Cooperstown, N.Y.: More Than Baseball

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on January 20, 2002

Cooperstown, N.Y., has a timelessness about it, and it seems only a blink from the historic bark Iroquois longhouse that sits on the shores of Lake Otsego to the 136-room Otesaga Hotel, where $38 million in renovations have brought the 1909 hostelry into the 21st century. Though they speak of different eras, the longhouse and the hotel are connected by a struggle for the riches of North America, when European expansion clashed with American Indian culture—now bound together by a treaty that’s still respected.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote about that conflict in his Leatherstocking sagas, and where he lived and wrote is today a combination of natural beauty, culture, tradition, art, and friendly people. Cooperstown (pop. 2,032) is also a mecca to fascination with the sport—as one writer put it—of hitting a round ball with a round stick.

In 1769, Col. George Croghan was awarded a land grant of 250,000 acres of the southern hunting grounds of the Mohawk Indians, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederation. William Cooper, who founded the town that bears his name, bought the property at auction in 1785. By 1790, it was the site of three businesses, 10 frame houses, and 50 inhabitants. It also attracted Mary Nolan 207 years later.

“The beauty of the place brought me here,” she says. Boston-born and educated, Nolan has lived, painted, and exhibited from New England to New Mexico and came to Cooperstown to paint, settling into a farmhouse in nearby Fly Creek. Her landscapes are hung all over town and illustrate the county brochures.

“It’s rural, but settled, there are just endless places to paint, and there’s a very strong cultural element here,” Nolan says.

That culture was founded, in part, on the riches created by the sewing machine when Isaac Singer formed a partnership with Edward Clark in 1863, a joining that made both men millionaires. Clark, a wealthy lawyer who assumed the Cooper’s mantle of civic leadership in the 1850s, had a vision of what Cooperstown should be. Tourism, not industry, would be the backbone of the local economy. Through his four sons, that vision was carried out.

By the time of the Civil War, Cooperstown was the summer retreat of well-heeled city dwellers and national politicians. Today, it has something for everyone. The Clark family moved the New York State Historical Association here, built the Otesaga Hotel, founded the Baseball Hall of Fame—dedicated June 12, 1939—the Farmer’s Museum, and the Fenimore Museum.

“I used to come here as a young boy and fell in love with the lake and the community,” says Dave Rickard. The American Indian specialist oversees the Thaw Collection of American Indian artifacts at the Fenimore Museum. Rickard’s staff has replicated a Ganasote, or Bark House, a small, 1750s Mohawk longhouse filled with reproductions of 18th-century accouterments of Mohawk life. It is a step back in time, with log dugouts pulled ashore and mist coming off the lake.

The Farmer’s Museum showcases a group of 19th-century farm buildings moved here from various parts of the state. Living history demonstrations bring to life the crafts and lifestyles of the farmers who settled this lush valley—and who would in time make it the largest hop-growing area in the country, producing 80 percent of the nation’s hops.

Don Friedman has returned the brewer’s art to one of the former farms. A self-confessed baseball nut, he and his wife fell in love with Cooperstown when they first visited. Earlier, while working in Belgium, he also fell in love with Belgian beer. In 1997, they opened the doors of the Ommegang brewery, where local young men and women—trained in Belgium—create rich, full-bodied Belgian ales. Down the road, the Cooperstown Brewery has been brewing English beer since 1995.

Thus is Cooperstown a melding of present and past—as on a warm summer morning a lone worker lays down the lines for a game at Doubleday field, where some say Abner invented the sport that brings more than 450,000 visitors a year to this town. For at the dawn of the 21st century, baseball and Cooperstown are timeless.