The 125th anniversary of the founding of the Morton-James Public Library continued on Thursday, September 30 with a presentation by MJPL Director of Youth Services, Amanda Winkler, on Mollie Steinhart Cornutt, the city’s first librarian.
Primarily using articles from back issues of then-Nebraska city newspapers as a script, Winkler gave audiences a glimpse into the history of the library and its first ruler around the turn of the 20th century.
The idea for a Nebraska city library began in the late 1860s, Winkler said, with a downtown reading room just for men. The Ladies Round Table Club was formed in 1869, at the same time as the Young Men’s Literary Association, she said.
These two groups joined in 1882 when the Ladies Round Table Club took over the library from the Young Men’s Literary Association and provided reading rooms for the public to read books, magazines and daily newspapers.
John Steinhart was visiting his friend Joy Morton in Chicago as the ladies set up the library, Winkler said. Morton agreed to pay the cost of constructing a library building if Steinhart could sell a piece of property in Nebraska Town for him.
Steinhart tried, and failed to sell the property, and Morton changed his offer by saying that if citizens raised money to buy the land, he would still fund the building of the library, Winkler said.
The first meeting of the library board was held on September 26, 1896, Winkler said, and the Ladies Round Table Club donated over 2,000 books to the library. The Nebraska City Free Library opened to the public on April 10, 1897.
Its name changed to the Morton-James Public Library in 1970 to honor its builder as well as Vantine James, a longtime member of the library’s board of trustees, Winkler said.
Mollie Steinhart Cornutt was born in Missouri in 1863. She and her three siblings and their parents moved to Nebraska City, where John Steinhart settled as a tailor, Winkler said.
She married William Cornutt in March 1884 and the couple had three children in 1890: Paul, Ruth and Hugh.
Paul and Hugh died in their infancy, Winkler said, and William Cornutt took Hugh’s death in 1894 particularly harshly, retiring from public life and repeatedly attempting to “recover his health” before being placed in an asylum in Lincoln in 1896. He died there shortly after. after Mollie Cornutt was named Nebraska’s first city librarian, Winkler said.
The Nebraska City News reported on Library Week 1 in its April 20, 1897 issue: “The public library was open for a week, and as of last night, 495 books had been distributed to 388 people. Of these 312, two out of three, were taken by children. It is clear that these terrible young readers will soon be clamoring for more children’s books, and directors will have to find the money to buy them.
Until 1912, the library was open seven days a week, Winkler said, and Cornutt was its only member of staff. She made $ 25 a month to start with, which would translate to around $ 822 a month today, Winkler said.
By 1898, the Nebraska City Free Library had 1,192 card holders, Winkler said, and a plan was put in place to renew cards every two years, which has now grown to annual renewal, a- she added.
Highlights of the library’s early years included the installation of electric lights in 1900, the public visit of J. Sterling Morton before his funeral in 1902, and the installation of a carpet strip in 1905 to dampen the noise of the wooden floors.
After Mollie Cornutt resigned her library post in 1914 after serving 17 years, she continued to work at Wessel. Her experience as a businesswoman and housewife (her daughter, Ruth, married twice and had three children) was featured in the December 2, 1928 edition of the Nebraska Daily News-Press on her “Page for Women”.
“There isn’t such a big difference between people in books and people in real life,” she said in the article. “There are adorable characters in both. “