Library History

The editor of the town newspaper in the 1870s and 1880s was a staunch supporter of the Cornwall Library and she used every opportunity to point out the advantages of such an institution – the cultural benefits as well as the boost it could give the town economy by attracting both summer tourists and year-round residents. When Lewis Beach published his history of Cornwall in 1873, he described the new library and the fine building in which it was located. The Cornwall Library Association had been organized in 1869 by a group of far-seeing citizens, one of whom was Erard A. Matthiessen, one of the town’s first benefactors. According to the Association charter, the library was to be situated in the Cornwall-on-Hudson School District (#4); its stock to be sold at five dollars per share. Residents could use the library by purchasing five shares of stock or by paying a fee – the library was not free. During 1870 a substantial brick building was erected in the Village Square for the purpose of housing the library. Historian E.M. Ruttenber was so impressed that he wrote in his History of Orange County: “The whole building, with the library and its appointments, constitutes an enterprise seldom found in a rural village of this size.” When faced with financial problems, Mr. Matthiessen purchased the building. Under his management, space on the first floor was rented for stores, a bank, and a post office; offices and a billiard room shared the second floor with the library, and the entire third floor was fitted as an assembly hall. Although it had at one time a hundred annual subscribers and was well patronized by summer boarders, the library could not make ends meet, and in 1889, it disposed of the books and ceased operation.

The library’s rebirth came in the next decade when NY State passed a law enabling the Board of Regents to charter free public libraries supported by a school or municipal tax base. The two principal Cornwall school districts took advantage of the new law to organize public libraries – #4 (Cornwall-on-Hudson) applying for a provisional charter in 1893, followed the next year by District #5 in Canterbury. By 1900 both had received permanent charters. The District #4 library reopened in its former rooms in Matthiessen Hall. Books could now be borrowed at no cost and the use of the reading room was also free. These small libraries grew under increased use, especially after both schools acquired high school status. Each was managed by a librarian and Board of Trustees. Thomas Taft, the first village mayor, headed the Cornwall-on-Hudson Library Board for 26 years. Trustees of the library in Canterbury often met at Holloran’s Drug Store (now Hazard’s). When the new high school opened on Willow Avenue in 1904, the library moved into quarters on the third floor and was open to the public after school hours. The Mountainville Free Library was formed in 1921 by residents of that part of town. At first it was housed in a meat market, later moving into what had been the Erie Railroad Station. By the 1930s, the trustees of the village library were well aware that its facilities were inadequate.

Early in 1934 one of Matthiessen’s sons made a proposal to the village: he would build a new library building in memory of his father if the village trustees would deed him the Hall property. After demolition of the old building, he would replace it with a modern movie theater. In April 1935, 500 people attending the opening of the “handsome new edifice.” In the meantime the Cornwall Library continued in the school on Willow Avenue. In the 1950s, the town acquired the former Stanton School property. They removed two of the buildings to make a parking lot, and the third became the Town Hall. In 1952 the Cornwall Library moved into quarters on the main floor. The centralization of the Cornwall School Districts in the mid 1950s invalidated the existing library charters. The two libraries applied for a new charter under which they became a single entity with two branches operated by a single Board of Trustees. In the 1960s the Mountainville Library joined the system.

Cornwall’s growth in population that had mushroomed after WWII, was reflected in crowded school conditions; thus a new high school and elementary school (Lee Road) were built. All three libraries experienced crowded conditions, clamoring for more services, and finding needed space for computers and other ‘modern’ resources. In 1999 Cornwall history was made when a group of interested citizens – library trustees, staff and Friends, school officials and well-wishers – gathered at Riverlight Park next to Ring’s Pond to witness the ground-breaking ceremony for construction of the current library. On Sunday afternoon of April 7, 2000, the library opened for inspection. 500 people visited the new building and the library opened for business the next day. Today, Cornwall Public Library houses a collection of close to 195,000 items that includes hardcover books, paperbacks, ebooks, audio books, DVDs, and music CDs. There are over 8,800 registered borrowers, it receives over 151,000 annual visits, and is open 7 days a week. The Library has 8 public computers, 2 children’s learning stations, a laptop/iPad lab for training and in-house borrowing, and a children’s early literacy mini iPad lab with 10 mini iPads for use by pre-schoolers through teens. There is a diverse offering of programs for people of all ages and interests that draw more than 8,300 attendees annually. The Library serves as a Community Center for residents of the Cornwall Central School District and beyond, and strives continually to meet the needs and requests of their patrons.