Winston Builds a Library

The citizens of Winston thought a lot of their new Carnegie Library, shown in the postcard image at the top of the page. There are at least eight different postcards showing the Carnegie Library which tops all other public buildings for the number of postcard images. What was so special about this building, and why was its image photographed and mailed all over the United States?


Can you imagine a time in Winston-Salem’s history when there was no public library? Winston’s graded school, named West End Graded School and located in the 800 block of West Fourth Street, was built in 1886. It was a grand structure and featured an outstanding library, particularly for a public school. But, it was only for the use of students and paid subscribers.


John Cameron Buxton, chairman of the Winston School Board, saw the need for a free circulating library to benefit students and to develop the cultural life of citizens. The Chamber of Commerce appointed Buxton chairman of “A Committee on a Public Library,” and he began his campaign to establish a free circulating library in 1900. Since elected officials were reluctant to raise taxes to fund a library, the campaign moved slowly.


Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy industrialist, came to the United States in 1846 as a child with his family after his father lost his weaving business in Scotland. Andrew had to take a job as a bobbin boy at age 13. His formal education ended when he came to the United States, but he had an admiration for libraries and took advantage of opportunities to borrow books and further his personal education. He always said that he wanted to use his wealth to provide public libraries for anyone who wanted to use them.


When he was financially secure, Andrew Carnegie embarked on a program of philanthropy that provided a gift of money to a city for a public library. It included a stipulation that the city must agree to financially support the library with 10% of the amount of the gift on an annual basis and to provide the land for the library. In North Carolina, the city of Charlotte built a library with a Carnegie gift in 1901, and Greensboro followed with a library in 1902. Buxton approached Carnegie for financial assistance with the library in 1903, and Carnegie offered $25,000. However, the Winston Board of Aldermen would only approve a gift of $15,000 (which meant the city would pay $1,500 annually). The Salem Commissioners declined to participate in the annual obligation.


The library building committee purchased a corner lot for $2,000 at Third and Cherry Streets for the first public library. Fogle Brothers was awarded the construction contract, and the building was completed in the fall of 1905. The library had a rocky beginning when a fire broke out two days before the formal presentation to the city, but the September event proceeded as planned. In the ensuing months, the West End School library materials were transferred to the new library. Mrs. Mary C. Prather was hired as the first librarian, and the library committee selected and purchased new books. The formal opening of the Winston Carnegie Library took place on February 14, 1906. More than 200 books were donated to the library on opening day.


The library proved a popular place from the beginning. The ground floor consisted of a lecture room seating 150 people, a committee room and a storeroom. On the main floor were located the circulation and reference rooms, the adult and juvenile reading rooms, and a storeroom. The periodicals (magazines and newspapers) were located on the top floor. In the first five years, more than 104,935 books were circulated, and there were 2,525 registered subscribers. Citizens could become a subscriber after living in Winston for a month with a personal reference.


The Carnegie Library was surrounded by buildings and streets. It quickly outgrew its space, but relief did not come until a new library was built on West Fifth Street in 1953. Today, the former Carnegie Library houses Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Chapel, and a new library is under construction at the West Fifth Street location.


Coming in March:  “Ladies…We Need a Hospital.”

By Molly Grogan Rawls, author of the Winston-Salem Time Traveler website. Contact Molly at or