within and without.

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