A History of the Field Library in Peekskill
It is recorded that on July 16, 1796, a library was established in the village of Peekskill, with each subscriber paying sixteen shillings for the privilege of borrowing books. Daniel William Birdsall served as the first librarian from 1796-1799, as well as the village’s second postmaster, moving the post office and library to the “Birdsall House” which stood at 979 Main Street. When the Peekskill Academy was opened in May 1834, this book collection, now called the “Cortlandt Library,” was transferred and merged into the Academy library. Peekskill Village’s first drugstore, James Brewer’s Medicine and Book Store, was established by Dr. Brewer for the sale of drugs, books and stationery, and was located opposite the post office on North Street. Dr. Brewer was considered one of the most prominent of the village’s 1,131 citizens. He created a circulating library “of the less costly but useful books” which were rented cheaply and “often went free to such as desired to read them.” In 1827, Dr. Brewer printed a small, rag-pulp paper catalog of these books [extant] which listed the subscriber terms as “$2.50 for one year, or 75 cents for three months, payable in advance,” the length of loan and overdue fines. When Chauncey Depew was 84, he gave a speech in which he recalled Dr. Brewer’s great influence as a leader for the betterment of the town, saying that he personally owed him a great debt because “I think I read every book in his collection.”
In July 1830, a second circulating library, known as the “Peekskill Free Circulating Library,” was advertised as being located at the establishment of S. [Samuel] Marks & Son, the publisher of the Westchester and Putnam Sentinel, a local newspaper. It is also recorded that, in 1840, another circulating library was kept in Daniel D. Smith’s little grocery store, located on Washington Street on the corner of South Street. His terms were “6 ½ cents per book, required no deposit nor membership, and the time was a fortnight.”
A Catalog of Books in the Peekskill Free Circulating Library [extant] was published in June 1886, listing about 1,000 books that were then housed in the Wilson Building, 1010 Main Street, where Clifford Couch had his law offices. Mr. Couch’s father, Franklin, was a major writer of Peekskill and Cortlandt local lore and genealogy; their family’s history records were donated to The Field Library by Clifford, and remain an important genealogical resource.
Established later, after the “Peekskill Free Circulating Library,” The Field Library was founded in 1887 through an endowment of $10,000, and a collection of 5,000 books as a gift from local philanthropist Cortlandt de Peyster Field of New York City and Peekskill. Mr. Field was interested in enriching the cultural life of the village. His father, Benjamin, was one of the founders and president of the New York Free Circulating Library, later the New York Public Library. Making the gift in memory of his mother, Catherine M. Van Cortlandt de Peyster Field who had died in 1886, Mr. Field purchased the books from Scribner Brothers, and housed them in “great bookshelves in the upper floor of the ‘Round House’ on Smith Street” [Field’s riding academy stable deeded to the library for its premises], whose cupola windows provided spectacular views:
The scene was mellow and charming with long reading tables, Windsor chairs and two great round coal stoves. Sunlight from many skylights cast a mellow glow over the scene and some six thousand books ranged on many shelves around the circular walls. When the sun was setting over the river hills, soft rays struck through the dome light and came peace like a river.
Advertised as being “Free to All” The Field Library was open weekdays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., and offered “four daily papers and the principal magazines,” and a stagecoach made scheduled stops at its doors.
In 1924, The Field Library moved to larger quarters after it purchased and renovated the former Second Presbyterian Church in a more central location on the corner of South Street and Union Avenue. On February 25, 1925, The Field Library was chartered and duly registered as a free association by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York.
In 1944, Chester A. Smith, Library Board President whose support of the Library spanned more than fifty years, was instrumental in receiving the gift of the architecturally significant 1875 Herrick House on Union Avenue, bequeathed to the Library for purposes of operating the Memorial Museum; in 1976, the Friends of the Peekskill Museum took over the independent organization and administration of the Museum. With the urban renewal construction of a new municipal and civic complex on Nelson Avenue, The Field Library was moved to new quarters in the Michael J. DiBart Neighborhood Center in 1978 where it remains today, celebrating its 125th anniversary.