Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writing laborers into library history: Fred Greenlaw and the Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville

Monday through Wednesday, I decided to make the most of a long car ride by batching my attendance at the Pennsylvania Library Association conference at Seven Springs with research visits to the Mary S. Biesecker Public Library in Somerset and the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville. Before I set foot in the libraries, I knew this was going to be a "fast job." Since it normally takes me an entire week or more to thoroughly use all the primary sources pertaining to 1 library, I had no expectation of completing 2 sites in just 2-3 days.

I felt especially pressed at Connellsville, because there were complete ledgers of board of trustees minutes back to 1900, plus two large file cabinets and several cartons stuffed with other documents. So, rather than sitting in a chair, I remained standing and used both hands to flip rapidly through each item in every folder. My haste apparently generated an updraft, because small scraps of paper sometimes floated into the air and then fluttered toward the floor. Most of the time, they were insignificant notes or receipts. But 2 items that took flight at the same time made me pause after I grabbed at them and took a moment to read them.

Two notes found within the Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville's archives
One was a torn bit of paper with a pencilled message. In part, it read: "this Chimley was Built by Fred Greenlaw of St Catherine Ont Canada March 14th 1902 60 [pounds?] per house"

The other scrap of paper explained the first: "This notation was found in a whiskey bottle in the chimney by workers who were doing repairs under the C.W.A. on January 19, 1934."

I took a quick break and ventured outside to visualize where Fred Greenlaw had hidden his special message. As I suspected, he had been quite high off the ground. My knees started to buckle as looked upward and imagined him taking a final swig from a bottle while gazing at the church spires,  shops, and other buildings downtown (for a turn-of-the-century view of Connellsville, see an 1897 map digitized by the Library of Congress). Since the Carnegie Free Library was situated on a hill, Greenlaw may have enjoyed an impressive view. Back then, could he have seen the railroad and the Youghiogheny River?, I wondered.

The chimney where Fred Greenlaw hid his note.
Then I felt a stab of guilt. My research has rarely if ever mentioned "laborers" like Fred Greenlaw and the C.W.A. employees. Usually, we historians focus on donors, trustees, and (head) librarians. We often completely overlook library assistants; development, human resources, public relations, janitorial, and other "non-librarian" staff; and library volunteers and friends. Perhaps this is because most available records are silent about their activities. It shouldn't be this way, though. In some cases they served the community for decades. Particularly in the cases of library assistants, volunteers, and janitors, they also may have had more contact with library customers than "leaders" who worked behind the closed doors of board rooms and private offices.

At that moment there wasn't much I could do about the nameless Civil Works Administration employees who found the note in the chimney. To identify them by name, I don't currently know of an alternative besides wading through more than 7 million cubic feet of W.P.A. records at the National Archives. So right now, all that might be said is that since they were participating in a federal relief program intended for the unskilled unemployed, they were likely desperate people, willing to brave a rooftop climb to keep starvation at bay.

Luckily, since the Carnegie Free Library had a subscription to, I could attempt to learn something about Fred Greenlaw. Typing his name into the database, I found only one person with a similar name who was from Ontario and resided in Pennsylvania: a Frederick W. Greenlaw who was born sometime between 1866 and 1868 (depending on which record you choose to cite) and who was married to Mary Jane Greenlaw. Checking the 1891 Census of Canada, it appears that his parents were James Greenlaw, born in Scotland, and Mary Greenlaw, born in England; that he had several siblings; and that the family's religion was Baptist. According to the 1920 U.S. Census, he emigrated to the United States around 1889 and lived in Titusville (Crawford County), about 150 miles due north of Connellsville. It may seem odd that the 1891 Canadian census lists him, while the later U.S. Census seems to indicate that he was already living in Pennsylvania that same year, but perhaps he shuttled back and forth over the border to earn money, as many Canadians of that era did. Or maybe, when asked by the 1920 census worker, whoever answered the question misremembered the year Greenlaw immigrated. Ultimately, however, it appears that he decided to remain in the United States. Checking other censuses, I learned that he and Mary Jane lived in Titusville from at least 1900 through 1940. They had at least 3 children -- Frederick J., Joseph J., and Marion E. Greenlaw.

Checking Google Book Search, I uncovered an interesting advertisement he apparently contributed to the December 1913 issue of Ohio Architect and Builder. There, billed as "F. W. Greenlaw, General Brick Contractor," he claimed he was the contractor or mason for the Titusville Library, the Titusville Y.M.C.A., and various churches (see pg. 76). Using Google, I also found tantalizing thumbnail images, including a portrait of the man later in life, a picture of his tombstone, and his obituary, but when I tried to click on the links, I was perturbed to find that they were hidden behind Ancestry's expensive pay wall.

Given that I am trying to sort out the histories of more than 20 different libraries over the course of the year, I certainly cannot spend much more time delving into the life of a single person. But as I said previously, people like Greenlaw should be acknowledged when we write about library history. Hopefully, some of his descendants will see this post and be tickled to learn how Greenlaw and his note brought a smile to the faces of C.W.A. workers, the Carnegie Free Library's staff, and a harried academic researcher who was almost too busy to notice.

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