- 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
The name of this column is “History Happened Here,” but in the case of Cooperstown, “History Didn’t Happen Here” might be better. This is not to say that Cooperstown has no history; in fact, it has enough for half a dozen villages its size. But the first thing every American thinks of on hearing the town’s name—the thing that makes it a tourist destination instead of just a scenic spot with a past—is based on an egregious fabrication.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened in Cooperstown in 1939, not far from the spot where, a century before, a local lad named Abner Doubleday supposedly drew a diamond in the dirt with a stick, wrote out the rules, and then played the first game of baseball with his boyhood companions. Chances are remote that any of this actually happened. Among other things, Doubleday was at West Point throughout 1839, and the “playmate” who remembered the event more than six decades later was fifteen years his junior. Although the Hall of Fame’s three hundred thousand yearly pilgrims don’t seem to mind these discrepancies, to most baseball historians the Cooperstown creation myth is about as plausible as George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree.
Yet plenty of history did happen in Cooperstown. During ancient times it was the site of an Indian village. In 1779 Gen. James Clinton assembled his troops there to fight the Britishallied Iroquois. Seven years later William Cooper bought 110,000 acres of land and established a town named after himself. Among the family he brought from New Jersey was a newborn boy named James, who, under the name James Fenimore Cooper, would become America’s first internationally recognized novelist. Cooperstown later went through stages as a farming community and a popular resort (both of which it remains in some degree) before gaining the title Village of Museums. Of course, it’s Cooperstown’s other sobriquet—Home of Baseball, nowadays often hedged to Traditional Home of Baseball—that sets it apart from Oswego or Schoharie or any other upstate New York town with a couple of museums. But underneath the theme-park ambience is a village that has much more in common with those places than with Orlando or Anaheim.
Although it’s right on Main Street, the Baseball Town Motel is easy to miss. It’s upstairs, over the F. R. Woods sports-memorabilia store, in the middle of which stands the motel’s reservation desk. Dozens of similar stores—offering caps, bats, pennants, autographs, cards, pictures, and every other conceivable way for fans to express their devotion—line the adjoining several blocks; a fan could spend a week in town without straying more than a few hundred feet. Or as the motel clerk said, “You can walk to everything.” Then, doubtfully, glancing at my bow tie, “Well, I guess you can take the trolley if you want to go to the Farmers’ Museum or something.” The setting for her remark, amidst shelf after shelf of Florida Marlins shot glasses and St. Louis Browns T-shirts, was apt, for just like the motel itself, the real history of Cooperstown is often obscured by baseball worship.
There is indeed a trolley—or rather, a bus painted to look like one. Its route includes the Farmers’ Museum, but the mile or so from the center of town is worth walking, for several reasons. It provides an opportunity to escape the crowds; there are some fine houses along the way; and the surrounding scenery makes the walk a visual delight. In particular, here and there you can catch a glimpse of Otsego Lake through the trees, and it is in Otsego Lake that the soul of Cooperstown lies.
For a closer look at the lake, go to the foot of River Street, where an inconspicuous staircase labeled COUNCIL ROCK and CLINTON’S DAM leads to a small grassy area with a few scattered benches. This is the southern end of Otsego, out of which the Susquehanna River flows, and from it you can see for miles up the long, narrow lake. Council Rock turns out to be a smooth, round-topped boulder that nowadays lies mostly submerged a few feet off the shore. Tradition, Cooper’s novels, and some historical evidence hold that it was a long-time meeting place for the Indians of the region.
As for General Clinton, he took advantage of a lull in the Revolutionary War in 1779 to build a dam here that raised the level of the lake by several feet. Upon receiving orders to move, he knocked out the dam, thus providing enough of a current to float his fifteen hundred men to Tioga Point, where he joined forces with Gen. John Sullivan to slaughter several hundred Indians led by Joseph Brant. It’s easy to see why Clinton needed such ingenuity, for at its source the mighty Susquehanna resembles nothing so much as a large pan of water that someone has used to rinse green paint from brushes.
James Fenimore Cooper called the lake Glimmerglass, after the smooth, shiny surface it presents in the sun. The name has stuck; everything in Cooperstown that does not have a baseball name is called either Glimmerglass or Leatherstocking. On an overcast day the lake does not glimmer, but as white birds fly in silhouette against the green hills and a couple paddles by in a canoe, it’s possible to imagine Clinton and Natty Bumppo and countless generations of Indians looking out over much the same scene.
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.