hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News June 2022


Bequest for library yielded a grand public building

Maury Thompson


When Salem, N.Y., received a bequest in 1890 to create a local library, the village’s leaders embraced it as an economic development opportunity.

The soon-to-be-constructed Proudfit Hall would provide space not just for the proposed Bancroft Library but also for retail shops, offices and a 700-seat auditorium.

“With the erection of the Bancroft Library, the village will have as fine a public building as can be found north of Troy,” The Granville Sentinel boasted on Sept. 12, 1890. “It will mark an era in history, which, if improved by a general and unified effort to make Salem’s advantages known, must result in prosperity.”

When the philanthropist Benjamin F. Bancroft, the president of First National Bank of Salem, died in 1886, he left a portion of his estate valued at about $12,000 — the equivalent of roughly $367,000 in today’s dollars — to establish a library, provided the village could raise matching funds within three years.

Bancroft was born in Massachusetts in 1818, and in his early adulthood he worked in the mercantile trade, according to an obituary published Nov. 24, 1886 in The Morning Star of Glens Falls. He was hired as a cashier at the First National Bank of Salem in 1853 and ultimately became the bank president in 1878.

“The deceased was considered one of the best financiers in the state,” the Star wrote. “By careful thrift, he accumulated a handsome fortune.”

Bancroft, a widower with no children when he died, was a staunch Republican and was active in the Brick Church, which at the time was one of two Presbyterian congregations in Salem. (The former church building is now the Fort Salem Theater.)

“The bank loses an able manager, Salem one of its wealthiest citizens, and the church one of its most generous supporters,” the Star reported.

To augment Bancroft’s bequest, Alexander Proudfit and his sister, of New York City, contributed $5,000 to construct the public building at the corner of Main and West streets for the library and other uses.

“The building will be three stories high and will contain four large stores on the first floor, with cellars attached,” The Granville Sentinel reported on Aug. 1, 1890. “On the second floor will be the library, the hall and three offices.”

There would also be a large auditorium on the third floor. The walls of the ground floor were to be brick, with the upper stories cement.

The library was dedicated Nov. 24, 1891, and opened for regular public use about a week later. The headline for a Nov. 27 Granville Sentinel report about the dedication announced, “Salem Is Very Happy Now.”

A committee of local women had been collecting and cataloging books and materials for the new library since summer of 1890.

Among the original holdings was a collection of about 400 volumes on natural history, mostly about ornithology, given in memory of Hiram Walker, who died in 1870, according to short library history posted on the library’s website.

The Rev. J.H. Houghton was keynote speaker at the dedication.
“For many years the fact has been realized that next to Christianity, education, in the true sense of the word, has been the most elevating factor in the improvement of the world, and, of late, this has led to many aids for mental growth beyond the pale of schools, colleges and universities,” Houghton said. “Foremost among those stand the public library, and now, Salem, heretofore without this aid, is about to enjoy the advantages of which it affords.”

In January 1976, fire destroyed large sections of Proudfit Hall including its upper floors. The library still operates in a ground-floor portion of the building that was salvaged.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.