- Historic Sites
Cooperstown, New York, is famous for its fiction— The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer , and the Abner Doubleday myth
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
Yet even the most contemplative traveler will want to do more than stare at a lake, which is why the Farmers’ Museum is worth a visit. This institution is the second most popular museum in Cooperstown, which puts it in a similar position to Tommie Aaron—the second-best baseball player in the Aaron family, after his brother Hank. The Farmers’ Museum, on thirty acres once worked by James Fenimore Cooper, is a microcosm of upstate New York farm life in the early 1800s. The grounds contain barns, a carriage shed, a blacksmith’s shop, a tavern, and other buildings, all originally erected in nearby counties between the 1790s and the 1830s and faithfully restored and preserved here.
The museum has two parts. The open-air section (known as the Village Crossroads) simulates a farm village, while the Main Barn is a more traditional collection of display cases with labels. Exhibits show how various crops were planted and harvested (including hops, the area’s main cash crop before the Civil War); the life of farm wives through the years; children’s amusements; and tools and techniques from rural trades.
Across the road is Fenimore House, the art museum of the New York State Historical Association, with strong collections of folk and genre art, Indian crafts, and Hudson River School paintings. Most striking is the assemblage of life masks made by the sculptor John H. I. Browere. Starting in 1819, Browere visited prominent citizens and made plaster casts of their faces, to which he later added eyes, hair, and other detail. The results, reproduced in bronze, are astonishingly lifelike. John Adams, ninety years old and jowly, still glares out with fierce pride. James Madison looks like a Roman senator, while his wife, Dolley, resembles a cleaning lady from a 1940s movie. A glint in the eyes of Henry Clay, then in his prime as a statesman, suggests that he is ready to pounce on a weakness in an opponent’s argument, while a fading Gilbert Stuart looks appropriately dissolute.
These two museums are an easy walk, or an easier ride, from the center of the village, but you don’t even have to go that far to escape Our National Pastime. For a half-dozen blocks along Main Street, baseball is omnipresent, to the point where you see it even when it’s not intended. (Hoffmann Lane? Must be named after Glenn Hoffmann, a utility infielder for the Red Sox. What’s he doing in Cooperstown?) In an effort to preserve the village’s character, fast-food chains have been banned, and there is still only one traffic light. As a result, the quaint restaurants are eternally jammed, and crossing the street requires the speed and agility of Lou Brock. But wander a few blocks in any direction and Cooperstown abruptly turns into a quiet little town again, though one amply furnished with historical markers.
Still, even when you’re away from the permanent rush hour of Main Street, you can hear crowd noises from Doubleday Field, which sits diagonally athwart several streets in the center of town. Once a year a pair of major-league teams visits for an exhibition game, but during the rest of the summer it is used by local clubs. Its ten-thousandseat wooden grandstand is generally filled to about one percent of capacity for the amateur contests, but the players put forth easily as much effort as bored professionals flown in for the day, and the fans are as enthusiastic as those to be found anywhere. Doubleday Field at such a time shows Cooperstown at its best: a small town that can be overrun by tourists yet manage to stay remarkably unaffected by it all.