Salem is locally known as the "Gateway to Little Egypt". Egypt refers to southern Illinois. In the early days of statehood, crop failures threatened the existence of the isolated settlements in northern and central Illinois, and trips were made into the more populated southern section of the state to obtain grain.
Salem is located at the crossroads of several prominent old trails, and a settlement was laid out in 1823. Later Mark Tully and Rufus Ricker deeded the land comprising Salem to Marion County for a county seat. The community grew slowly and in 1855 was legally organized as a town. In 1865 it became a city.
William Jennings Bryan, "The Great Commoner", was born in Salem on March 19, 1860, and lived here until 1883. Lawyer, newspaperman, congressman, Secretary of State, political advisor, and three times a candidate for the presidency, Bryan was one of the greatest orators of his day. He served as prosecutor in the famous John Scopes trial shortly before his death in July, 1925. His birthplace at 408 S. Broadway is open to the public.
Salem has an agricultural and industrial history. It was a principal marketplace for red top hayseed, which was in great demand in Europe during World War I. Oil was discovered near here in 1938, and producing of 259,000 barrels daily was reached
in March 1940. In 1942 Salem became the eastern terminus of a 550-mile petroleum pipeline from Texas.