The southeast corner of Forest Avenue and Williams Street was a busy place 50 years ago this month as the Great Bend Public Library moved into sparkling new digs.
At 10 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 1, 1971 the current Great Bend Public Library building opened its doors to the public for the first time, but the journey leading to that moment was a long one.
According to Karen Neuforth with the Barton County Historical Society, the library’s history in that location actually began over 62 years prior to that moment.
In 1908, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie gifted $12,500 to the City of Great Bend for the purpose of constructing a new library, built of native brick, at the southeast corner of Forest Avenue and Williams Street. The 9,500 square foot striking red brick structure opened in August of that year and stood in that location for over six decades.
However, as the early sixties dawned, library officials were faced with cramped spaces and an aging building that was falling apart at the seams, so library officials explored their options in 1963.
Library officials looked into improvements to the old building, but according to current GBPL Director Gail Santy, the inflexible design of the Carnegie library building made adding on to that building unrealistic, especially with the deteriorating condition of the building.
According to a 1971 article in the Kansas Library Bulletin written by then Great Bend librarian Duane F. Johnson, in 1965, the City of Great Bend passed a resolution creating a two-mill tax levy for a period of 10 years to raise funds for a new building, which a site survey indicated would sit adjacent to the library’s existing location. In 1969, the Library Board received a $201,413 grant to aid in the construction.
However, at the time, USD 428 owned the land the new library was to sit on, as well as two unused school buildings which occupied that property.
The district agreed to deed the title to the land and the two school buildings to the library board, provided the board agreed to assume responsibility for the razing of the Central School buildings to the west. The cost for the razing of those two buildings was included in the cost of the general construction contract.
Construction began on the building in December 1969, and the brand-new building, which at 38,000 square feet was about four times the size of the Carnegie building, was completed a year later.
And so, in January of 1971, the transition to the new building began.
The month of transition
The old Carnegie building shut its doors for the last time on Jan. 9, 1971, as preparations for the transition to the new building began.
At the time, according to an article in the Sunday, Jan. 10, 1971 Great Bend Tribune, the Great Bend Public Library possessed over 60,000 print materials, all of which had to be transferred from the old building to the new building adjacent to it. Also, at the time, the basement of the new library was to be home to the Barton County Law Library, so those materials had to be moved, too.
For a part of the material transfer, library officials got creative in enlisting the public’s help.
On a chilly Saturday, January 23, hundreds of Great Bend youngsters turned out to help transfer books from the children’s department in what the Tribune dubbed a “book brigade.” In it, children’s books were passed hand-to-hand from the basement of the old library, through the front doors of the new building to the new children’s department on the north side. Reports said the children made “quick work” of the move.
Following this book brigade, the old Carnegie library’s days were short.
As daylight arrived on Monday, Jan. 25, so did the wrecking ball for the iconic old library building. By evening that day, only the front steps and entry way of the building remained, as the building was reduced to rubble. By the time the new building opened its doors a week later, there was no trace left of the six-decade old building, save a concrete marker denoting the library’s name that had hung over the front entrance.
Today, the front lawn of the current library sits where its two-story forerunner once stood.
And according to Santy, while much of the interior of the current library has undergone significant changes over the years, the outside remains much as it looked as the doors opened 50 years ago.
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.