Cooperstown's Colorful History

A century before baseball put Cooperstown, N.Y., in the middle of the map of modern American boyhood, writer James Fenimore Cooper embellished his own juvenile adventures in the small town that would ultimately bear his family name.

And as CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports, his childhood stories transformed the small rural town into a homage to American history and nature.


When James Fenimore Cooper first presented readers with a chance to gaze into the mirrored waters of Glimmerglass Lake in upstate New York, America was fairly new, and Cooperstown had just been established. In 1786, his entrepreneur father, William, had left his job as a storekeeper in Burlington, N.J., to start the historic village.

William Cooper offered farmers an opportunity to buy property on the lake, and he personally supervised the development instead of employing an agent. And what began as a business endeavor gave rise to a lakeside community that continues more than 200 years later.

By today's definition, William Cooper would have been considered a developer. He wrote in a little book, A Guide in the Wilderness: "I have already settled more acres than any man in America.There are 40,000 souls now holding directly or indirectly under me."

"There are only Coopers in this section," points out Henry Cooper, William's great-great-great-grandson, about the family graveyard.

"Their attitude towards nature was that it was somethingin the way, it was an impediment,a rather difficult obstacle to be overcome by hard work," says Henry Cooper.

That was the prevailing attitude at the time, but the feelings James Fenimore Cooper expressed in his books were very different.

"He took these feelings that he had and created, helped create a new vision of nature, which was that nature is something, you know, beautifulto be preserved," Henry Cooper says.

Historian Jesse Ravage believes this is because people in that period began to draw a parallel between American nature and U.S. history. Cooper's books, like The Deerslayer, hugely popular when written in the first half of the 19th century, refer to places that still exist, he says.

"All of the events that happen on the lake in The Deerslayer are set in specific locations that you can identify, and this is very important," Ravage explains. "Because it makes this area so easy to marketas a tourist site."

So the man who promoted appreciation of the great American wilderness also boosted another great American phenomenon: tourism. By the 1860s, the shores of the lake were dotted with camps. The early campers were attracted by Leatherstocking lore.

"There are maps that were published that actually have the different locations picked out. And they mix what happens in the stories, the fictionl occurrence, with what's on the landscape in actual fact," Ravage says.

To this day, camp names are Cooperesque. The excursion boat that chugs up and down the lake is named after a character from The Last of the Mohicans.

In fact, the name of the lake isn't really Glimmerglass at all, even though the area around it is about to be designated by the state of New York as the Glimmerglass Historic District. Otsego Lake is its real name, derived from an American Indian word to connote "meeting place by the water."

Many tribes came to the lake to fish, and the New York State Historical Association has built a replica of a fishing lodge.

"Cooperstown represents so many different things in the American history and the American psyche, and we wanted to represent the first peoples, particularly the Iroquois," says Gilbert Vincent, president of the association and the Cooperstown Farmers' Museum.

The Farmers' Museum provides visitors with an authentic look at life in the mid-19th century. Most of the museum's historic buildings were found within 50 miles and moved to the site.

"There's a store and a house and a farmhouse and a tavern and a church, but one of the things we particularly like to show are the crafts - the handwork that really was the basis for the whole culture," Vincent explains. "That has been superseded by industrialism now."

The museum encourages tourist participation in a slice of America that no longer exists. Exhibits include one of the legendary Cardiff Giant, whose only connection with agriculture is that he was found on a farm in 1869. Initially some people believed he was a fossilized human being, which turned out to be a hoax.

"He weighs...a little more than a ton, and he's over 10 feet tall," says Vincent. "People would pay 25 cents to come and take a look....After he was declared a hoax, even more people came to see him."

Just 2,200 people live in Cooperstown, but half a million come to visit each year. The 25-year-old Glimmerglass Opera is one of the most respected small opera companies in the country and 40,000 people are expected at the National Baseball Hall of Fame for this year's inductions.

Cooperstown managed to comprehend that each era of its existence, each layer of its life as a community, was worth preserving.

"I'm sure there are other places, where if you delved, you would find layers of history and heritagelike you do in Cooperstown," Vincent adds. "But Cooperstown also had a series of very interesting people,with real vision that were able to pull it together and had the means to do it."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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