The pleasant well-watered valley and absence of dense forest growth lured the first settlers to this area. The land had been part of an old hunting ground of first the Mohicans and then the Sturbridge Indians, who had regularly burned off scrub and underbrush to provide pasture for the game.
In the spring of 1761, two men from Pelham, Mass., Joshua Conkey and James Turner, who had fought in the French and Indian War and had traversed the area selected the site of their future home. They returned to Pelham for the winter and when they came back the following spring they were accompanied by Hamilton McCollister. That year they each selected a site, cleared the land and built the first cabin for James Turner. Again they returned to Pelham for the winter and brought back several families with them the following spring. In 1764 they applied for and were granted a patent for 25,000 acres called Turner's Patent. Half of the patent was conveyed by deed to two land agents, Oliver Delancey and Peter Dubois. This was the beginning of what became known as the New England congregation, Presbyterian and Brick Church. Their name for the town was White Creek.
At the same time, across the ocean in Ireland, a Scotch congregation, led by Dr. Thomas Clark set sail for America. They were seeking religious freedom, rejecting among other things any state interference in religious life. Dr. Clark and his congregation of 300 arrived in New York on July 28, 1764. Some of the members were persuaded by real estate agents to go South, where they settled at Cedar Springs and Long Cane, South Carolina. The majority embarked with Dr. Clark up the Hudson River and eventually arrived in White Creek. They purchased the 12,000 acres of Turner's Patent owned by Dubois and Delancey. Dr. Clark's group was to become the United Presbyterian Church, the Scotch-Irish Congregation and the Old White Church. They called the town New Perth.
Turner's Patent was divided into 304 lots each containing 88 acres and the New Englanders and Scotch-Irish were intermingled throughout the patent. The name of the town was the main disagreement between the two groups. This was resolved in 1788 when by an act of the New York State legislature the town was given the name Salem which means peace.
The two rival groups of settlers were forced together by the advent of the Revolutionary War. Dr. John Williams, later to become General John Williams, was instrumental in pulling the patriots together. Under him such men as Captain John Barnes, Colonel Alexander Webster and Major Thomas McKillip rallied the local militia for the defense of the settlers against Burgoyne's troops and LeLoup's Indians. Many settlers fled to their former homes in Pelham, Massachusetts or south near Jackson, New York.
When the turmoil ceased, the settlers returned to Salem and life returned to normal In 1790 a post office was established and in 1791 Washington Academy was constructed on the South side of East Broadway. The White Church was built in 1797 and remains much the same today. The church is the oldest in northern New York State. The Methodist Church was built in 1846, St. Paul's Episcopal Church in 1860 and the Roman Catholic Church in 1889.
Agriculture has always been the most prominent industry in Salem. Fertile soils and the hope of bountiful crops are what first attracted settlers to this area. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries small farms on which the farmers were mostly self-sufficient were the rule.
Grist mills and other small businesses, such as a clock, nail, brick and hand fire engine manufacture were in existence in 1800. Other businesses included foundries, knitting, wool and general merchandising.
The Times, printed June 18,1794 was the first newspaper in Salem and the county. It was followed by The Washington Patrol, and in 1798, The Northern Sentinel was published. Every few years, The Washington County Post would appear. The Salem Review Press was established in 1885 and is still published today as the Greenwich Journal and Salem Press.
In 1803, the first fire wardens were elected; the first fire company was created in 1806, and in 1838, the first fire engine was purchased. The railroad played an important role in Salem's growth. Originally built by the Rutland and Washington Railroad in 1852, it was purchased by the Delaware and Hudson in 1871. The D&H freight business continued to prosper and became a corporation in 1930. Passenger business, however, steadily declined and in 1934 ceased to exist in Salem altogether.
The schools were centralized in 1939. The "new" school was completed that year on the grounds of General Williams' estate located on East Broadway. The era of the one room schoolhouse came to an end in Salem, although some of the small schools remained open for several years. New wings were added to the original school structure in 1955 and 1971.
Shushan is a hamlet within the town of Salem. Before the Revolutionary War, the Hoff Brothers built a dam across the Battenkill River to operate a mill; thus Shushan got its beginning. However, Shushan residents consider Bethel Church to be the real founder of the village. In 1780, with his wife, Bethel moved to Shushan and built a saw and grist mill near the present covered bridge. From the dam across the Battenkill (built by the Hoff brothers) Bethel Church supplied water power to the mills along the river. Shushan is known to have had the first electric light plant, even before New York City. The Troy and Rutland Railroad began its run to Shushan from Eagle bridge in 1850. The railroad was used for transportation and the area farmers brought their cattle, poultry, fresh produce and milk to the village to be sent to New York or Boston. Lumbering was also a big industry in the village. Logs were brought to the mills to be sawed then floated down the river to be used for building. The, second home built in Shushan around 1800 was that of Enos Woodard and is still standing today. Shushan has its own Post Office and at one time had three churches. The Baptist Church, which no longer exists, was built in 1804. The Methodist Church was formed in 1846 and a building built in 1847. The founder of the Methodist Church in America, Philip Embury, preached in the Shushan area. His home near Shushan still stands today. The United Presbyterian society was formed in 1820 and the church was built, in 1822 east of the village. The original church has since burned, but the parsonage still stands. The present United Presbyterian church in the village was built in 1878. An Opera house was built in 1883. Shushan had its own school for the first through eighth grades. When the Salem school was centralized, the Shushan school closed and later burned. Eagleville is situated in the southeast corner of the Town of Salem, along the Battenkill River and was settled before the Revolutionary War. It was known to be a thriving community with its many mills that employed many men and women. Eagleville had its own Post Office in 1848, but when rural delivery began in Shushan it closed. The building is still standing today. Eagleville had its own school and the first telephone was brought into the community in 1903.
Historical documentation of buildings, houses, sites, cemeteries and bridges over 50 years old can be found in the town and village inventories of historical structures, located at the town and village offices. Brief descriptions, photographs and maps identify each place. Local history books, articles, newspapers and personal diaries also help to identify historic resources located in the town. The town/village historian, public librarian and the Dr. Asa Fitch Historical Society are other good sources of information. The town/village historical archives located in Bancroft Library contain much information about historical Salem.
Academy Street • Church Street • Cottage Street • Gray Avenue • Main Street • Route 29 • Salem Street