History of Cooperstown

Now that America has steamrolled into the digital age and a new millennium, it could be argued that we have lost as much as we have gained since the last "turn of the century." For all our new-found means of communication – cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging – we are less in touch with ourselves than ever before. We are wired but not connected.

It seems a good time to pause, to seek the roots of our common experience, to restore the continuity of past and present – something that cannot be done at the average theme park. It calls instead for a retreat to a calm and unhurried domain, a place like Cooperstown, N.Y., nestled amid rolling hills at the southern tip of Otsego Lake.

Walking the quietly genteel streets of Cooperstown, contemplating the deep, unruffled waters of the lake, aptly named Glimmerglass by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking Tales, one recaptures a sense of collective identity that goes back to the frontiersmen who carved a nation from the virgin forest.

Yes, most visitors – nearly 300,000 last year – make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown to pay homage to the heroes of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, but in the process, many also discover an unspoiled repository of America's heritage, rich in history, art, architecture and natural beauty. Exploring the baseball museum and the other gems of Cooperstown, Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum, it is possible to find not just a wealth of individual revelations but the core of America itself.

Cooperstown was officially founded in 1786 by William Cooper, the father of the famed novelist. Cooper was a visionary for his time. He bought a huge tract of wilderness from a bankrupt Tory sympathizer, George Croghan, and sold part of it to anyone who wished to buy, giving them seven to 10 years to pay off the debt but not exacting any other commitments. This was a marked contrast to the prevalent practice of indentured servitude. In effect, Cooper conceived of the first planned community and did all he could to make it succeed. Knowing that life was incredibly hard on the frontier, he generously used his own funds to buy food for the winter and the means for establishing maple sugar and potash works to help the early settlers survive.

Stories about Cooper abound. It seems both he and his wife were famously stubborn. By 1790, Cooper had decided that the community was established enough to move his family from Burlington, N.J. Less than thrilled at the idea of leaving the relative comfort of Burlington for the rigors of the frontier, Mrs. Cooper went into the living room, sat down in her favorite chair and refused to budge. Cooper ordered the moving men to lift the chair, with Mrs. Cooper still in it, onto a wagon for the trip. (A glance at her portrait at Fenimore Art Museum shows that Elizabeth Cooper was a formidable woman.)

Cooper later became Otsego County's first judge and served two terms in Congress. An ardent Federalist, he argued passionately for its positions. One night in 1809, after a particularly heated debate at a political meeting in Albany, an unknown assailant attacked Cooper and killed him with a blow to the head.

Among other early historical notes: Revolutionary War buffs may be interested to know that an event in Cooperstown played a role in a significant victory over the British and their Indian allies. Under the orders of George Washington, General James Clinton led a force of 5,000 men to Lake Otsego, an arduous journey that required them to hack a road through the dense forest. The force built a dam at the spot where the lake gives birth to the Susquehanna River, raising the water level four feet. Then, embarked on 200 boats, the troops knocked out the dam and surged downriver on a flood tide to Tioga Point, where they joined a second Revolutionary army and defeated the British, along with chief Joseph Brant and his Iroquois braves.

At the foot of River Street today, visitors will find a bronze-and-stone marker at the site, as well as see where the Susquehanna begins its 444-mile meander to the Chesapeake Bay.

James Fenimore Cooper

As America's first internationally known novelist, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) is perhaps the most famous historical figure of Cooperstown. He was just an infant when his father transplanted the family to the village, and about 10 years old when they moved into Otsego Hall, then known as "the noblest mansion west of Albany." Cooper's boyhood spent roaming the woods around the village, infused with the romanticism of pioneer and Indian lore and with the beauty of the scenery, is reflected in the Leatherstocking Tales, particularly in The Pioneers and The Deerslayer which are both set in Otsego County.

Although it can be as tough to get through his prose as it was for the settlers to get through the primeval forest, Cooper's contribution to American letters is unquestioned. In creating Hawkeye, a white man raised by Indians and given several aliases in the novels, Cooper not only illuminated both cultures but gave the country its first great fictional character. When he was 10, Cooper went to Albany to study with the Reverend Mr. Ellison, who prepared him so well for college that he entered Yale at age 13. Three years later, he was dismissed "for mischievous behavior," although a university spokesperson today is quick to claim Cooper as "mostly Yale educated." As Anson Phelps charitably puts it in Memorials of Eminent Yale Men (1914), Cooper was "an attractive youth of high spirits who enjoyed the lighter side of college life," (i.e. the class cut-up and party animal). According to Cooper family tradition and Yale legend, young James Fenimore carried his pranks too far when he set off an explosion in the dormitory, leading to the abrupt termination of his academic career.

So, rather than graduating with the class of 1806, Cooper entered the Merchant Marines and earned a commission in the United States Navy, where he apparently straightened out and served with distinction for three years. In addition to his many works of fiction, he wrote the first history of the Navy.

After his years at sea, he returned to Cooperstown as a newlywed to lead the life of a country gentleman and wrote his first novel on a dare from his wife. His two children were born in the farmhouse that stood on the present lakeside site of Fenimore Art Museum. He also spent many years living in Scarsdale (his wife's home), New York City and Europe before moving back to Cooperstown in his later years.

A champion of America and a civic-minded Cooperstownian, the novelist envisaged a bright future for the village in his Chronicle of Cooperstown. In 1838, he wrote, "The beauty of its situation, the lake, the purity of the air and [other advantages] seem destined to make it...a place of resort, for those who live less for the active life than for its elegance and ease." He advocated the building of lodging houses and promenades, and other "embellishments" that would make Cooperstown desirable to "inhabitants of the large towns in the summer months."

Aside from the Coopers, one of the most prominent figures of early Cooperstown was Elihu Phinney, who set up a printing press and started the local newspaper in 1795. Phinney and his sons built something of a publishing empire on the frontier; the Phinney Almanac and the Bibles he printed were found in every home. Farmers revered the Almanac and referred to it for "information agricultural, astronomical and astrological." Barnes & Noble could take notes from Phinney, who outfitted wagons as traveling bookstores and sent floating bookstores on barges along the Erie Canal between Buffalo and Albany. The Cooper Inn, located on Chestnut at Main, today occupies the home of his younger son.

Another literary highlight, depending on your point of view, can also be credited to Cooperstown – the dime novel. Erastus Beadle, who got his start at Phinney's print shop, later began to publish a magazine called "Youth's Casket" and went on to publish 10-cent, pocket books that were as much a bane to 19th-century parents as comics and junk TV are today. Even though crime was always punished and virtue rewarded in Beadle's publications, the dime novels were considered a dangerous influence.

Modern Cooperstown and the Clark Family

Most of modern Cooperstown dates from the post-Civil War era, in part because of a catastrophic fire in 1862 that destroyed a third of the business district. It was also the period during which the far-sighted stewardship of the Clark family began to make itself felt. It was the Clarks who assumed the Coopers' mantle of civic leadership and realized James Fenimore's vision of Cooperstown, not just as a summer retreat for the wealthy, but also as a vacation destination for thousands of middle-class families.

Edward Clark came to Cooperstown just prior to the Civil War, having married Caroline Jordan, a village native and the daughter of his law partner, Ambrose Jordan. In 1848, Isaac Merritt Singer became a client of Ambrose & Clark in New York, and when he invented the sewing machine, Clark dropped his legal career for a 50 percent stake in I.M. Singer & Company, eventually becoming its head. Clark had a flare for marketing. He gave machines at half-price to influential persons, such as ministers' wives, and apparently developed the idea of the installment plan to let families pay over time for the machines. Revenues tripled in a year.

Initially, Clark viewed Cooperstown as a summer home and built the lovely Fernleigh mansion there, but over time he fell in love with the village and, without ostentation, took increasing interest in its welfare, a concern that four succeeding generations of Clarks have shared.

One of Clark's four grandsons, Edward Severin Clark, affectionately known as "The Squire" in his day, might be thought of as the family's builder. It was he who had the idea of constructing a splendid resort hotel, The Otesaga, and later spent many hours chatting with guests in the lobby or on the lakeside veranda like a gracious host. Edward Severin also built the mansion that came to house Fenimore Art Museum and the splendid stone dairy complex that became The Farmers' Museum. He also endowed and built the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital, a respected medical center named for one of the country's first eminent woman physicians.

Following his death in 1933, his brother, Stephen C. Clark, Sr., a noted philanthropist and art collector, deeded the properties to the New York State Historical Association. Stephen Clark was also instrumental in establishing the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. These and other good works by the Clark family continue today through its charitable trust, the Clark Foundation, which supports the museums, the hospital, the Fire Department, Glimmerglass Opera, the beautification of Cooperstown and many other public projects, along with administering a scholarship program that has enabled large numbers of local young people to attend college.

A walking tour of the village is a great way to see historic points of interest and monuments, and to take in the architectural mix of stone, brick and wood-frame Colonial buildings, as well as Victorian gingerbread homes. Victor Salvatore's statue of James Fenimore Cooper is located at Cooper Park near the Hall of Fame, on the site where Otsego Hall stood until it burned down in 1853. Not far away are the graves of Cooper and his wife in Christ Church Graveyard on River Street.

The oldest frame house in the village, built for Benjamin Griffin in 1790, stands at the northwest corner of Main and River Streets. On Pomeroy Place is the home William Cooper gave to his daughter, Anne, and her husband, George Pomeroy. The initials GAPC and the date 1804 are carved in the stone walls. The handsome facade of Fernleigh and part of its formal garden can be seen at the end of River Street.

A visit to Cooperstown is not complete without a cruise on Otsego Lake, the scenic center of the village. A nine-mile long, deep-water lake, surrounded by hills and dotted with sailboats in the summer, the shimmering Glimmerglass exerts a magnetic pull. A journey over the reflective waters begins at the outlet of the Susquehanna River, flanked by a boulder marking Clinton's Dam and by Council Rock, where the Indians convened in real life and in Cooper's novels.

On the eastern shore at Point Judith, stands Kingfisher Tower, looking like a miniature 12th-century castle with crenellated ramparts. An intriguing landmark, the 60-foot tower, conceived by Edward Clark, served no real purpose other than to provide construction jobs during an economic downturn when many in the community were unemployed. Seven miles up the lake widens into Hyde Bay, at the head of which sits Hyde Hall, another example of Georgian architecture that also houses a museum. A little more to the west, near Glimmerglass State Park, boaters can see the Glimmerglass Opera and its grounds. The opera is internationally acclaimed for its innovative productions of newly commissioned works and of little-staged classics from the repertory.

Coming down the western shore of the lake, visitors can see many areas that figure in Cooper's stories, such as Hutter's Point, where the Deerslayer first saw the lake, and Three Mile Point, where Chingachgook and the Deerslayer escaped from the Hurons. On the hillside above Three Mile Point is the estate of August Busch, who bought the land when the region produced the finest hops in the country. A man with an unusual sense of humor, Busch kept an elephant on his front lawn just for fun. As the cruise nears the southern shore again, it passes the beautiful Leatherstocking Golf Course, which follows the contours of the lake, and finishes near the majestic southern facade of The Otesaga.

Of all the attractions of Cooperstown, its authenticity is the greatest. Its location, slightly off the beaten track in the farmland of upstate New York, about 60 miles from Albany, has helped to preserve not just a town and its history, but also a way of life that has all but vanished elsewhere. Under the benevolent sway of the Clark family, Cooperstown has succeeded in maintaining its economic viability without succumbing to commercialism – no fast-food outlets or generic mall stores disturb its nostalgic aura. The village is also refreshingly free of contrived "cutesyness." But while Cooperstown, with just one traffic light, is obviously not Gotham, it isn't Pleasantville either. The most sophisticated city dweller will feel as comfortable in its welcoming environs as the Midwesterner from the heartland.

A convenient getaway distance from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other Northeastern cities, Cooperstown is easily accessible by car, rail and air. It is well worth the detour.