A Century Of Cooperstown

For a village of only 2,700 souls, peaceful Cooperstown, on Lake Otsego, New York, has enjoyed a modest fame. Most people know it as the home of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a beautiful resort, and as the place where baseball was supposedly invented by Abner Doubleday. Less well-known, but of increasing interest to regional historians and lovers of the American scene, is the record left by the two Cooperstown photographers shown above—Washington G. Smith and Arthur J. (Putt) Telfer.

From 1850, when Smith set up shop as the town’s first photographer, until 1954 when his successor, Telfer, died at the age of 95, the partners spent a century at their trade, recording just about every aspect of village life and making portraits of almost everyone in town. Their work, unlike most such collections, has not been lost. Some 60,000 negatives, almost all on glass, have been preserved through the efforts of the New York State Historical Association at Cooperstown, their Tvresent owner.

Smith’s and Telfer’s visual social history will be poignantly familiar to many who have never set foot in Cooperstown itself. For thousands of such towns dot the face of the American landscape, and the look of the people living in them and the things they did for their amusement have a universal quality in the national folk-memory.

The Town and Its Lake

Cooperstown cannot merely be described as a small town. It is a small town and a lake. Cooper called the lake “The Glimmerglass” and the people of the town live within the reaches of its beauty. The town has always been simple, as these two early views of its Main Street indicate. In 1862 a fire destroyed a third of the business section, and people used to play croquet in this open lot (below). Haywains would sometimes crowd the streets before autos and trolleys came. And it was so very pleasant to drive a few miles to one’s cottage on the lake shore (left) and enjoy the view from the veranda.

Beards for The Men

After a clean-shaven beginning, America turned suddenly to a wide variety of hirsute appendages around 1859 and 1860, no one remembers why. The change can be seen in Brady’s portraits, and it can be seen in Cooperstown; of the 60,000 negatives in this collection, almost 90 per cent are portraits of the town’s citizens over the years, and the variety of Vandykes, imperials, mutton chops, goatees, sideburns, and assorted mustaches is awe-inspiring.

Bonnets for The Ladies

The Ladies (God bless them) took second place to no man in their own efforts to appear distinctive in front of the lens. Hats, large, floral, and florid, were de rigueur for a formal portrait, and it is comforting to see that high, if not absolutely towering, fashion did not pass Cooperstown by. The majority of these portraits were taken around the turn of the century when feathers (with the exception of the lone male fedora) ruled supreme on each high-crowned roost.

Fauntleroys and Little Women

When Putt TeIfer was offered a job by Smith, there was some doubt in his mind whether photography would be a permanent business or just a passing fad. Smith told the younger man that as long as there were babies being born there was no need to worry, and the thousands of pictures of Cooperstown children taken by the two men prove that Smith knew his parent psychology. Mothers outfitted their daughters in their best finery, but they really outdid themselves, and Frances Hodgson Burnett as well, when it came to portraits of their golden-ringleted sons (right). Only boys safe in the orphanage (below) escaped the Fauntleroy fad in their annual picture.

The Busches, the brewing family from St.Louis, were attracted to Cooperstown in the 1890 ‘s by the fine hopproducing areas surrounding it. Like the Clarks, heirs to part of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, they have long been prominent summer residents. In 1926, August A. Busch with his two grandchildren placed a heavy burden on the family goat cart.

Fairs, Friends and Festivals