Mission + History

Mission + History

It is the Mission of the Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library to provide access to the world of social and cultural ideas to the Community by offering a wide variety of materials and programs. The Library has a special mission to young children and their parents to encourage a love of reading and learning. The Library is committed to preserving the integrity of the collections of the Curtis Desmond and Fish Families.

A Brief History of the Desmond-Fish Public Library

The Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library (doing business  as the Desmond-Fish Public Library) opened in 1980.  Named for its founders,  it was designed as a community library for people living in Putnam and adjoining counties. The Library is a member of the Mid-Hudson Library System: anyone with a library card from a public library in Putnam, Dutchess, Columbia, Greene or Ulster counties may borrow materials from DFPL.  

The Library offers a diverse variety of programs for adults and children throughout the year.  Partnerships with local organizations and businesses provide educational and cultural programs for the public. A state-of-the-art makerspace and digital education center is dedicated to promoting social justice and information literacy through free access to technology.  The Library’s grounds include the Stephen Saikin Reading Garden and other beautiful pollinator gardens with benches connected by a walking path for the enjoyment of all. 

The Library is supported by multiple sources: an endowment established by Alice Curtis Desmond; tax revenue from the Garrison Union Free School District; state, county and town funding; and fundraising from the community.  Every spring, the Library Board sponsors an event honoring area residents and notable contributors to arts and literature. Other annual events include Martin Luther King Day programs and the Friends Book and Media Sale.

The Desmond-Fish Public Library is committed to providing services, resources, and programs that uphold all libraries’ core values of democracy, diversity, and social responsibility. In keeping with these values, the staff and  Board of Trustees of the Desmond-Fish Public Library support the statement of the American Library Association condemning systemic racism and social injustice. In addition, the Library is committed to operating sustainably and is part of the sustainable Libraries Initiative.

The Founding, Funding, and Naming of the
Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library

Alice and Hamilton Fish, newly married,  together decided to start a library.  Both had been recently widowed; Alice was a published author and Hamilton was a distinguished U.S. Army officer and former U.S. congressman. The octogenarian couple chose Garrison, New York as the location; it was the birthplace of Hamilton Fish and, as a small hamlet, had no library of its own. 

According to Alice’s 1985 memoir, Yankees and Yorkers, the couple wanted to establish a library for the community that would also house historic papers of the Fish family, dating back to the American Revolution, and Alice’s own family collections of books, papers, and portraits.  Alice and Hamilton were also dedicated to the history of the Hudson Valley, a place that they both loved. 

In June 1977, the couple  had spoken to an attorney, C. Sims Farr of White & Case, expressing their mutual wish to found a library in Garrison.  On December 16, 1977, a charter was issued for the Alice and Hamilton Fish Library, a domestic not-for-profit corporation, pursuant to Section 216 of the New York Education law. 

At the Library’s first Board of Directors meeting on December 27, 1977, by-laws and a corporate seal were adopted, and it was determined to have 15 board members, including Fish family members and neighbor Frederick Osborn.  The following motion was made:

WHEREAS, Mrs. Alice Curtis Fish has offered to make an absolute and unconditional gift of cash in the amount of $200,000 to the Corporation without restriction as to its use and in furtherance of the purposes of the corporation as the Trustees shall see fit.

NOW THEREFORE, be it resolved, that the Corporation accept this gift of $200,000.

Further gifts were made by Mrs. Fish over the course of 1978, totalling $2,950,000. These gifts were for the library’s land acquisition, design and construction, furnishings, books, staffing, and legal fees.  Mrs. Fish did not specify any conditions on her gifts.

The complete library project at groundbreaking in 1979 was estimated at $2,212,500.00

This included hiring staff and stocking the library with $80,000 in books and $90,000 in other resources. 

The library opened in November 1980 and the trustees approved a long resolution honoring Mrs. Fish  and making her Honorary Chairperson of the Alice and Hamilton Fish Library. The minutes reflect:

“…it is the view of the Trustees to be communicated to their successors that throughout perpetuity and as long as this library shall stand, it shall always be known as The Alice and Hamilton Fish Library, that designation to be carved in a cornerstone at or near the entrance to the Library and always to remain in that same position and that, furthermore, for the same perpetuity, the portraits of Alice Curtis Fish and of her husband, Hamilton Fish, shall always hang in the entrance hall over the fireplace with an appropriate inscription underneath recognizing the aforesaid gifts, both financial and by way of direction and inspiration that said Alice Curtis Fish has brought to the conception, implementation and completion of the institution to be forever known as The Alice and Hamilton Fish Library….”

That was not, however, the end of the story of the Library name.

Alice and Hamilton Fish divorced in 1984; after that date she used the name Mrs. Desmond and appears with that name in the Library Board minutes. The Library continued to be called The Alice and Hamilton Fish Library. Hamilton Fish III stayed on the Library Board and in the Board minutes often spoke respectfully of his former wife and her contributions. Besides the initial investment of close to $3 million she had made in 1978-1979, Alice Desmond continued to make annual gifts, and stayed closely involved with the building of the Hudson River collection. Hamilton Fish III also gave annually, with likewise  no restrictions on his gifts. 

In 1990, the Board decided  that since the Library was named in honor of two people, it should be called by the actual names of those two people. Alice Desmond had always published her books under  the name of Alice Curtis Desmond.  The Board, including her former husband, Hamilton Fish III, voted to do so in June 1990. Thus the name was changed to the Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library. Alice Desmond was likely never aware that this had been done, since she was in very poor health and died in October 1990. 

The official charter from New York State was amended in June 1991, making the name officially “The Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library.” This remains the official name today. The “Doing Business As” name is the Desmond-Fish Public Library (DFPL). 

Mrs. Desmond died having assured  trustees that she intended a substantial part of her  estate to go to the  Library. That estate came from two sources. Her first husband, Thomas Desmond, was well-off and the couple had no children. Alice herself was an only child, and she had inherited a family company, Curtis and Curtis, which was liquidated at her death. Her bequest resulted in a $4.6 million endowment for the Library.

Currently, income from Alice Curtis Desmond’s bequest accounts for about 42% of the Desmond-Fish Public Library’s annual budget. Revenue from Garrison taxpayers accounts for a further 42%, and donations and grants contribute about 16%. 

Hamilton Fish III died in January 1991. His son, grandsons, and great-granddaughter have devoted many years to volunteer service on the Board of Trustees of the Library. 

About Alice Curtis Desmond

Alice Curtis Desmond was born in 1897 in Southport, CT, and died in 1990 in Newburgh, NY. An only child, descended from ancestors who arrived in the U.S. in the 1600s, she attended Miss Farmington’s School and – over the objections of her father – Parsons School of Art in New York City.

In 1923, she married Thomas Desmond, a successful Newburgh businessman and New York Senator who encouraged Alice to begin a writing career. She would go on to author 27 books, primarily for young people, such as Marie Antoinette’s Daughter and Sword and Pen for George Washington.

The Desmonds had no children and traveled often around the world. She was an accomplished photographer In 1976, a widowed Alice Desmond married Congressman Hamilton Fish. Wishing to create a library for the Garrison community where Mr. Fish had long-standing family ties, Mrs. Fish gave the funds to establish the Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library.

Work began on acquiring property in 1978, and the Library opened in November 1980. The couple divorced in 1984, but both Alice Desmond and Hamilton Fish continued to stay involved with the management and funding of the Library. Alice was particularly interested in building collections on the Hudson River School and the history of the Hudson Valley.

On her death in October 1990, Alice left funds in her will to endow the library.

About Hamilton Fish III

Hamilton Fish III was born in Garrison on December 7, 1888. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he served as a Putnam County Assemblyman from 1913  until the outbreak of World War I. He became a captain of COmpany K in the 369th Infantry Regiment, composed of African-American and Afro-Puerto Rican enlisted men and known as the Harlem Hellfighters for their bravery in combat. Fish and his men were decorated for bravery by the French government and received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2020. For more information on the 39th Regiment, visit The Harlem Hellfighters of WWI and the Desmond-Fish Public Library.

After the war, Congressman Fish represented New York’s 26th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 1920 to 1945. He introduced legislation to establish the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to recognize the establishment of a Jewsih homeland in Palestine, and on many occasions proposed anti-lynching bills. He was an advocate for veterans.  He was also a strong anti-commuist and an isolationist in the years just before World War II, and was defeated for reelection in 1944. He never held public office again. His son, Hamilton Fish IV, was elected to Congress in 1968.

In 1976, Hamilton Fish III  married Alice Desmond, the widow of his long-time colleague Thomas Desmond.  Wishing to create a library for the Garrison community where the Fish family had family ties, Mrs. Fish gave the funds to establish the Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library, which opened in November 1980.

The couple divorced in 1984, but both Alice Desmond and Hamilton Fish continued to stay closely involved with the management and funding of the Library. 

Hamilton Fish III died in January 1991, at the age of 102. 

For more information on the controversy surrounding Hamilton Fish III, and the Library’s response, please visit Hamilton Fish III: Our Response