Class Warfare Pix: The So-Called Death Tax

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Nowadays, the Rockefellers are probably best known as the namesake for the TV show 30Rock.  One of them, Nelson, was the unelected Republican Vice President under Gerald Ford after Nixon resigned.  100 years ago, along with Morgan and Carnegie and others, John D. Rockefeller was just another robber baron getting rich beyond imagination on oil and coal and steel and railroads.

A brutal massacre of mineworkers at his Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, in Ludlow, Colorado, became a shocking national scandal – not unlike the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.  (The pic is of one of the militia guys who did the killing.)  Some say that Rockefeller’s kids were so ashamed, they eventually put much of the family fortune into the various Rockefeller Foundations, as an attempt to redeem the family legacy.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos


In 1914, there was a fierce regional United Mineworker’s strike in southern Colorado, amongst the most violent in U.S. history.  One of the companies was Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, in Ludlow, on the front range of the Rockies.  Typically for the day, the miners lived in company housing and were paid in scrip only good at the company store, rather than actual legal tender money.  When they went on strike, the UMWA set up a tent colony nearby, at a key location to intercept scabs.  Woody Guthrie tells the tale well, so I’ll skip writing out the details.

Maybe the Rockfeller spawn would have formed their charitable foundations no matter what.  But the enactment of federal taxes on income and estates (in 1913 and 1916, respectively) could easily have acted as a spur in that direction, too.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the Rockefeller Foundation was established in 1913.


Another robber baron turned philanthropist was Andrew Carnegie, who specialized in building public libraries – over 2,500 of them worldwide, with about 2/3 of those in the U.S.  The Carnegie libraries popularized open stacks, which had been mainly closed previously.  Carnegie might have done this without tax incentives, and did to an extent, since he began paying for library construction in the 1880s.  Here’s the first one, at his home town Dunfermline in Fife, Scotland.  (Creative Commons by kilnburn):

The libraries have proved a lasting legacy.  Carnegie’s ruthlessness in amassing his fortune have faded from society’s collective memory.  He got tax benefit from building them, too.  He might have done it anyhow, even without any tax benefit – and in fact did, since the first ones were built in the 1880s, some 30 years before tax incentives came on the scene.

But a lot of other very rich people might not have been so generously to charities in their wills were it not for the estate tax.  It surprises me that in all the Republican talk about “repealing the death tax”, questions about the potential impact on philanthropy never seem to be raised.  Rather a glaring omission to my thinking.

The deal with Carnegie libraries is that he paid for the bricks and mortar, and the host community had to cover the staffing, operating and maintenance costs.  And the libraries were to be Free to the People, as emblazoned on Pittsburgh’s Carnegie library.

One might think that the second richest man in history (ol’ John D. is first) would have been partial to monumental structures, like the one in Pittsburgh.  But considering that there were 1,689 built in the U.S., they couldn’t all have been like that.  Here’s one from the small town of Deadwood, South Dakota (no kidding!):

The architectural qualities vary widely, with some very modest entries, like this Carnegie Library in Bloomfield, Nebraska:

And here’s a search result for pictures of more of ’em.  Carnegie died in 1919, and the last of the Carnegie libraries was built in 1929.  Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of ’em in California.  But the state with the most?  I’ll let you guess that in the poll.


If you’re involved in the non-profit world, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s pretty bleak.  Foundations have seen their endowments take a dive at the same time that charitable contributions are drying up.  New Mexico has an outfit called Cornerstones, which specializes in funding and technical support for restoration of old adobe buildings – mostly early Spanish mission churches, moradas, structures at the Pueblos, and certain other historical buildings like the Martinez Hacienda in Taos.  Cornerstones has cut its staff down from nine to just one.  And that one’s hanging on by a thread in hopes they can weather the economic storms and not shutter the operation completely.  But it’s touch and go.

And similar problems are being faced throughout the gamut of charitable operations.  Similar problems happened during the 1930s, when the WPA hired people from all kinds of disciplines in positions that had been vacated.  One example:  WPA hired an entomologist for the Natural History Museum in San Diego.  Some folks might think the study of insects is a frivolous pastime, but anyone involved in agriculture knows better.


The last Carnegie Library was built in 1929.  And Carnegie covered construction only, never operating costs.  The WPA picked up the ball on both fronts.  Modest small town libraries, like in El Monte, California:

And grander edifices, like a State Archives building in Springfield, Illinois, and this library in Rochester, NY:

But the WPA also did outreach to bring books where they’d never been available before.  There was a program to create and disseminate audio books on victrola records, for the blind.  There were bookmobiles, too, this one serving people the bayous of Louisiana:

WPA also had a farm-to-market road program, also intended to make roads passable for school buses and other basic social services:


When it came to library services, the WPA did not wait until roads were paved throughout Appalachia.  They put in a program, serving dozens of counties in several states, of (mostly) women who made a monthly circuit on horseback.  These pictures are all from Kentucky (where 17 Appalachian counties were served), but the program extended to Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, too.

This was not a job for the faint of heart, as it involved not only terrible roads, but sometimes rougher terrain than that:

This circuit included a school built by the WPA, a sturdy stone structure replacing a previous one-room log schoolhouse:

And also included stops to read to the sick and the illiterate:


Originally, I intended a diary on the WPA libraries, but it got off on a tangent a bit, because of Carnegie, and the more general question of the relationship between philanthropy and federal taxes.  And indeed, with philanthropy (and state and local governments) all feeling a mighty fiscal squeeze these days, needs are great.  To my thinking, these kinds of library services are infrastructure.  They provide nothing but benefit – from the services rendered, to the gainful employment of people hired to provide the services.

I’ve jumped around a little, but I hope you can understand the connections I see between the parts of this diary.  I’m sure Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Lou Dobbs (Jingoist-CNN) would throw a fit at the idea of programs like packhorse librarians.  But in this time of the great unraveling, many small threads need to be woven back into the fabric of our society to make it whole again.


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    • LoE on February 4, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I got reminded on that score on the previous entry in this series.  So here it is.  Also a call for greening the economy, by all means:  High and low tech, traditional and cutting edge.

    (Carnegie Library at Mankato, SD)

  1. from this series LoE!!!!

    I checked and my hometown of St. Paul has 3 Carnegie Libraries. Here’s a picture of one of them, Arlington Hills.


    And interestingly enough, yesterday I found a website called Stimulus Watch where you can not only find out which projects in your town are likely to get funded if the stimulus bill passes, but you can rate and comment on them.

    Looks like renovation and greening of Arlington Hills Library is one of St. Paul’s six recommended projects.  

  2. I consider myself somewhat of a labor historian and thoroughly enjoyed this. Look up the Lattimer massacre of 1897. A huge turning point in the history of American labor. Nineteen peaceful protesters were gunned down by a sheriffs posse and nobody knows about it.

  3. for the great stories and pictures…especially the pony librarians.  very cool!

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