This is the second article in the annual Under Western Skies observance of National Library Week.
In the 1850s, surveying parties were scouring the mountain ranges of southern California for the best route for rail lines to connect to the Pacific Ocean from the eastern part of the country.
The discovery of the San Gorgonio Pass in 1853 proved to be the key. The pass has an elevation of less than half a mile, passing between 10,834 foot San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain, 11,503 feet. Here’s the pass viewed from Joshua Tree National Park to the east.
You can plainly see the low-lying pass between San Jacinto on the left and San Gorgonio on the right.
By the early 1860s, the Southern Pacific Railroad had run tracks through the pass into the Los Angeles area, 80 miles to the west. The area was sparsely settled at first, but proved to be well-suited for agriculture, especially apple orchards, which thrived on the lower slopes of San Gorgonio. A small station in the area attracted more settlers to the area and a town, called Beaumont, began to develop. In 1912, Beaumont, California incorporated with about 800 residents.
Here comes the good part.
What do you do to improve life in a tiny speck of a place in near-wilderness on the edge of the Mojave Desert? In 1909, the Beaumont Women’s Club held an event with attendees dressed as characters from books, collected 81 books and raised $71.00. They started a library.
By 1911, the yet-to-be-incorporated town established a library district, leading to the opening of the town library in two rooms of a bank building. They didn’t stop there.
In 1913, the library’s board secured a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation to build a library at the corner of 8th and California. It opened in June of 1914.
The library, expanded by additions in 1966 and 1981, is still there, still in operation, looking very much the same.
The upper part of the original structure, now no longer able to bear the weight of bookshelves and used as instructional and meeting space, retains some of its decorative detail (click on images for full view).
The bulk of the active collection is now housed in the large 1966 addition behind the 1914 structure.
It looks a bit crowded, doesn’t it? Now serving approximately 70,000 people in Beaumont and the surrounding area, and with rapid growth estimated to swell the population to 120,000, they need even more books, services, space and staff.
Continuing a Legacy
The Beaumont Women’s Club of 1909 would’ve done something about that situation. The original library board took action and built the library. Today’s Beaumont Library District is responding, too. When we visited the library, the director, Clara DiFelice, enthusiastically showed us site plans, a scale model and renderings for an ambitious addition and renovation to the complex.
Libraries are changing in response to new technology, lifestyles and needs, and Beaumont’s is no exception. There are computers, online research services, a mobile library van and even more ambitious plans for further outreach across the district.
Andrew Carnegie knew that a library isn’t just a building. He left it to the communities to decide what went in the buildings and how they were staffed and maintained (and he required that they have a plan to accomplish those things before they got money for a building).
The Vision Thing
As I wrote in the first article from this year’s observance of National Library Week, the reason that a library like Beaumont’s is still operating after nearly 110 years is a tribute to the vision of its founders and the will of their successors to continue realizing that vision. The need for vision continues, too. Rather than wait for technology or society to roll past them and leave an underused building behind, they — and thousands of other libraries — are adapting, growing.
A Word About Library Districts
As Ms. DiFelice explained to The Counselor and me when we dropped in unannounced to see the library, Beaumont is a “special library district.” The library district is a separate financial entity from the city or county (although there are some overlaps), and goes to voters to secure its operating funds or, in the present case, the means to expand. What that says to me is that the people of the Beaumont area are to be congratulated for understanding the value of a library. In turn, the staff of the library are to be commended for making it so.
Sam and Ray Go to the Library
This article isn’t just about Beaumont Library. It’s about libraries everywhere and their importance. Take two young men, Sam and Ray. In the 1840s, Sam left school in the 5th grade, but continued his education in public libraries. Another young man, Ray, born 10 years after Sam died, stayed in school, but credits public libraries in Tucson, Arizona; Waukegan, Illinois and Los Angeles as the places where he truly learned things that fired his fertile imagination. You know Sam Clemens better as Mark Twain and Ray as Ray Bradbury.
You never know who might need the library next, or what they’ll do with what they find there.
Beaumont (red circle) is on Interstate 10, 80 miles east of Los Angeles and 30 miles west of Palm Springs (black circle).
It’s still famous for its apple orchards and other produce. The downtown has a small-town vibe, and the library is located along shady, residential 8th Street. It’s a good place to stop before you hit the freeways of L.A. heading west, or to refuel before you dive into Palm Springs or Joshua Tree National Park, about an hour east and north. If you like antique shops, plan on spending a couple of hours. You’ll enjoy the sight of San Jacinto looming to the southeast.
Special thanks to Ms. DiFelice and the library staff for their time, and for telling us far more than I can relate here about the library’s 110-year history and plans for the future.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google. Historic photo and architectural rendering courtesy Beaumont Library District.