Library anniversary celebration continues with Cornutt program

Kirt Manion
Nebraska City News-Press

The 125th anniversary of the founding of the Morton-James Public Library continued Thursday, Sept. 30, with a presentation by MJPL Youth Services Manager Amanda Winkler on Mollie Steinhart Cornutt, the city’s first librarian.

Primarily using articles from back issues of the Nebraska City newspapers of the time as her script, Winkler gave the audience a look at the history of both the library and its first leader at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea for a Nebraska City library began in the late 1860s, said Winkler, with a mens-only downtown reading room. The Ladies Round Table Club 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 of the Young Men’s Literary Association and offered reading rooms for the public to read books, magazines and newspapers of the day.

John Steinhart happened to be visiting his friend, Joy Morton, in Chicago as the ladies were getting the library underway, said Winkler. Morton agreed to pay the cost of building a library building if Steinhart could sell a piece of property in Nebraska City for him.

Steinhart tried, and failed to sell the property, and Morton amended his offer by saying if the citizens would collect funds to purchase the land, he would still finance the library construction, said Winkler.

The first library board meeting was held on Sept. 26, 1896, said Winkler, and the Ladies Round Table Club turned 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 long-time library board member Vantine James, said Winkler.

Mollie Steinhart Cornutt was born in Missouri in 1863. She and her three siblings and their parents moved to Nebraska City, where John Steinhart set up shop as a tailor, said Winkler.

She married William Cornutt in March 1884, and the couple had three children by 1890: Paul, Ruth, and Hugh.

Paul and Hugh died in childhood, said Winkler, and William Cornutt took Hugh’s death in 1894 particularly hard, withdrawing from public life and attempting several times to “recover his health” before being put in an asylum in Lincoln in 1896. He died there shortly after Mollie Cornutt was appointed to be the first Nebraska City librarian, said Winkler.

The Nebraska City News reported on the library’s first week in its April 20, 1897, issue: “The public library has been open one week, and up to last night 495 books had been given out to 388 people. Of these 312, or two out of three, were taken by children. It is plain that these terrible young readers will be calling for more juvenile books in a short time, and the directors will have to find money to buy them with.”

Until 1912, the library was open seven days a week, said Winkler, and Cornutt was its sole staff member. She earned $25 per month to start, which would translate to about $822 a month today, said Winkler.

By 1898, the Nebraska City Free Library had 1,192 card holders, said Winkler, and a plan was put in place to renew the cards every two years, which has now been switched to an annual renewal, she added.

Highlights of the library’s early years included the installation of electric lights in 1900, the public visitation for J. Sterling Morton preceding his 1902 funeral, and the installation of a carpet strip in 1905 to deaden the sound of the wooden floors.

After Mollie Cornutt resigned from her library post in 1914 after serving 17 years, she went on to work at Wessel’s. Her experience as a businesswoman and as a homemaker (her daughter, Ruth, married twice and had three children) were profiled in the Dec. 2, 1928, edition of the Nebraska Daily News-Press on its “Page for Women.”

“There is not such a vast difference between people in books and people in real life,” she said in the article. “There are lovely characters in both.”

Morton-James Public  LIbrary Youth Services Manager Amanda Winkler brought the early days of the library and the life of its first librarian, Mollie Steinhart Cornutt, to life during a Sept. 30 presentation that was part of the celebration of the library’s 125th anniversary.