The Story of Cooperstown
by Ralph Birdsall
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Bishop Potter's last notable public appearance in Cooperstown was at the Village Centennial Celebration in August of 1907. He was the most picturesque figure in a scene rich in kaleidoscopic color and historic significance when, on the Sunday afternoon which began the week's festivities, multitudes listened beneath the sunlit trees upon the green of the Cooper Grounds, while the Bishop, mantled in an academic gown of crimson, described his vision of the future of religion in America.

The Cooperstown Centennial celebration was remarkable for its great success in calm defiance of the fact that the year of its observance was not really the centennial of anything worth commemorating in the history of the village. The psychological moment seemed to have arrived when the people of the village were resolved to devote themselves to some high effort in praise of Cooperstown, and so they gloriously celebrated, in 1907, the centennial which a former generation had neglected, and which succeeding generations might indolently ignore. A disused act of village incorporation passed in 1807 was seized upon as suggesting a convenient antiquity, but there was no slavish conformity to mere accidents of date, and the whole history of Cooperstown was included in this elastic centenary. The entire community was united in the desire and effort to make the celebration a success, and the sticklers for historical propriety became quite as enthusiastic as the others. The commemoration was planned and carried out on a really dignified scale, with an avoidance of tawdriness; and the elements of the celebration, with religious, historical, literary exercises, and pageantry, were well proportioned in their appeal to the mind, to the romantic emotions, and to the love of the spectacular. Some of the addresses such as that of Brander Matthews on Fenimore Cooper, were valuable contributions to the literary annals of America. Throngs of spectators were attracted to Cooperstown by the celebration, and in one day there were at least 15,000 people in the village which included only about 2,500 in its normal population. The old village and lake offered an effective background to the scenes of carnival. Natty Bumppo at home in his log cabin, Chingachgook with his canoe, appeared in living representation in the line of floats that paraded the village to set forth the historic and romantic memories of the place. A chorus of village schoolgirls dressed in white, and with flowing hair, presented an exquisite scene at Cooper's grave in Christ churchyard, bringing their tribute of flowers, and singing the lyric written by Andrew B. Saxton to the music of Andrew Allez. Otsego Lake offered a superb spectacle in the calm summer night, reflecting the glare of rockets and the bursting into bloom of aerial gardens of flame. There were moments of utter darkness suddenly dispelled by dazzling cataracts of fire that made one aware of thousands of pallid faces thronging the shore, while the effulgence set the waters ablaze from Council Rock to the Sleeping Lion, and flung a weird splendor upon the forests of the surrounding hills.

A lovable patriarch of the village was Samuel M. Shaw, well known throughout the state as editor of the Freeman's Journal. He had once been an editor of the Argus, in Albany, and became editor and proprietor of the Freeman's Journal in Cooperstown in 1851. In this position he continued more than half a century, and had a history almost unique in village journalism. When he began his work Shaw was regarded as an innovator, for he was one of the first editors in the country to introduce columns of local news and personal items, a practice which, at a time when newspapers were wholly devoted to politics, speeches, foreign affairs and literary miscellany, was widely ridiculed. He survived long enough to be regarded as an exemplar of conservative and old-fashioned journalism, and became the Nestor of Cooperstown. In the office of the Freeman's Journal, with its clutter of old machinery, piles of grimy books, its floor littered with newspapers, its wall streaked with cobwebs, the aged editor seemed exactly to fit into the surroundings. Here he received his friends, for the bed-ridden wife at Carr's Hotel, where he had rooms, was unequal to much social duty. The printing-office was his kingdom, and here, at the battered desk, he reigned supreme, a benevolent-looking man, with white beard closely enough trimmed to show a firm mouth, while the bald head shone above the desk as he bent his eyes closely to the pen in writing, and the left hand occasionally stroked the cluster of silvery locks that overhung the back of his collar. Late every afternoon he put aside his pen and proof-sheets, and with a coat held capewise about his bent shoulders, toddled to the Mohican Club to play bottle-pool with his old friend, G. Pomeroy Keese. Every Sunday the editor's venerable figure was conspicuous in a front pew of the Baptist church, in which he was a pillar, and always held up as an example to the youth of the village.

When Samuel Shaw died, in 1907, occurred a dramatic episode which only a village community can produce. During his long career Shaw had accumulated a fair amount of property, and in his will had made kindly bequests to certain friends. Not until his death did it become generally known that his means had been dissipated by unfortunate speculations in the stock market, which was then in a depressed condition, and that margins upon which he had made purchases had been wiped out, hastening his death by financial worry, and leaving his estate almost bankrupt.

At his funeral the Baptist church was crowded by a congregation which represented the tribute of a whole village to a man who had been a leader in its affairs for more than fifty years. The pastor of the church, the Rev. Cyrus W. Negus, had not been long in the village, but already was known for his earnestness and sincerity. To deliver a funeral sermon over the body of so distinguished a member of his church offered an opportunity to make an impression upon the entire community. He began his sermon with the usual expressions of Christian faith in the presence of death, and passed to a commendation of Samuel Shaw's many good deeds in public service and private life during his long career. Then he changed his tone, and, to the amazement of every hearer, expressed his deep disapproval of the speculations in the stock market which had brought the veteran editor in sorrow to the grave, and declared that he was unable to indorse the qualities in the character of a man so prominent in religious and civic life which permitted him to resort to slippery methods of financial gain. In this respect Samuel Shaw was to be held up not as an example, but as a warning to the youth of the village.

Never was a congregation more astonished than when the speaker proceeded to develop such a theme in the face of the mourning friends of the dead. Probably the great majority of the congregation felt that the pastor's view of the iniquity of such stock speculations was utterly mistaken. Certainly all the friends of the dead editor were too indignant to realize in that hour that they were witnesses of an unusual exhibition of moral courage on the part of a preacher. It was some months later, when the Rev. Cyrus W. Negus himself lay dead, and all the bells of the village rang his requiem, that a friend and admirer of Samuel Shaw could also fairly recognize the mettle of this preacher who had the pluck to speak out what he believed to be his message, with every worldly reason to be silent. He had dared to defy the conventions of indiscriminate eulogy at funerals, to stand practically alone against public opinion, and to turn an opportunity of winning popular applause into an occasion for speaking out the necessary truth as he saw it. Some of his best friends felt that he had blundered, but no one who saw and heard this frail and pale-faced Baptist minister, as he stood by the coffin of Samuel Shaw uttering the quiet words that fell like lead upon the tense and breathless audience, may honestly deny his courage.

In some respects the most remarkable man in Cooperstown at this period was Dr. Henry D. Sill. It is perhaps a singular distinction in a Christian community that Dr. Sill should have been chiefly renowned for being a Christian. It was not that the Christianity of the village was below the average of Christian communities. It was rather that Dr. Sill so strikingly personified the Christian virtues as to become a saint among Christians. By common consent he was put in a class by himself. Christians were exhorted to imitate him, but nobody was expected really to equal him. He was at this time only forty years old, but was revered not only by the young, but by the aged, as wise unto salvation. He was the son of Jedediah P. Sill, a respected and influential business man of Cooperstown, and after graduation at Princeton and at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he settled down to practise in his own village. Dr. Sill lived with his sister at "The Maples," in the spacious house which stands on Chestnut Street, with sculptured lions guarding the doorway, next to the Methodist parsonage. His office occupied the little wing at the north. Unlike some who pass for philanthropists in the outer world, Henry Sill was regarded as a saint in his own household. Mrs. Robe, the aged aunt who made one of the family, and cultivated the art of growing old beautifully and gracefully, herself a Unitarian, used always to conclude her frequent arguments against Calvinistic theology by saying, "Well, Henry wouldn't treat people so, and I believe that God is as good as Henry!"

Dr. Sill was a man of some means, but spent very little on himself. It had been his ambition to be a missionary, but since circumstances made it impossible to carry out this design, he annually contributed the entire salary of a foreign missionary whom he called his "substitute." He spent large sums of money in the improvement of Thanksgiving Hospital, in which he was deeply interested, and the equipment of that institution, especially of the operating-room, which gave it a rank far above the hospitals in many larger towns, was chiefly owing to his generosity.

Dr. Sill was a physician, but specialized in surgery, and, while he never developed any spectacular rapidity of technique, became known as one of the most capable and conscientious surgeons in central New York. He always told patients what he believed to be the exact truth, and without the untoward results which some practitioners apprehend from such a policy. A surgeon who prayed with patients just before resorting to the knife was sometimes rather disconcerting to the irreligious, but his attitude was a comfort to many in the dire distress of illness, and in all it inspired confidence in the man himself. In many an isolated farm house of Otsego the only religious ministrations came with Dr. Sill's medical attendance, and there were unnumbered cases in which his call to heal the body resulted in the regeneration of a soul.

Where patients were able to pay, Dr. Sill charged a good price for his services, but the fees were adjusted upon a sliding scale, and the amount of his professional service without pay is incalculable. In this respect he was not unlike his colleagues in a profession which probably gives more for nothing than any other, but, having independent means, he was able to go farther in this direction than most practitioners, and he counted it a pleasure to give away his time and skill without reward.

There was a tinge of Puritanism in Dr. Sill's Christianity which to some minds imported an unnecessary strictness of view, but none could quarrel with it, for he practised his austerities upon himself, not toward others. Certain precepts of the Sermon on the Mount usually interpreted in a figurative sense he took literally as rules of action. "Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" was one of these. His literal fidelity to this precept afforded him the deep satisfaction of giving aid to honest neighbors in distress; it enabled him to come to the rescue in the emergencies which sometimes face the most industrious and deserving. But also it gave him the pain of learning how many plausible persons are eager to make fair promises that mean nothing, and taught him that there are human beings to whom acts of loving-kindness are as pearls before swine. The honest man in trouble came to Dr. Sill, the drunkard to take the pledge, the sorrowful to be comforted, the desperate to be advised. But so came also the rogue, and the wheedling hypocrite, and all such as desired to obtain something for nothing. The doctor had a large acquaintance among unfortunate outcasts, for he regularly visited the county jail to talk and pray with its inmates. The extent to which Dr. Sill aided the worthless was a cause of grief to the judicious, but he was not really, as some supposed, the dupe of impostors. He was well aware of the probably unworthy character of many to whom he gave assistance, but there was always an element of doubt in such cases, and his theory was that it was better to aid ninety-nine humbugs than to take the risk of closing the door against one who was deserving of help.

Dr. Sill was much consulted in relation to the civic and religious welfare of the community. His conscientious habit of deciding in all things, great and small, upon the absolutely right course of action gave him an air of slowness and hesitation in manner. He would stand listening intently, without comment, to violent arguments for and against a project, turning toward each speaker the frank dark eyes that illumined his pale countenance. When it came to his decision he had a way of planting his right heel forward, and compressing his lips, which he then opened with a slight smack of determination, giving quiet utterance to his judgment. It was usually quite impossible to move him from a decision thus made, and those who misinterpreted the mildness of his manner soon learned that the man himself was adamant.

The first years of the twentieth century included an era of new buildings. Just above Leatherstocking Falls, in 1908, William E. Guy of St. Louis built and established the beautiful summer home at Leatherstocking Farm. The remains of the old grist mill at the falls were torn down, and the stones from the foundation were used in the new building.

In 1910, James Fenimore Cooper of Albany, grandson of the novelist, built Fynmere (the name being an old form of the word Fenimore) as a country residence. Its site on the hillside above the road that curves about the southern end of Mount Vision commands a superb view down the Susquehanna Valley, while the eastern windows of the house look into the heart of the ascending forest. The use of native field stone in the construction of this house is most effective, and at once gave to the residence, when fresh from the builder's hands, the air of being long habituated to the spot, and quite in harmony with the antiquities that abound in the appointments and ornamentation of the place. Within a niche of the main hall of the house is the bust of Fenimore Cooper which David d'Angers made in Paris in 1828; and embedded in the foundation of the building is the corner-stone with the original marking that Cooper carved in 1813 for the house that he built, but which was burned before he could move into it, at Fenimore. Fynmere has contributed to the revival of pleasures that belonged to an elder day in Cooperstown, for it has drawn hither large house-parties of young people to enjoy the holidays of Christmastide, to join in winter sports, and to appreciate the splendors of snow and ice in a region usually renowned only for the charm of its summer season.

From the beginning of Cooperstown's celebrity as a watering-place the hope was cherished, among the residents, that the village might include a suitable hotel overlooking the lake, and attracting visitors to linger on its shores. This dream was realized in 1909 when the O-te-sa-ga opened, having been built by Edward S. Clark and his brother Stephen C. Clark. The hotel was planned to accommodate three hundred guests, and occupies the old site of Holt-Averell, commanding a magnificent view of the full length of the lake.

Cooperstown is a village of incomparable charm. There is not the like of it in all America. It has a character of its own sufficiently distinctive to prevent it from becoming the leech-like community into which, through the slow commercializing of native self-respect, a summer resort sometimes degenerates, stupidly enduring the winter in order to batten upon the pleasures of the rich in summer. Cooperstown is old enough and wise enough to have a juster appreciation of lasting values. It has tradition and atmosphere. It is a village that rejoices in the simple virtues of life peculiar to a small community, while its fame as a summer resort annually brings its residents within reach of far influences and wide horizons.

All lovers of Cooperstown know a favorite summer walk that passes from the village up the hill on the eastern border of the lake, rises beyond Prospect Rock, winds over a wooded summit, descends, turns westerly through a shady grove, crosses a farm, then threads a stretch of densest foliage, when suddenly one emerges upon a clearing, and unexpectedly beholds, glittering far below, the waters of the Glimmerglass, with the homes and spires of the village gleaming amidst the green leafage of the valley.

It is impossible not to idealize the village when one views it from this height. To the tourist, who comes merely to admire, it is a view that possesses the glamour of enchantment. How happy should be the people who dwell in this peaceful village, surrounded by such charming scenery! How lofty should be their ideals, and how pure their lives, who abide amid such glories of nature!

But for residents of Cooperstown this view is one that has more than beauty. It grips the heart. As the resident looks down upon the streets and houses amongst the trees it is with a sympathetic knowledge of the dwellers there, and of the joys that delight them, of the sorrows that crush them, of the sins that dog them, and of the hopes that inspire them.

The drama of life has been many times enacted amid the scenes of this village, and here is the prologue and epilogue of many a romance and tragedy.

Boys and girls are at play in the streets, and are skylarking along the shore of lake and river. Ambitious youngsters go out into the wider world to seek their fortunes. But there is always a homecoming. Youth has its day.

There are two aged men from different quarters of the village who daily resort in summer to the Cooper Grounds, and sit in the sunshine upon the same bench. Either is visibly uneasy until the other arrives. But together they are happy. On this spot where the history of the village began they take turns at being narrator and listener, while each relates to the other the story of his life, and describes his triumphs in days that are gone. They give no heed to passers-by, or to the traffic of neighboring streets. But a village church bell tolls, and they fall silent, lifting their heads to watch the funeral train as it passes the Cooper Grounds and winds slowly upward from the main street to the quiet garden by the lake, on the slope of the eastern hills.


[Footnote 128: George S. Dougherty, in Chicago Saturday Blade, January 8, 1916.]


Chief points of interest are indicated on the village map, in the order most convenient for a short tour, by letters from A to M.

A—Cooper Grounds. Site of Fenimore Cooper's residence.

B—Cooper's grave in Christ churchyard. Christ Church, erected 1807, in which he worshipped.

C—Fernleigh, the Clark residence, where Bishop Potter died.

D—Byberry Cottage, built for the daughters of Fenimore Cooper, 1852.

E—Pomeroy Place, "the old stone house," 1804.

F—Indian Mound, in the northeast corner of Fernleigh-Over.

G—Oldest house in the village, 1790.

H—Edgewater, 1810.

I—Council Rock, mentioned in The Deerslayer as the meeting-place of the Indians.

J—Mortar marking site of Clinton's Dam, during the Revolution, 1779.

K—Village Library and Museum.

L—Clark Estate Offices, 1831.

M—Public Boat Landings.

N—Mill Island.

O—Former residence of Justice Nelson, U.S. Supreme Court.

P—Universalist church.

Q—Presbyterian church, 1805.

R—Baptist church.

S—Church of St. Mary, Our Lady of the Lake.

T—Methodist church.

U—Grounds upon which the first game of Base Ball was played.



X—Lakelands, 1804.

Y—Woodside, 1829.

Z—Fynmere, 1910.


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