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Thursday, May 19, 2005 01:18 pm

The great adventure

Donna Cunningham, director of the Elkhart Public Library

Ask Dayle Eldredge why she left Springfield for Elkhart, a tiny community 25 miles north of the capital city, and her answer is simple: “My soul needed a small town.”

Eldredge, who stepped down last week as village president of Elkhart, adds, “It’s such a sweet community; I just love it.”

Even sweet places have problems, though and some surface during discussions by the Elkhart Public Library building committee.

In the Blue Stem Bake Shop, where dessert pastries are made on the premises, Joye Anderson, Donna Cunningham, and Gillette Ransom meet with a friend, Maureen Earley, who offers advice on funding. It is midmorning on a Thursday, so other library trustees, committee members, and staff aren’t present.

Elkhart lost its high school years ago, and there is concern that a declining population will force the elementary school to close, too. At the other end of life, the village’s seniors, who no longer need large homes, may have to move away if there are no apartments or duplexes for them.

Eldredge says Elkhart has about 450 residents right now. Her village administration helped get a tax-increment financing district for the creation of new housing. But it is the age of diffusion, the era of the Internet. What could serve as a focal point for all residents, young and old, student and nonstudent, retired and working?

Elkhart is seeking more than a half-million dollars to back an older idea. A major expansion of the century-old public library is planned.

“It could reach all age levels,” Ransom says. She and her husband, James, operate Miss Jessie’s, an art gallery a few doors away. She notes that public meeting space in the village is limited and that the current library building is not accessible to people with handicaps. She thinks there should be a special area for children and hopes that other new library space can be reserved for a genealogy collection.

Cunningham, director of the library, proudly lists current library services. The Elkhart Public Library is a member of the Rolling Prairie Library System, through which, she notes, “patrons have access to millions of materials all over the state and worldwide.” The collection of books, DVDs, tapes and magazines totals around 12,000 items. Anderson, president of the library’s board of trustees, laments the tight shelf space. She says that adding new titles means getting rid of older ones.

A less obvious need lies beneath these practical considerations. For a small place, the community has many traditions to preserve.

Legend has it that in the 1880s, Mrs. Lemira Gillett, who had an alcoholic son, promised to give the town a public library if it would remain “dry” for three years. She only survived him by two weeks, but her daughters honored the pledge.

So the village went dry for a while, but today Peggy Brown’s Talk of the Town Restaurant will serve the thirsty customer a wide range of fermented and distilled beverages. And the family name Gillett is to Elkhart as names such as Kerasotes and Myers are to Springfield.

Elkhart Hill, a part of the village and 777 feet above sea level, is the highest point between Chicago and St. Louis. Up there is the old Gillett Farm, once a 16,500-acre ranch that shipped thousands of beef cattle as far away as Europe. On the hill, Richard Oglesby, a three-term Illinois governor, owned a mansion that has since burned down. The ancient Edwards Trace, a trail marked by game and used by Native Americans, ran by Elkhart. In company with the archaeological museum above the Blue Stem, the library helps preserve the memories.

Earley, a Springfield resident who has raised money for arts organizations and causes, grew up in Great Britain. “The house on the hill overlooking fields is very reminiscent of England,” she says.

So there is a library capital campaign. The village’s sesquicentennial will be observed July 24. The library and possibly Miss Jessie’s will enter the Yard to Yard Challenge, a beautification competition sponsored by Springfield Green. John Paul from Springfield’s Prairie Archives is scheduled to host an antiques appraisal. Earley is searching for grant money.

Sometimes talk turns to more contemporary topics. High-speed rail service will flash through Elkhart. The village would like an ATM — just one ATM.

But Gillette Ransom knows exactly what a library should do right now:

“I think that it is a connection, if it is done correctly, between a mundane life and a great adventure.”

For more information about Elkhart Public Library, call 217-947-2313 or e-mailelkhartlibrary@mchsi.com.

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