New York: Cooperstown Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A graceful, well-kept village in the northern Catskill Mountains, Cooperstown was the home of writer James Fenimore Cooper, and the town and surrounding area provided the setting for two of his novels. Cooperstown also is the site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which draws about 400,000 visitors a year. Within the city limits are three other museums–Fenimore House, dedicated to Cooper and local history; the Farmers’ Museum and Village Crossroads; and the Larry Fritsch Baseball Card Museum. Just outside of town are the Cherry Valley Museum, illustrating life in the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the Corvette Americana Hall of Fame; and the Petrified Creatures Museum of Natural History.

Site Office

Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce Information Center

31 Chestnut Street

Cooperstown, NY 13326

ph.: (607) 547-9983

fax: (607) 547-6006

Web site: www.cooperstownchamber.org

e-mail: info@cooperstownchamber.org

One cannot help but wonder how a town this small wound up with so many museums. Only about 2,000 people live in Cooperstown, and no more than 2,800 have ever lived there at a time, yet within the village itself are four museums and three more are located nearby. Somehow, the New York State Historical Society, with many more populous and popular places from which to choose, has picked Cooperstown for its headquarters. Protecting the past is one of Cooperstown’s major industries. Though many large cities could say as much about the past, few have profited from it so well.

Early History

This passionate interest in Cooperstown’s history could be said to have begun in 1823 with the publication of The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper. It was a history of Cooperstown disguised as a novel. The town was only thirty-three years old (three years older than Cooper himself), but it was already looking back in wonder.

Cooper’s father, Judge William Cooper, bought the land on which he founded the town at a sheriff’s sale in 1785. At that time there was nothing but wilderness and game for miles around. Little was known about the land besides the name of its previous owner–George Croghan–and not much besides a hut remained from his tenancy. During the American Revolution, the Continental Army under the direction of General James Clinton had built a rough road to Lake Otsego, and a dam where the lake fed the Susquehanna River. George Washington had toured the area. Otherwise, there was no sign of humans having ever lived there.

Humans had lived there–arrowheads and burial mounds have been discovered in the area–but no other record of their stay remains, except for the tales told by the son of the founder. Judge William Cooper incorporated the town in 1786, and brought the rest of his family to the wilderness from New Jersey in 1790. James was a year old.

There were fifty others living in Cooperstown in 1790, when Judge Cooper sold off forty thousand acres of land in sixteen days, most of it in parcels of one hundred acres. The people who bought were poor, but Cooper extended credit to them. He gave each tenant seven to ten years to pay for the land, and, unlike most landowners of the time, he sold to them outright, so that while they were in his debt, they were also landowners themselves. Wealthy himself, he was also able to extend credit for the basic necessities to the poorer settlers, and in this way the town was built: The people in it had a stake in its success, and the land around it became populated with small family farms.

Cooper also founded Otsego County, and the town became the county seat. He wrote a book about the experience called A Guide in the Wilderness. He was an active and often vociferous participant in New York state politics, causing the arrest of the founder of New York’s public school system, Jedediah Peck, when Peck urged the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Law, and championing Aaron Burr, the controversial former vice president who outdueled Alexander Hamilton and was acquitted of treason charges. Judge Cooper made as many enemies as he did friends in the hurly-burly of early American politics, and was killed by an unknown attacker after a political meeting in Albany in 1809. His youngest son James was ten years old.

James Fenimore Cooper

The young James Fenimore Cooper was sent away to school, first to private school at Albany, and then, when he was thirteen, to Yale. After being expelled three years later for a prank, he joined the crew of a merchant ship and, subsequently, the navy, but resigned after marrying in 1811. His wife, Susan DeLancey, was from one of the New York’s first families, and in 1817, after a few years in Cooperstown, the couple moved closer to her family in Westchester. Cooper settled down to a life of leisure, but was unable to stay settled for long. He started writing in 1820.

He began writing about Cooperstown three years later, taking his father’s legacy and turning it into legend. The Pioneers introduced the world to “Judge Temple” of “Templeton,” but, more important, it introduced the world to Natty Bumppo, the good scout also called “Leatherstocking.” Through this character, to whom Cooper returned for five novels, the story of the taming of the American frontier was first told to readers in Paris and Vienna. Cooper was the first American author to enjoy world renown. Leatherstocking roamed through time and the countryside, returning to his youth and the area around Cooperstown in The Deerslayer in 1841. Cooper himself returned to Cooperstown in 1834, after living much of his adult life in Westchester, New York City, and Europe. His was not a happy return.

Cooper quarreled with the townspeople over items both large and small, but his principal troubles grew from a contest over a piece of the family property. Three Mile Point on Otsego Lake had become a popular spot for the local people to picnic, but Cooper tried to put a stop to that. His action drew bitter criticism from the press, both in and outside the town. He fought back, bringing suits that helped codify the principles of American libel law, and he won. His right to privacy on his land was established, but he became the most unpopular man in town. He died in 1851, and his house, Otsego Hall, burned down two years later. A statue stands on the spot today, and he is buried with his wife in the Christ Church cemetery.

Although most of the village also burned down in 1862, it was rebuilt soon after. Cooperstown attracted a sizable number of notable men for a town its size. Samuel Nelson, who sat on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1845 to 1872, lived there, as did the originator of the “dime novel,” Erastus Beadle. Though in 1838 James Fenimore Cooper had predicted future popularity for Cooperstown as a resort, no one could have predicted that events later said to have taken place in 1839 would lead to the renown that the village enjoys today. The Leatherstocking books are still read, but Cooperstown is never mistaken for Templeton; when Cooperstown is mentioned now, it is baseball that comes to mind. It is a strange coincidence that America’s first literary figure, and its first and most literary sport, would originate in the same out-of-the-way place. Stranger still, in both, fiction proves stronger than fact.

Origins of Baseball

Baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday, nor was the first game played in Cooperstown. Doubleday himself never said he had invented baseball, though the town assented to the claim made on its behalf by a committee headed by Albert G. Spalding (president of the Chicago baseball team), and chaired by Abraham G. Mills, the fourth president of baseball’s National League. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, baseball became recognized as the American national game, but no one could pinpoint where, or how, it began. Spalding wanted to prove the game was American in origin, and was instrumental in establishing a seven-man commission, headed by Mills, which would find out, once and for all, where the game started. Mills conducted a very limited investigation beginning and ending in 1907.

Basing his opinion on the testimony of a former resident of Cooperstown named Abner Graves, who said he thought he remembered Doubleday introducing the game to the boys of the town, maybe in 1839, maybe in 1841, Mills declared the case closed even before the commission had issued its final report. Grave’s testimony was his only evidence.

Mills had known Doubleday during the Civil War, when Doubleday was a major general in the Union army. Until he made his report, Mills had never mentioned anything about Doubleday’s supposed association with baseball. Doubleday himself had written three books, one of which described his early boyhood, and had not touched on the invention of baseball. No one can be certain that Doubleday was ever even in Cooperstown, although if he had been there in 1839, he was already past boyhood. He was enrolled at West Point by then.

A more likely explanation of the origins of baseball is that it evolved from the English game of rounders. A game called “base-ball” is illustrated in a book printed in London in 1744, and the same book was reprinted throughout northeastern America later in the century. A compilation of children’s games published in America in 1829 describes the rules of rounders, which were similar to the rules of baseball, and in 1835 a book published in Rhode Island described the rules of rounders but renamed the game baseball. In 1839 another book, published in New Haven, laid out the baseball field.

Despite this evidence to the contrary, the theory of spontaneous American invention in Cooperstown won the day. The changes this myth brought to Cooperstown did not come until thirty years after the findings of the commission, but change when it came was dramatic.

The Baseball Hall of Fame

The two-room National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened on June 12, 1939, the centennial of Abner Doubleday’s alleged “invention.” Babe Ruth was there, and Cy Young, and Honus Wagner, and other baseball giants, joined by multitudes of fans and politicians who later congregated at Doubleday Field to watch an all-star game played by the legends in attendance.

A few years earlier, the editor of two of the local papers, Walter Littell, had told his friend Stephen C. Clark that he had seen a mangled leather baseball supposedly used by Doubleday. According to Littell, Clark paid five dollars for the beat-up ball, and plans for the Hall of Fame were launched. The New York state legislature sent a committee to Cooperstown in 1937, and the committee found that Cooperstown was indeed the “birthplace of baseball” and recommended a celebration of the centennial of its birth, in 1939. The state spent ten thousand dollars to advertise the event and put up road signs to direct the faithful to the little town. The shrine was validated by an act of Congress, and a commemorative stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service. The first members of the Hall of Fame were inducted in the 1939 ceremonies.

Since 1939 the Hall of Fame has been expanded far beyond its two-room beginnings. A wing was added in 1950, and the Hall of Fame Gallery was built in 1958 to house the bronze plaques bearing the likenesses of the outstanding baseball players who have been chosen for membership. The Hall of Fame Library was added ten years later, and a third wing, which doubled the size of the complex, was completed in 1980. The complex includes numerous displays of artifacts, photographs, and memorabilia from throughout the history of baseball.

Stephen C. Clark’s family had been in Cooperstown since just before the Civil War, and had made a great impact in a variety of ways. The first Edward Clark, Stephen Clark’s grandfather, bought property there in 1854; he was a principal partner in a new company that would make a fortune manufacturing sewing machines–I. M. Singer and Company. In the first third of the twentieth century, Stephen Clark’s brother, Edward Severin Clark, used his part of the family fortune to build up Cooperstown. He built the “cow palace,” a huge barn, in 1918, and Fenimore House, which is now a museum, in 1932. Fenimore House was built on property once occupied by James Fenimore Cooper. Edward S. Clark also built a luxury hotel, the Otesaga, and the Alfred Corning Clark Community Gymnasium, named for his father. After Edward died in 1933, these properties were administered by Stephen, who used them to transform the village.

Stephen Clark gave Fenimore House to the New York State Historical Association, donated the cow palace and other barns that became the Farmer’s Museum, and played a primary role in bringing the Hall of Fame to Cooperstown. His brother Edward had started the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital; Stephen increased its endowment, making it one of the largest rural hospitals in the country. Stephen also founded the Clark Foundation, which helped to start the Glimmerglass Opera Theater in 1975. He brought the New York State Historical Association to Cooperstown in 1939, housing it first on Main Street and moving it in 1945 to Fenimore House. Edward Clark was known in Cooperstown as “The Squire,” but it was Stephen Clark who had the central role in the remaking of Cooperstown from a small town with a history into a small-town history center.

Modern Cooperstown

In the 1990 census, 2,180 residents of Cooperstown were counted. Some among them work at the Hall of Fame, and others operate businesses related to it. Some of the descendants of the area’s farmers and artisans recreate the nineteenth century at the Farmer’s Museum, where the Cardiff Giant, one of America’s greatest hoaxes, lies in state. The town’s literary history is preserved at the library in Fenimore House, where the painting Peaceable Kingdom, by Edward Hicks, is displayed. The Corvette Americana Hall of Fame covers the 1950’s through the 1990’s, displaying Corvette automobiles in dioramas and film clips with blaring music accompanying the presentation. Boats tour Otsego Lake, with guides pointing out the places familiar from Cooper’s novels, and the trolley, built in 1990, still fills up with passengers on Main Street. The town seems as eternal as the surrounding mountains, a place where history and legend are an old, contented couple: cozy and virtually indistinguishable.

For Further Information
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Chronicles of Cooperstown. Cooperstown, N.Y.: H. & E. Phinney, 1838. A history of the town. In addition, Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) and The Deerslayer (1841) are still in print.
  • Jones, Louis C. In Cooperstown. Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1982. The rough edges of Cooperstown’s development have been smoothed over, yet they do not go unmentioned. Its paeans to Cooperstown’s charm and beauty appear to be sincerely felt.
  • Seymour, Harold. “How Baseball Began.” In The Armchair Book of Baseball, edited by John Thorn. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. First published in the New York Historical Society Quarterly in 1956, this was the signal work in debunking the myth of baseball’s beginnings. A must read for baseball fans.
  • Taylor, Alan. William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1996. A history of Cooperstown and a biography of James Fenimore Cooper.
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