Inspiration hit Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro as he stood in front of the newly constructed Herman Brown Free Library in Burnet sometime in the late 1970s.
“Sometimes a sudden thought does the job,” Caro wrote in an excerpt of his latest book, “Working,” recently printed in The New Yorker. “One day I found myself, in my endless driving around the Hill Country, in the little town of Burnet. In the courthouse square, among the weathered wooden storefronts, there was a handsome new building with the legend Herman Brown Free Library on it.”
Caro needed one final interview to complete research for “A Path to Power,” the first in what is turning out to be a five-volume biographical series on President Lyndon B. Johnson that has taken 40 years to research and write. He won his second Pulitzer Prize for the third volume, “Master of the Senate,” which was published in 2009.
Caro had wanted to talk to Herman Brown, but Brown died in 1962. Now, he had to find a way to get to Brown’s brother, George, a man well known for avoiding journalists.
“All at once something occurred to me,” Caro continued in his book, “Working,” which was published in April. “George had loved and idolized his older brother, who had really been more like a father to him. Since Herman’s death, George had been building public monuments to him all over Texas, not only Herman Brown public libraries but a Herman Brown Hall for Mathematical Sciences at Rice University.”
From a nearby phone booth on Burnet’s courthouse square, Caro began his successful quest for a sit-down interview with George Brown, who had taken over the Brown and Root construction company after his brother’s death. Brown and Root was a massive international company that won multiple government contracts building naval air stations, dams, ships, and more, mostly due to Johnson’s influence. Caro spent an entire day with George after telling him that, no matter how many buildings he put his brother’s name on, “in a few years no one is going to know who Herman Brown is, if he’s not in a book.”
George Brown’s quest to honor his brother is how the Burnet County Free Library became the Herman Brown Free Library. In 1976, the county applied for and received $218,000 from the Brown Foundation, which provided the bulk of the money needed to construct the building at 100 E. Washington St. on the northwest corner of the courthouse square.
That explains “Herman Brown” but not “Free,” which has been part of the library’s name — and policy —since 1948.
According to an article in the September 6, 1906, edition of the Burnet Bulletin, anyone wanting to check out a book from the Burnet library had to pay at least $1 a year to become a library member. Newcomers to the system had to cough up $1.50.
Forty-two years later, on July 12, 1948, Burnet County commissioners approved a new constitution and bylaws establishing the Burnet County Library as free to anyone wanting to use it. It was first housed on the second floor of the county jail. It next moved into a converted army barracks, where it stayed until the Brown Foundation made the library’s current location possible — a decision that helped spur a significant moment in Highland Lakes history.